Books: March-April 2010

The Map as Art: Contemporary Artists Explore CartographyThe Map as Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography
by Katherine Harmon '82.
Princeton Architectural Press, 2009.
256 pages. $45.


 In her timely offering, Katherine Harmon explores the intersection of cartography and contemporary art. Certainly, mapmaking is a practice that has always been concerned with aesthetics, giving beauty to the logical shapes and forms of our surrounding landscape. And where cartographers pen the world with a hand and eye influenced not only by what they see but also the socio-cultural forces that drive their impulse, so too do contemporary artists use the map as a tool for shaking up truth and consequences, redrawing those familiar references that we use to position ourselves and locate others. In this, the follow-up to her first collaboration with Princeton Architectural Press, You Are Here, Harmon pulls together some 350 images in a rich travelogue of more than 150 contemporary artists' cartographic compulsions.

The book is divided into seven sections, each of which tackles one of the many ways that maps may function. The first two sections, "Conflict and Sorrow" and "Global Reckoning," delve into the map as a social and political tool, which can both illuminate and obfuscate, shifting borders to either reveal truths or hide them. Here are appearances by such internationally renowned artists as Mel Chin and Vik Muniz, in addition to Pedro Lasch of Duke's art, art history & visual studies department. Also featured is Triangle local elin o'Hara slavick, whose carefully studied, abstracted paintings of U.S.-led bombing sites ranging from Nevada to Nagasaki belie the unspeakable violence that they signify. Likewise, French photographer Alban Biaussat's work The Green(er) Side of the Line (2005), in which the artist winds a green banner through the meandering, nebulous border between Israel and the West Bank, is particularly moving in the current political moment.

"Animal, Vegetable, Mineral" mines interior geographies and includes visually stunning work by the likes of Matthew Cusick and João Machado, as well as humorous meditations on race and place by William Pope.L and Francis Alÿs. "Personal Terrain" continues the theme with works that employ a more intimate and sensory methodology, such as Corriette Schoenaerts' South America (2005) and Europe (2005), which draw the continents using clothing, shoes, and undergarments on such unexpected surfaces as a bed or apartment floor.

Perhaps the most compelling sections of the book are "You Are Here, Somewhere" and "Inner Visions," both of which include artists who explore locality, whether within the interior or the invented landscape. Works such as Adriana Varejão's Contigente (Continent) (1998-2000) speak to the violent history of colonialism and the painful scars still imprinted on its descendants. On the other end of the sociocultural spectrum, Nathan Carter's STAN KLR STAN BAC (2006), is as much amusement park as map, entertaining with bright, colorful energy that seems to be mostly pictograph and a little bit landscape.

Appropriately, The Map as Art concludes with "Dimension/Deletion," an exploration of surface and shape, distillation and augmentation of space. Here are works that focus on the formal characteristics of topography, such as Yuki Nakamura's stunning Fictional City (2005), in which the artist uses the normally placid surface of a book cover as the foundation of an erupting, sensuous, textural ceramic monolith. Alberto Duman's witty View of the Tate Modern, London (2007) pushes the reference to language even further, "drawing" a spatial map of the museum to scale with nothing but words, where "BLUE SKY" and "RIVER THAMES" are appropriately larger than "windows" or a "waste container."

Essays by art historian Gayle Clemans provide welcome resting places from the intensity of the book's many images, diving deeper into the work of five artists: Joyce Kozloff, Landon Mackenzie, Ingrid Calame, Guillermo Kuitca, and Maya Lin. Impressively, Harmon and Clemens have focused three of the five essays on the work of women, and this thread—the notable presence of women as creators and cartographers—extends through the book as a whole. Perhaps the most successful essays come at the end of the book with Kuitca and Lin, two artists who have done much to influence the act of mapping and marking space both in the contemporary art world and beyond.

Though delightfully ambitious, Harmon's book is not quite comprehensive. A surprising omission is Ethiopian-American artist Julie Merhetu, who has achieved tremendous critical and commercial success with her large-scale invented landscapes. Though Merhetu's work was included in Harmon's You Are Here, her presence would have been welcome here as well. Likewise, Harmon's definition of "map art" leaves out some interesting work that plays outside of the margins. Missing are artists working beyond the traditional plastic realms of art making, employing new media, film, sound, and performance as a means of drawing the world.

Harmon does make one particularly interesting inclusion along these lines, however, with the "work" of Danish director Lars Von Trier, and an evocative image of the set of his 2003 film, Dogville, which used a map-like structure of lines and words rather than the landscape of the natural world to delineate the interior and exterior spaces of a small town.

In the end, The Map as Art achieves notable success in drawing a compelling picture of the sheer density of artworks that are concerned with making sense of the world through maps. At a time when technology, politics, and travel cause the definitions of home and away to continually shift, Harmon demonstrates that art has the power to help illuminate the paths of understanding.

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