Cartography That Inspires Art

Fiona's Wave, 2005

The Map as Art,” a new book edited by Katharine Harmon from Princeton Architectural Press, describes how artists draw on the rich landscape of maps for inspiration. Since I have a degree in Urban Geography, this is an especially interesting topic for me (though my career didn’t exactly follow that path!). While I haven’t read this book, just the reviews and descriptions of it prompt lots of thoughts.

First, the overview:

In a series of chapters—Conflict and Sorrow, Global Reckoning, Personal Terrain, Inner Visions, etc.—the book shows how artists use the map as a tool to investigate identity, political allegiance, economy, the environment. The publisher has a great discussion of why artists would choose maps as inspiration:

[Maps] lead to different destinations: places turned upside down or inside out, territories riddled with marks understood only by their maker, realms connected more to the interior mind than to the exterior world. These are the places of artists’ maps, that happy combination of information and illusion that flourishes in basement studios and downtown galleries alike.

In my classes at the University of Maryland, we studied digital cartography, primarily creating remote sensing images. These were comprised of heat sensitive coloration showing variation in weather patterns, land use, and population. I suppose I struggle with this type of cartography as being art because these images are automatically generated; I wasn’t placing broad swaths of green or blue where I was inclined to do so. The computers are in charge. However, I think that The Map As Art would argue that the value of this map to the artist is that it offers new ranges of color or a means of conceptually interpreting a physical object (which is what artists often do).

Above is an image of another way that artists can use maps: by literally cutting them up to craft a work on paper. From Katharine Harmon, the book’s editor: “[In Fiona’s Wave, 2005] Matthew Cusick creates outsized collaged paintings from fragments of atlases and school geography books published between 1872 and 1945, a time of much mapping and remapping.”

It’s interesting that just as cartographers try to capture movement and change of a culture, environment, and even politics, this seems to be the very thesis of many artists as well.


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