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The Lure of Cartography

Whereas “cartography,” the discipline of producing geographical maps, is fairly precise, “mapping” is exquisitely polysemic. “Mapping” has meanings in neuroscience, mathematics, genetics, robotics, marketing, Googling, GPSing, etc. During the age of European exploration and expansion, the beginning of which coincided with the Renaissance, cartographers began to use ever more refined theories and tools (e.g., the magnetic compass, the sextant, the telescope) in order to render maps more accurate. Maps became tools of knowledge and colonialism. Artists from Johannes Vermeer to Guillermo Kuitca have reflected about maps in their works. Frazier King, curator of Created and Found Maps – Exploration of Self and World on exhibit in the main gallery at HCP, focused on ideas of internal and external mappings as referenced in the Cartesian ontological distinction of res cogitans (the mind as “self”) and res extensa (the physical world). However, as often happens, the most interesting works included by King blur this distinction.

For example, the work of Tatiana Parcero, Nuevo Mundo, and of Eva Timothy, Lost in Learning, both include ancient maps and documents, but the former points to the artist’s own experience as a bearer of new life, whereas the latter focuses on the evolution of knowledge of the world. Parcero superimposes acetates of the human body on photographs of ancient maps; a process that allows her to address one of the main problems of mapping-projection. German mathematician Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss proved, and a neatly peeled orange skin shows, that a sphere cannot be projected onto a plane without distortion. The Mercator projection prominent in most classrooms contains more distortion than one would think. Parcero further alters ancient maps by projecting them onto her own pregnant belly and onto her baby’s body. In Nuevo Mundo #16 the navel is featured in the geometrical center of the image.

According to scholars of religions like Mircea Eliade, the navel (omphalos) is a foundational symbol that symbolizes the place where both the life of individuals and civilizations begin.

Lost in Learning, the title of Eva Timothy’s series, is ambiguous and can be interpreted as ‘absorbed in acquiring knowledge’ or ‘astray as a result of studying.’ The celestial globe, the astrolabe, and the maps that Timothy photographs were the tools of what she describes as “an age when exploration was life’s supreme adventure. Times when men first took a lens and pointed it across the sea in search of new worlds.” Yet, before Colombo’s famous journey, that adventure entailed real and imagined dangers: the journey of no return, places where monsters lurk, and other unknowns. To prevent navigators from being lost at sea, cartographers often embedded warnings in maps about those dangers.

Timothy’s work Celestial Sphere (Joseph Simon Guibot) alludes to a different kind of mapping. A celestial sphere is a spherical construction concentric with the Earth that aims to map the heavens. To build it, the equator is projected onto space so that it divides the heavens into the northern celestial hemisphere and the southern celestial hemisphere. One can thus locate on the heavens the Celestial Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and the Northern and Southern Celestial Poles. The image is epistemologically important because it brings out the issues of geocentricity and anthropocentricity in the evolution of knowledge.

There is a certain familial resemblance between the works of Jean Miele and German Herrera. Perhaps is it is a certain penchant for making poetic imagery with photographic means. Although it may seem a contradiction in terms to say so, Miele’s works involve a bit of scientific mysticism. They are also a confluence of fiction and reality. One of his key images is Cosmological Argument. A cosmological argument is one that infers from all merely caused things the existence of a single uncaused cause (the deity). In Miele’s work a single human eye is ensconced inside the constellations, and the pupil of the eye is the globe. Our world, then, becomes the point from which we see the universe. Another one of Miele’s works connects with those fears of the Age of Exploration that Timothy alluded to: Hc Svnt Dracones (there are dragons). It is one of Miele’s simplest works: just a compass rose and the blue ocean. Only after you inspect it with some care, do you begin to see the dragon under the sea.

The work of German Herrera is even more enigmatic. Herrera has a penchant for mystical and arcane images which, using Photoshop, he seamlessly collages together. His titles speak for themselves: Antarctic Pole, New Babylon, etc. Like many a poet, Herrera is reluctant to speak about his work. He writes, “The world I am ‘mapping’ is not ‘mappable’ because the experience is totally unique and the experience itself is what creates the territory each of us traverses so, even when my images are my ‘maps’, they can not [sic] be used by others to build on their knowledge because they will need to break their own code; mine will be useless…. ” By his own design, Herrera builds images that are as polysemic as “mapping” itself.

The work of Robert Beam, Past Present, is built around a personal pursuit: interpreting the aerial photographs shot by his grandfather, John Collier, while in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Using Google maps, Beam then tracked down the locations where these military operations either took place or were supposed to have taken place over half-a-century ago. Thus in Beam’s work a clinical comparison ensues between the landscape during World War II in a particular region of Italy, Austria or Poland, and the present environments which have expanded, increased in population, and sometimes been resettled as boundaries have been redrawn.

Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman have been working collaboratively for years. Their project Geolocation involves following strangers via their Twitter updates and locating the place where they stood as they uploaded their message. Larson and Shindelman write, “Using publicly available embedded geotag information in the updates, we track the locations of the Twitter users through their GPS coordinates and make a photograph to mark the location in the real world. Each of these photographs is taken on the site of the update and paired with the originating text.” In Geolocation (Sneaking Suspicion) they locate the street corner where a tweet about just being laid off was uploaded. In another series of works called Performances, they set out to create the large scale A Portrait of Rudy Giuliani in a very ingenious fashion. The former New York City mayor was selected to honor his infamous opposition to Chris Ofili’s depiction of the Virgin Mary in the 1999 Sensation exhibit at Brooklyn Museum of Art. The enormous line drawing is achieved collaboratively by tracking the movements of the participants as they walk. As the artists explain, “We started on one side of Prospect Park and used GPS software to track our position in relation to the planned drawing. The route formed a contour drawing and returned us to our starting position around 30 minutes later.”

Maps are usually flat, but in John Mann‘s Folded in Place works, they are suddenly spatial and somewhat sculptural. Says Mann, “My constructions, as they exist before the camera, give the map a physicality, and turn the space of the photograph into a documentation of a small place.” Indeed, in Untitled (ocean), a wall of ocean vertically rises like a tsunami from the flatness of a map; and in Untitled (Moksva), the map paper is cut up in strips in order to reveal the red ground upon which it rests. Mann’s modus operandi thus involves two steps: one where he alters the material of the map, and a second one where he photographs his construction.

The title of Elaine Duigenan‘s oeuvre Micro Mundi alludes to an idea that the Renaissance inherited from ancient Greek philosophy; i.e., that there is an order of things in the infinitely small that reflects what is given in the infinitely large. Hence, the microcosm maps also model the macrocosm, and vice versa. The unlikely cartographers of Duigenan’s whimsical Mundi are – by her own admission – small snails that, driven by their appetite for algae, eat paths that in Duigenan’s works can be imagined to be the rivers or geological faults of her factitious worlds. Duigenan emphasizes the map-like features of the snail marks by printing her enigmatic images in a circle. The circular images come to resemble planets and the circle itself becomes an editing tool for this work. However, more than any resemblance her Mundi may have to any known planet is the one they may have to merely possible worlds of the imagination.

Nowadays, Google maps and GPS devices are so ubiquitous, accessible, and automatic that the rigor behind cartography has been largely forgotten. Art often urges us to cease and desist: stop and think, halt and remember. With Created and Found Maps – Exploration of Self and World we have reflected upon a woman mapping a world for her newborn, the liberating and frightening sides of new knowledge, how wars may change political boundaries and even geography, how current technology tracks almost every move we make, and more. If the technology of cartography keeps improving, future maps are unlikely to miss any detail of the “Empire.”