Genre/Subgenre: Maps

The planar arrangement and dry informational nature of maps present challenges to artists attempting to invigorate the placid surfaces with more dynamic visual information or convert their slender attributes to more substantial forms of actuality.

Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped significant numbers of practitioners from working with the configuration of these charts. Bestowing them with a heretofore unseen sense of scale, materiality or purpose, their interpretations have changed the viewer’s relationship to these guides. This has instigated alternative readings and new meanings, as well as the reconsideration of what maps represent.

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Jasper Johns, Map, 1961. Museum of Modern Art New York City. (Source: wikipedia)

Jasper Johns’ iconic image made a significant impact in the way that it changed the depiction of a familiar image. The raucous manner in which it has been painted with a palette limited to nothing more than primary colours converts the staid framework of this document into an exciting jumble of brushwork. At once recognisable, it also alive. Johns’ interpretation bristles with an energy that feels startling.

Guillermo Kuitca Untitled, 1989 oil on vinyl covered mattress 3 parts - 86 5/8 x 55 1/8 in. (220 x 140 cm) each 86 5/8 x 165 3/8 in. (220 x 420 cm) overall SW 95106
Guillermo Kuitca, Untitled, 1989, oil on vinyl covered mattress, 3 parts – 86 5/8 x 55 1/8 in. (220 x 140 cm) each (86 5/8 x 165 3/8 in. (220 x 420 cm) overall) SW 95106, Collection of Bruce and Diane Halle (Source: Sperone Westwater)

 Guillermo Kuitca paintings of maps laid over mattresses seem to speak of movement and transient forms of existence. They have not and cannot be used. They are exposed and mounted on the wall. The buttons are irregularly placed and make them look extremely uncomfortable. In the light of this image the button hollows suggest bullet holes. Perhaps they are intented to function much like map pins, only they chart some fictional journey.

The following 3 images reveal a personal up-close view of Ai Weiwei’s Map of China 2008 when exhibited at Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) earlier this year.  It is a solid object made from Tieli wood taken from dismantled Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) temples. Standing close to 3 metres in height, it’s also quite a hefty work. It weighs in at about 3 tons. (Photos: John Gayer)

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Ai Weiwei, Map of China, 2008 (details in situ)  (Photos: John Gayer)

The shape and scale of this wood monster makes it impossible to get an idea of the country’s exact shape. Thus it essentially remains an imaginary experience. What the viewer does get is a sense of is its perimeter, which exists as a surface of undulating wood, that can be experienced by circling the sculpture. The wood’s rich colour and grain draws people to it. Though touching is not generally allowed in museums, this is a work that invites it. And it’s hard to resist that impulse. (An aside: To see what it takes to move this behemoth, check out this time-lapse video.)

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France (unburnt), 2011, Map of France made up from match sticks, dimensions variable, Edition 1/1 (Source: Air de Paris)
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France (burnt), 2011, Map of France made up from match sticks,  dimensions variable, Edition 1/1 (Source: Air de Paris)

In contrast, artist collective Claire Fontaine use wood in a decidedly different manner. France (burnt/unburnt) recalls protest actions – the burning of flags, books, vinyl records, bras, money, religious buildings, draft cards, schools, one’s MOMA press pass,… – as a means of expressing political, social, moral or other forms of dissent. Here, though, the matches have been given the opportunity to do exactly what they were made to do.

The provocative action – set in the pristine confines of an art gallery – seems to have happened away from the eyes of the weaselly press – except, of course, when close to 2 years later their America (burnt/unburnt) caused extensive damage to a San Francisco gallery.

And what about the purpose of this art work? Perhaps it is meant to be a comment on consumerism or mimic the repetitiveness and ultimate emptiness of televised protest actions. Is it intended to be a modern day Vanitas,? Does it refer to the brevity of life or the worthless nature of earthly pursuits? Maybe we are meant to reconsider what we think of when we think about France or America, or the maps of other countries that Claire Fontaine has burnt. Or maybe that’s making to much of it. It could be a case of grown-ups devising an elaborate way of playing with matches. Let’s try this and see what happens… Yeah, it’ll be cool!

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Laragh Pittman, Museum of the Re-Found 2013 (map of Dublin – detail of the installation), (Photo: John Gayer)

For Museum of the Re-Found artist Laragh Pittman collaborated with women from Dublin’s Lantern Centre to create a museum collection that derives from the group’s series of explorations in the city. The map of Dublin (shown in the above photo) formed one part of the project. The women, who hailed from various parts of Europe, Africa and Asia, drew from their individual backgrounds to create their own view of the city.

This colourful and multi-lingual map spread out across nine low-level tables. Laid out in the traditional grid formation, spacious walkways replaced the usual lines of longitude and latitude. The configuration enabled visitors to experience the city in a new way and scale. Moreover, it referenced the evolution of the city’s neighbourhoods and urban centre in general.

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Paula Scher, Philadelphia Explained, 2015 Temple Contemporary, Tyler School of Art(Photo: Sam Fritch, courtesy of Pentagram)

Re-experiencing the city through shifts in perspective and scale also played out in the exhibition Philadelphia Explained. Developed by Paula Scher and composed out of dozens of panels hand-painted by Scher, some of her Pentagram co-workers and more than 100 of Tyler School of Art students, the map converted Temple Contemporary’s 2100 ft² (195 m²) gallery into fully immersive environment.

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Dimensional modelling was used to fit the map into the gallery. (Source: designboom.com)

The map not only confronts visitors, it literally wraps itself around them. Like Pittman’s group that reworked the layout of Dublin’s city centre, Philadelphia Explained re-introduces the city to its residents vis-a-vis a highly dynamic chromatic interpretation. But stunning visuals isn’t the only thing it has going for it. In addition to detailing local landmarks and other urban features, the view is panoramic. It also provides social commentary.

The upshot of the project? The map makes viewers aware of things they had overlooked or never ever noticed. At some point after leaving the gallery they will experience in new ways by suddenly recognising some feature of which they had no previous awareness or by being stimulated to visit areas they had not yet visited.   

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