“Feet on the Ground and Hands in the Dirt”
A review of
The Map As Art:
Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography.
Katherine Harmon and Gayle Clemans.
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
The Map As Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography.
Katherine Harmon and Gayle Clemans.
Paperback: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Maps can tell us a lot about the world; they are, after all, wayfinding devices. But beyond indicating locations in the physical world, maps also tell us a lot about who made them, and what they fundamentally view the world to be like.
Recall, for instance, the Western mapping of Lewis and Clark when compared alongside that of Native maps: the Corps of Discovery brought with them the post-Enlightenment maps we’ve all become accustomed to: views floating somewhere above the landscape, looking down. When asking directions of Natives along the way, Lewis and Clark were presented with completely different conceptions of space as it related to time and familiarity with actual places. Different methods of map-making indicate equally different epistemologies and ways of being in the world; the shift in meaning afforded by nuanced cartography has been well-developed in the last decades by artists, and many approaches are gathered together in The Map as Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography by Katherine Harmon and Gayle Clemans. As they write:
Is there any motif so malleable, so ripe for appropriation, as maps? They can act as shorthand for ready metaphors: seeking location and experiencing dislocation, bringing order to chaos, exploring ratios of scale, charting new terrains. Maps act as backdrops for statements about politically imposed boundaries, territoriality, and other notions of power and projection… Like artworks, maps are selections about what they represent, and call out differences between collective knowledge and individual experience… (10).
Mapping in our digital age has witnessed a substantial change in its constitutive make-up; in the days of Google Earth streetview and GPS turn-by-turn directions, the map as a tactile object to guide has all but given way to a virtual standard which demands the reality conform to it. Perhaps this is why, when reviewing artists I had noted in this book, it seemed somewhat elegiac – the materiality and specificity of all these maps seem to lament that we’ve settled for the Virtual View from Nowhere. With this in mind, much time should be spend with some artists.
There are a few familiars I was pleased to see included in The Map as Art, all of whom are on my teaching shortlist: Nina Katchadourian, represented here by her Mended Spiderwebs, pieces of red string attached to the holes in spiderwebs, and Moss Maps, lichens which bear striking resemblance to geographic boundaries, and labeled as such by Katchadourian; Olifur Eliasson’s Daylight Map reproduces boundaries of the 24 time zones in neon light, which turn on and off corresponding to actual sunlight around the world; and Darlene Charneco’s Petri Playgrounds, “utopias in Petri dishes,” which have all the look of suburban development plans, spreading like a fungus.
There are many other outstanding artists contained in this collection who, using material processes and the vernacular of cartography create maps that connect back to particular places, on a human scale. Vik Muniz’s WWW photographs are of a recognizable world map, outlines of continents and the blank space of oceans. But this map is built, on a huge scale, and out of computer scrap: motherboards cover the United States and China, keyboards over Brazil and India, and upside-down monitors cover Russia. Bodys Isek Kingelez’s fantastical city models are built as proposals for his own city, “to serve the community that is being reborn to create a new world.” Chris Kenny’s constructions piece together map fragments into new geometric wholes. And Jane Ingram Allen’s fibrous Kinmen Site Map: Garden Island merges the forms of topography, flowers, and butterfly through paper made from plants found on-site.
A couple of artists – both new to me – who stand out for the simplicity, but wonderful suggestiveness, of their work are Jeanne Quinn and Mariele Neudecker. Quinn is represented by a single work, The Perfect World, an installation of suspended porcelain forms reminiscent of bones, pearls, or antlers, set against solid-colored map forms on the wall, and white clouds on the ceiling. The Perfect World has all the looks of a utopia: clean-edged ideal landforms in a steady gradient of greens, white-curved elegance of gravity-defying porcelain shapes; but these do look, more than anything, like the bones of some extinct species, suggesting a dissonance or a limit to this ideal. Mariele Neudecker’s dreamy installation Unrecallable Now builds a Romantic snowy mountainscape in a shallow, room-sized tank. The peaks rise out of the hazy water which approximates a layer of fog in the mountains. Similarly to Quinn, though, this ideal is just that: it is a room-sized world, the edges of which are clearly discernable.
What all of these artists have in common is that they present maps contrary to the totalizing Virtual View From Nowhere; maps which might not lead in a linear route from point A to B, but which are more mindful of the lived, bodily experience of which maps can be a guide. The artists in this book use materials to map “with feet on the ground and hands in the dirt” (13), and encourage readers to do the same.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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