Before Google Maps came along, cartographers were artists as much as they were charters of geographies, and maps were aesthetic objects as much as they were wayfinding tools.
In Mapping it Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographies, Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator of the Serpentine Gallery, brings artistry and imagination back to mapmaking. In an effort to rethink what maps can be and do, he invited 130 artists, designers, writers, scientists, architects, and thinkers to create maps, of interior or exterior worlds, real or imagined, in any medium. The result is a visually arresting volume filled with works by the likes of Yoko Ono, Matthew Barney, Ed Ruscha, and Gilbert and George, combining infographics and cartography with contemporary art and science.
These maps won’t help anyone get anywhere in the earthly realm, but they take the reader on strange mental trips: there are maps of human emotions and diseases; hand-drawn visualizations of the Internet; maps of airplane flight patterns; and blueprints of unchartable territories, like chaos, Heaven, and Hell. Most are more visual metaphors than wayfinding tools, and in some cases, are so loftily conceptual that they could benefit from some sort of key, such as a maps of the dreams of several people sleeping in “fairy rings.” Perhaps the most straightforward is, surprisingly, Damien Hirst’s scribbled map, “How to get to my house,” if you ever want to visit him (“call first,” he writes).
The book’s presentation of cartographies as art instead of as practical navigational tools reminds us that maps are always abstractions, to some degree–that they “don’t work, and never have,” as novelist Tom McCarthy writes in his introduction. He goes on:
Maps are not copies, they are projections . . . When drawing up a map, a cartographer must choose between zenithal, gnomonic, stereographic, orthographic, globular, conical, cylindrical, or sinusoidal modes of projections. Each of these brings with it as many disadvantages as benefits. Projections are not neutral, natural, or ‘given:’ they are constructed, configured, underpinned by various–and quite arbitrary–conventions…. And yet, explicitly or not, all maps carry with them a certain claim; that this one is somehow truer than the others with which it competes.
The book comes at the height of a data visualization craze: in the age of information overload, we rely on well-designed maps and charts to help us distill barrages of facts into digestible chunks. By imposing design on wild, un-designed spaces, cartographers distill overwhelming territories into elegant illustrations, bringing our outsized world down to human scale.
Mapping it Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographies is available for $42 from Thames & Hudson.