All entries for January 2008

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.


January 06, 2008

'Watercolours of the Great Exhibition' at the V&A

Whilst at home over Christmas I took the opportunity of being near London to visit two exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum that had caught my attention recently.

The first of these, "Watercolours of the Great Exhibition", is a small collection of paintings depicting scenes from the Great Exhibition of 1851. This was the first international exhibition of its kind, bringing together over 13,000 exhibits from all over the world, ranging from arts, textiles, and statues to industrial and scientific objects. Henry Clarke Pidgeon's painting of the Russian court captures some of the variety of items on display:

'Part of the Russian Court', by Henry Clarke Pidgeon, 1851

The watercolours were actually painted before it opened to the public, and therefore don't quite convey how busy the halls would have been: over 6 million visitors came to the exhibition over the 5 months it was open - that's about a third of the population of Britain at the time, and although many people would have come from overseas, the exhibition nonetheless figures as a hugely important event of the Victorian period. The impressive scale of the exhibits and size of the building is hinted at in the painting of the Russian court, and more obviously seen in John Absolon's watercolour of the centrepiece of the Belgian display:

'View in the East Nave (Godfrey of Bouillon, by Simonis)' by John Absolon, 1851

In the background above the statue, part of the building that housed the exhibition can be seen: the 'Crystal Palace' designed by Joseph Paxton especially for the exhibition. The Crystal Palace, initially built in Hyde Park and later moved to Sydenham after the exhibition, was the first large-scale building composed of glass and iron: its 300,000 panes of glass covered nine acres of land, even encompassing parts of the park within it- at its greatest height, an entire elm tree was enclosed within the structure. This was a revolutionary piece of architecture: Marshall Berman regards it as "the most visionary and adventurous building of the whole nineteenth-century", expressing the potentialities of the industial age (see All That is Solid Melts Into Air, p. 237). The building provoked a great deal of controversy, many condemning it whilst others wrote of the great impression made by the structure. It is perhaps hard to imagine now why the building should prompt such a response- after all, it's basically a giant greenhouse, which is what Paxton was intially famous for. However, this new type of glass architecture produced a new spatial experience; Wolfgang Schivelbusch gives a fascinating account of how the glass walls provided a different, uniform, quality of light that, without the light-shadow contrasts that ordinarily organised spatial experience, disoriented traditional perceptions of space (see The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century pp. 45-51). Accounts of the time certainly support this idea, such as that of Lothar Bucher who wrote of the "delicate network of lines" that give no clue as to how "we might judge their distance from the eye or their real size":

we cannot tell if this structure towers a hundred or a thousand feet above us, or whether the roof is a flat strucutre or built up from a succession of ridges, for there is no play of shadows to enable our optic nerves to gauge the measurements. (in Berman, p. 239).

'View in the West Nave', by Henry Clarke Pidgeon, 1851

To return to the watercolours, however, the Crystal Palace itself remains a background feature, drawing attention away from the controversy of the building to focus on the objects themselves- Henry Clarke Pidgeon's above painting offers the only view of the ceiling structure that comes close to Bucher's description. Whilst the paintings are rather hidden away in the V&A museum- located in a dark back-corridor that few visitors pass through on their way around the main exhibition rooms- many of the items from the exhibition are now on display throughout the V&A; the profits from the Great Exhibition funded the establishment of several arts and science initiatives such as the V&A, and the museum became home to many of the objects that were first displayed at the exhibition. The watercolours are therefore provide a nice starting-point for visiting other collections at the V&A, giving a new perspective on the more familiar items the museum has on display.

The paintings remain on display for a couple more weeks, after which they'll be in the Paintings and Drawings room, but they can also be viewed on this page on the V&A website- the enlarged versions are about half the size of the originals but still a good alternative to visiting the exhibition.


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