Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Maps help us grasp our world

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Carnarvon collision (Big map) 2006, by Vincent Serico, synthetic polymer paint on linen. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation.
Carnarvon collision (Big map) 2006, by Vincent Serico, synthetic polymer paint on linen. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation.

Why do we find maps so appealing? If you don't understand the question -- if you're not jealous of my tatty 1940s Auckland water chart sporting an old-school "Frith" of Thames -- then I'm sorry. Clearly you've never known the relief of hiding your pink childhood bedroom under ceiling-to-floor National Geographic maps.

Cartographers create a map of the Empire which is the size of the Empire in Jorge Luis Borges' parable On Exactitude in Science. But whereas Borges emphasises the useless, impossible aim of absolute accuracy, and the arrogance of wanting to record everything for posterity in 1:1 ratio, most maps are near-featureless.

...a globe is "a cosmographical object for contemplation ... a prosthetic limb for dreaming...
Ruth Watson

By including only a few elements instead of an infinity, maps make the world literally graspable.

The map is not the territory. Territory is too messy to get our heads around, whereas maps are reassuringly, rather misleadingly, precise.

It's interesting what we take for granted in a map. Debates about easy-to-read Mercator rectangles versus more accurate orange-peel-shaped flattened globes (that don't flatter the size of the rich North) are well known. But nearly all of these two-dimensional global representations are land chauvinists. To make a round globe into a flat picture, it must be split, and usually, the land isn't cut, the sea is. (Google the aptly-named "Athelstan Spilhaus" to see the reverse -- he reduced the land to a torn frame holding the oceans all spilling into each other.)

Auckland-based artist Ruth Watson -- who has made world maps of different projections using glass beads, chocolate wrappers and photographs of fleshy tongues -- also points out that a globe holds no practical purpose: "we don't use it for navigating." Instead, she suggests, a globe is "a cosmographical object for contemplation ... a prosthetic limb for dreaming".

Such poetic imaginings can lead to other, more terrible and practical maps: a map is rather useful if you want to fight a war or dispossess an owner.

One of my favourite works in the worthwhile, eclectic My Country show at the Auckland Art Gallery until August 17 is a large, pseudo-abstract whose patterns resolve into trees, people and cattle. This is Carnarvon collision (Big map) painted by Vincent Serico in 2006. Informed by oral histories about extreme violence between white settlers and the Jiman people in central Queensland, it shows the placement of disputes about the land, on the land itself. Atrocities themselves aren't depicted pictorially; instead, their locations are marked with dotted spheres of varying size -- like cities.

Perhaps map-attraction is about how places shape our identity. Is the shown territory "home" or is the map an explorer's guide to an intriguing unknown? Until recently, Pauanesia sold badges of old street maps displaying district names, so we could wear our suburban turangawaewae, our standing place, our heart, out on our sleeve.

Maps are scientific, rational, subjective and emotionally evocative. They are public symbols of personal connections, yearnings, horrors and joys. Those contrasts are irresistible.

- NZ Herald

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