The fibreglass skiff was about six metres (20ft) long. In the bow lazed two Chilean boys, Sergio and Tomas, who'd come to work at Mickey Rapu's Dive Shop for the summer. At the stern, his hand on the tiller, stood El Capitan, a smiley, copper-skinned man in a stained singlet, built as solidly as one of the giant stone heads of his native island. On the thwarts in the middle sat Marc Quinn, the internationally renowned artist, and I.
El Capitan gestured around us at the Yves Klein-blue sea, which heaved gently – yet insistently – with the mighty swell of the Pacific. He indicated a rocky islet ahead of us, and beside this a 40-metre-high spire that lunged free of the waves in a series of distinct, fluted galleries; each one coffered with brown basalt, enamelled with red scoria and inlayed with glassy-black obsidian. It was as if Gaudi had built La Sagrada Familia on the ocean floor, with only this finial protruding.
El Capitan uttered a burst of Spanish, inflected with the rounded vowels of his own tongue. Tomas thoughtfully translated: "He says now we are in the middle of nowhere."
This was the effective end of an odyssey that had begun a scant six days earlier, in Trafalgar Square in London. Marc and I were engaged on a quest for that most elusive of properties: artistic inspiration. We had come halfway around the world so that Marc could be exposed to the monumental statuary of Easter Island, and I could record that response.
And here we were, both Marc and I laughing heartily. A couple of kilometres behind the boat the 150-metre high basalt cliffs that rim the volcanic crater of Ranu Kau, the southernmost point of Easter Island, soared into the crystal bowl of the empyrean. Easter Island? Yes, it truly is in the middle of nowhere.
I've known Marc for some years, but holidaying together, in 2005, on the island of Ibiza (or "anti-Tuscany", as we both like to refer to it), we found ourselves reading the same book, Collapse by Jared Diamond. This analysis of the trajectories followed by a number of failed human societies might be considered depressing by some; we, however, were inspired by it, and in particular by Diamond's haunting tale of the rise and fall of the megalithic Polynesian culture of Easter Island. A culture whose very implosion was – archaeologists believe – brought about by competitive statue-building. So we resolved to go and stand face to face with the famed giant stone statues, or moai, of Easter Island.
I say that, but in fact the first moai we saw wasn't on Easter Island at all, but on a traffic island in Santiago. Having checked into our hotel in the upmarket Vitacura area of town, we took the spotless Metro into the centre, detrained at La Moneda, and encountered a moai on a traffic island – or at any rate, a copy of one.
Chile has had sovereignty over Easter Island (or Rapa Nui, as it is known locally), since 1888, but this is highly anomalous, for it is the Latin American country's sole piece of Polynesian territory. Nevertheless, there are quite a few moai studded about Santiago: marble moai, granite moai, even plastic ones outside shopping centres, there to remind the citizens of this long, thin country of the existence of their far-flung and exotic sub-tropical possession.
Certainly, rendez-vousing in Trafalgar Square beneath Alison Pregnant, one of Marc's own monumental works, set the correct tone for much that was to follow. This controversial statue of the severely disabled artist Alison Lapper occupied the fourth – and formerly empty – plinth in the square for 18 months between November 2005 and March 2007. But while his most visible work, and the one that, arguably, catapulted him into an elite band of serious British public sculptors, it's by no means Marc's most notorious. At 43, he is a survivor of many of the controversies and outrages which have danced attendance on the new wave of British artists that emerged in the late Eighties and early Nineties.
While standing beneath Alison Pregnant, Marc had been moved to talk about the significance of public sculpture in London. Certainly, Trafalgar Square and Whitehall offer a wealth of stone and bronze figures, but as he said to me: "They're mostly old. Public figurative sculpture is largely discredited now, perhaps with the exception of my own work and that of Antony Gormley. But while people think of Nelson's Column as an orthodox work, expressing notions of martial heroism, I was struck by the fact that Nelson, too, is a disabled person."
Marc went on to speak knowledgeably about the Chola bronzes of southern India, figures of gods and goddesses that were, through the enactment of rituals, thought to become vessels for these sacred presences. It is also believed that the Easter Island moai (built c1000AD-1680AD) were repositories of the spirits of dead islanders, and that during the long period of isolation (some 1,200 years), an ancestor-worshipping religion brought them to life. But Marc disclaimed any such spiritual objectives for his own monumental works, only admitting to "strong emotions".
Nevertheless, by the time we reached Rapa Nui the emotional temperature was beginning to inexorably rise.
If Chile is described as "the England of Latin America", then Santiago, we concluded – on the basis of a highly circumscribed and partial tour d'horizon, taking in the centre and the trendy district of Bella Vista – is its Basingstoke. Remaining stuck in this vein of Little Englander reductivism, our first impressions of Easter Island were that here was a suspiciously lush British isle, a Guernsey adrift in the Pacific, or even a chunk of County Cork carved off from the Irish main.
The rounded shapes of the three large volcanoes at the "corners" of this roughly triangular island were softened by lush, almost fluffy grasses; and, while there were palms at the airport and among the single-storey houses in the sole village of Hanga Roa, once into the hinterland it was the low shrubbery of figs and guava bushes, and the tall, grey-green, tasselled shapes of the imported eucalyptus trees that gave definition to the landscape. Oh, and then there were the thistles, an unwelcome alien species, which came along with the Scots sheep barony that dominated the island in the early 1900s and into the inter-war period.
Reading about Easter Island in advance, I had assumed that it was – to be frank – a fairly grim place: so remote; and to someone such as myself, accustomed to the emptiness of the Scottish islands, sinisterly over-populated. I lived on the Orkney island of Rousay for a winter, which is roughly the same size as Rapa Nui. It had 200-odd inhabitants (some very odd), while here there were pushing 5,000 natives and mainland Chileans, plus perhaps four times as many tourists visiting annually.
Throw in reports of thousands of head of cattle and numerous horses, and it added up to a worrying portrait of a claustrophobic little world. Perhaps modern-day Easter Island wasn't that far from the low points of its recent history, when the natives, decimated by smallpox, were confined to Hanga Roa as if it were a concentration camp, while the invading herbivores munched up their ancestral lands.
I cannot say that the four days we spent there were sufficient for me to undertake too deep a study (and I know that all small societies, especially isolated ones, inevitably have their darker and less easily discovered side), but even so, the impression I had of both the island and its inhabitants was far removed from my anxious presentiments.
A warm, flower-garlanded welcome, a charming, boutique-style hotel run by Explora (a Chilean company that has two other exclusive "concept" hotels, in the Atacama Desert and Patagonia), and a toothsome ceviche of local fish helped. Then we drove 12km out of town, and commenced walking along one of the so-called moai roads that were used to drag the behemoth statues to where they were erected on the ahu, or ceremonial platforms, most of which are along the island's coast.
For this first afternoon, we had the services of a local guide, Singa. He was knowledgeable enough – although, as we had been warned by the books, like all Rapanuians he was subject to a certain forgivable mythomania when giving his versions of the archaeological record. Singa described, much to Marc's chagrin, how the three-metre-high statues were moved in an upright position, and so "walked" along their road. His explanation for the broken moai we encountered on our walk was that they had been destroyed by their dissatisfied sculptors.
Marc took issue, on the basis of his own experience working with monumental statuary, and suggested that the simpler explanation for the broken moai was that they had fallen off their log-roller sledges. "Marble or basalt," he said, "it makes no odds, all large stone works are fantastically brittle." We'd only seen a few close up, but already I was being disabused of some of the assumptions I had made on the basis of the photographic record.
For one, I'd been under the impression that the moai were so highly stylised as to be devoid of expression or personality. This was certainly not the case. Every moai we encountered on Easter Island had its own unique "personality". Both Marc and I found it best to encounter them as individuals and, while three main "styles" have been identified by archaeologists, the most resonant thing was that when standing in among them it was as if one was at a cocktail party, trapped in a conversational group of three-metre-high ancients, their complexions coarsened by salt-sea winds and their chins sporting goatees of lichen.
The other thing it's important to realise is that the moai are not truncated figures; although most appear "cut off" at the waist, and others at the neck – leaving only their hydrocephalic heads – in neither case does one feel the statues to be lacking anything. The waist-height moai have vestigial arms carved into their sides – these should seem incongruous on such bulky torsos, but they don't; rather, they add to the impression that far from being hieratic figures, the moai are realistic portrayals of creatures at once morphologically alien and psychically human.
Some might regard this as a crass observation, but, in the light of this, the aptness of Marc and mine's odyssey, starting with his statue of Alison Lapper in Trafalgar Square, was made all the more apparent.
Will Self/'Condé Nast Traveller' © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd<</i>/p>
The full version of this article can be seen in the special 10th anniversary October issue of 'Condé Nast Traveller', on sale nowReuse content