January 07, 2008

'Mapping the Imagination' at the V&A

"General, you make use of maps during a campaign, I believe. But why should you do so, when the country they represent is right there?"

"Mapping the imagination", the second exhibition I visited at the V&A over Christmas, brought together a wide variety of maps that aimed to challenge our notions about what a map is, with emphasis on the subjective processes of imagination and interpretation that are involved in mapping. These maps did not purport objective truths or claim a totalizing perspective on the land they represented; they were pieces of art with which to engage, provoking discussion and refusing absolute definition.

There were many wonderful maps in the two exhibition rooms, far too many to photograph and discuss, so below are just a few of the ones that particularly interested me (apologies for the poor quality of photographs- I have tried to find links to better pictures on the internet where possible).

'Pattern of the World' by Susan Stockwell, 2000

'Pattern of the World' by Susan Stockwell is a world map composed of dress-making patterns stained with tea and coffee (a close-up of Africa here). The design aims to map the effects of Britain's colonial rule, the choice of materials representing the tea, coffee and cotton trades that played a significant part in the development of the British Empire, whilst also having relevance to issues today such as fair trade and the rights of workers in clothes factories overseas. Although the map clearly conveys these ideas, it's arguably slightly problematic in depicting the entire world, of which large parts were not involved in the trades represented here or in British colonial rule in general; however, in this respect the map is arguably suggestive of the British colonial conception of the rest of the world, imaginatively, if not actually, incorporating the entire world as its own.

'Britannia', by John Ogilby, 1675

This 1675 map by John Ogilby maps a journey from London to Dover: rather than supplementing a complete map of the area with text detailing the journey, the map is a linear representation of that journey. Starting at the top left-hand corner, the reader/ traveller progresses down the first column, then up to the top of the second column, and so on across the page, ending up at the bottom right-hand corner and presumably continuing the journey at the top of the next page. The map of the journey becomes a narrative, asking to be read like a book, just as a map is a reading of the land it depicts. This rendering of the journey seems to be attempting to capture the actual, lived experience of a journey, in which it is the encounter with a single road that takes precedence, rather than the spatial positioning within a larger geography that is emphasised in traditional maps. Although the map does retain the birds-eye-view of the land, the particularities of the journey are drawn from different perspectives, therefore displacing the single, objective vision that maps ordinarily assume.

'Mount for a Lady's Travelling Fan', Anonymous, 1788

This is an unfinished design for a lady's travelling fan from 1788, decorated with a map of Southern England and Wales. Placing a map for decorative purposes on an item that is going to be used whilst travelling nicely interplays the competing notions of a map as a functional tool and as an artistic work.

The literary use of maps was incorporated with the following:

'Sketch for the endpaper of Winnie the Pooh', by Ernest Howard Shepard, 1926

This is, of course, is the map from Winnie the Pooh depicting the fictional locations of the stories. In a literary context, maps act to help the reader to imaginatively construct textual spaces, grounding textually represented spaces in a "real", material form.

'London's Kerning', NB Studio, 2006

The final map that particularly interested me was "London's Kerning", a piece commissioned by the International Society of Typographers in 2006. This map raised questions about the boundaries that maps construct by removing the lines that demarcate roads, parks, and other spaces and instead using only words to map the city (in typography, 'kerning' or 'mortising' is the process of adjusting letter spacing so that the blank spaces between each pair of letters all have a similar area). The picture shows only a small detail of the map; from a distance, the larger imagerecreates the familiar pattern of a map of London. This can be read as a mapping of spatial experience, capturing how we move across and through the open areas of a city without a sense of boundaries between different areas that the lines of a map imply. The map emphasises the road and place-names by which we orientate ourselves as we make our way around the city; the importance of names is ultimately over-emphasised in this case, and place-names are no more "real" to our sense of space than the lines of a map, but as the piece was designed for an exhibition entitled "My London/My City" it suggests that this is one way of "knowing" or making sense of the city on both private and public levels. At the same time, there seems to be a tension in the map as the proliferation of words underscores their meaning; the mass of words become commodities, producing an information over-load of which the reader is unable to make sense. It's also important to note that whilst the removal of lines initially suggests that the map is free from boundaries, scales of power operate through the typography of the words- choices of the size and width of the letters mean that some places are more visible than others, drawing attention to the power imbalances that are involved in the representation of mapping.

There were many more fascinating discoveries in the collection, several of which focused more on interior consciousness: an 1857 "map" by Richard Dadd mapped the human mind as a collection of place names, family names, states of emotion, whilst "The Birth of a Thought" mapped the workings of the human brain after the artist had spent several months as artist-in-residence at a hospital studying brain scans and operations. These pieces came closer to what would more readily be considered as art rather than maps but they contributed to the collection as a whole by highlighting the interaction between subjective consciousness and the reality of landscape that is involved in making a map. Whilst extreme in their interiority, these maps of the consciousness stressed the imaginative, interpretative, and subjective processes that are involved in the creation of any map.

The exhibition runs until 27th April and I'd highly recommend visiting if you can.

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