A famous one-paragraph story by Jorge Luis Borges describes an Empire’s cartography guild that made a map so accurate that it was as large as the Empire itself. This story illustrates both the ideal of traditional maps — to represent a territory as accurately as possible — and the limits of achieving it. Because it is absurd to be exact, and all maps are radical abstractions of our earthly reality. We accept these abstractions as fact, but quibble and fight when they don’t match our preferred interpretations of the world.
How might maps look if their makers took liberties with these abstractions, rather than staying within the parameters of acceptable representation? What might these maps tell their readers? Seeking Civilization: Art and Cartography, at Gallery Wendi Norris, presents the work of seven artists who take these liberties and push the boundaries of cartography.
The exhibition’s centerpiece is Miguel Angel Ríos’ ten-foot-long Le Premier Voyage a L’inconnu (1992-93), an enlarged map from 1500 printed on pleated canvas. The contents of the map are difficult to discern because of the pleating, but given the Argentina-born artist’s interest in the concept of Latin America, it’s likely a map from the the first decade of Spanish conquest in the Western Hemisphere. Critica Post-Colonial #3, #5, and #6 (1992-93) are simpler and more legible ink-on-pleated-paper drawings by Ríos. It is clear that these colonial maps are of the Caribbean and the northeastern coast of South America, but beyond that, they are difficult to decipher. It would be impossible to use these maps to navigate or explore the terrain depicted within them. Ríos acts as a revisionist cartographer, making conquered lands inaccessible to looters and missionaries.
Rather than working with existing maps, Val Britton mimics the form of maps to construct something imaginary in her seventeen-foot diptych Study for Voyage (2012). There are dozens of nodes connected by criss-crossing lines, resembling cities and highways or navigation routes. The abstract forms on the ink, graphite, paint, and collage artwork call to mind the illustrations on ancient and medieval maps. Hundreds of leaf-shaped forms scattered across the work remind me of the wind blown by disembodied heads in historical maps. I saw black clouds as symbols for danger or uncertainty on a voyage, but at least one other viewer saw specific continents. This map is even less navigable than Ríos’, but it is a lucid psychological diagram of a journey.
A large neon installation by Omar Mismar traces his attempt at navigating the streets of San Francisco with the intent of staying as close as possible to a man he found on Grindr, a location-based meet-up app for gay men. Conducted each day for a month, Paths of Love turns a depiction of terrain into an anthology of oblique love stories. Viewers know nothing of the men or whether Mismar ever met them, but one can conjure the outline of stories from the switchbacks, zigzags, and the distances covered over the course of these nights.
Taraneh Hemami’s Recounting (2011) takes viewers even further from the orthodox form and purpose of maps. The giant disc is covered in a dizzying array of dates, in both Arabic and Persian numerals. The disc is mysterious and begs to be decoded, and it turns out those dates represent every day of the artist’s life up to the time of the work’s completion. The disc charts Hemami’s personal migration journey from Iran to the US, utilizing the three separate calendar systems she has used throughout her life to mark time. This is something between a map and a calendar — marking geography through time rather than space.
We often talk about maps as representations of specific places — a map of France, Tibet, Arrakis, or Foster City. But maps are also ways of thinking, ways of seeing, and ways of knowing. The works in Seeking Civilization ask viewers how we might see love, history, and our own lives differently if we embraced the abstractions inherent in mapmaking.
Seeking Civilization: Art and Cartography, through May. 6, at Gallery Wendi Norris, 161 Jessie St., 415-346-7812 or gallerywendinorris.com