The art of cartography
By Jaimey Hamilton
Special to The Advertiser
By Jaimey Hamilton
I recently rode in a car with a friend who, although she knew the quickest way across the city, followed meandering routes dictated by her GPS. This was somehow easier than having to think for herself where to turn, or to sense intuitively where she was. The nine artists in "Mapped," an exhibition at The Contemporary Museum's First Hawaiian Center, would likely identify with the irony of the situation. For they also set out to examine the seeming banal ways that atlases, which were meant to clarify our location and our rootedness to a sense of place, now so often confuse and control us.
While the show's theme is described as simply "coming to terms with one's place in the world," the actual art usefully complicates this notion of laying claim to a plot of earth.
Both Abigail Lee Kahilikia Romanchak, a local artist who exhibits internationally, and Joyce Kozloff, a New York-based artist who stayed for an extended visit at the Hui No'eau Visual Arts Center on Maui, take up these concerns in their prints. Though they come from different places, both recognize the irony of contemporary land politics in Hawai'i. Their respective maps of Maui play on differences between the traditional Hawaiian communal ahupua'a system of mountain-to-ocean land division and the notion of land as individual private property. They use the linear nature of printmaking to convey the way we have transformed natural island contours into a taxonomy of property lines, subdivisions and carefully constructed vistas.
Their works, and the other pieces in the show, suggest that we may feel more and more like rootless nomads even as our contemporary politics are still deeply bound by territory, precisely because our experience of space is dictated more and more by abstract measurements and boundaries.
A sense of the earth as commodity is carried through in the works of Lori Uyehara, Laura Smith and Jinja Kim. Kim's small-scale sculptures, for instance, including "Fettucini" and "Hand Rolled," transform maps into papier-mache food items. We are invited to rapaciously consume the earth's resources as meatballs and Havana cigars, rolled in Europe, South America and Cuba. As geography takes on the shape of her different commodity items, we are transported to a metaphorical understanding of our relationship to global commodity circuits that can change the profile of local culture.
The circulation of people and culture — despite sometimes arbitrary and absurd borders — is also at the heart of Gaye Chan's project titled "On Mobility." The piece features a Google Earth image depicting two miles along the U.S.-Mexico border superimposed upon a "map" of an old Japanese scroll, whose own geography is outlined in worm-eaten passages. The effect is that the concrete density of the Southwest border town is being randomly ravaged by tiny silkworms.
Maya Portner also subverts our obsessive and sometimes arrogant gridding of the earth with organic poetics. Her "map" is composed of places that link her family's past with her present. But these geographies are abstracted and imagined as insanely fragile strips of paper covered in wax that float just off the wall. This finely constructed web then projects a shadow landscape around it, transforming her biography into an ethereal journey.
Wendy Kawabata's New World "drawings," made with perforations on white paper also resist the confines of place. Her whimsical islands are land masses composed, in part, of images in art-history text books, stains on the ground that she has traced, as well as portions of figures. Her use of geography as contour carefully charts the leftover spaces, objects and people that we are always leaving behind us as we move through this world.
Like Portner and Kawabata, Vincent Goudreau abandons the substrate of the map for a more subtle and poetic understanding of cartography as a collection of lines that connect us to one another through our movement.
In his series of ink drawings, each inspired by a particular city, linear patterns are overlaid in open-ended configurations. Subway maps transform into Bosnian rug designs, which in turn may be superimposed onto the outlines of buildings noticed while walking the streets. With these distortions of scale and abstracted shapes, Goudreau gets us to recognize the patterns and connections of global movement at the same time that he disarticulates them. Lines that possibly could be read as pathways lead to empty spaces, forcing us to create different routes.
Goudreau's drawings express the importance of wanderlust as a way to resist being "mapped" too easily by territorial forces. He reminds us that the true wanderer not only freely moves across the earth, but also has something wandering within him or her. Sometimes being lost and not having sure footing can teach us more than knowing exactly where we stand.
Jaimey Hamilton is an assistant professor of Contemporary Art and Critical Theory in the Art and Art History Department at University of Hawai'i.