Joanne Mott | Mapped
6 April – 6 May 2017
Essay by Anthony Fitzpatrick, Curator, Tarrawarra Museum of Art
Maps are persuasive. The alluring surface of their seemingly objective, impersonal, scientific, graphic descriptions of territories, convince us of an accurate replication by which we can navigate the world around us. However, maps are also deceptive. Their very familiarity, commonality and seeming impartiality are the very qualities which conceal the myriad choices, contexts, suppositions and vested interests which are involved in their composition. In his wide-ranging survey and analysis of mapmaking, Rethinking the Power of Maps (2010), Denis Wood, traces the origins of the modern map back to the rise of sovereign nations which sought to proclaim their authority by establishing the size and shape of their dominion as a means of giving concrete form to an essentially abstract idea – the state. By considering maps as a process involving a series of decisions and debates over what is included and what is left out, Wood reveals that, far from presenting a neutral view of the natural state of affairs, they are highly mediated representations which ‘assert and construct worlds rather than mirror them’.[i] As he declares, maps are in effect: ‘systems of propositions, where a proposition is nothing more than a statement that affirms (or denies) the existence of something. As such, maps are arguments about existence’.[ii]
In our contemporary, map-immersed era, it can be difficult to imagine that, although the history of mapmaking can be traced back over many centuries, it has only been in the past few decades that maps have become such a ubiquitous presence in everyday life, through mass printing production and more recently across digital platforms. Wood observes how this unprecedented proliferation has been matched by ‘a corresponding penetration of the map into ever deeper recesses of our lives’:
… mapped images have become essential to our sense of the world, to our place within it, to much of our identity; to our national identity … to our sense of who we are, of what we’re doing, of where we’re going … and indeed the map metaphor has become so pervasive that we map not only our genes but our futures.[iii]
Indeed, carrying portable Global Positioning Systems on our phones and devices, we readily consult maps for everything from locating the nearest petrol station, to planning a road trip, to monitoring the weather, or analysing election results. However, although they provide an important utilitarian function, it is through this unquestioning acceptance and reliance on maps that we willingly assent to their namings and claimings, thereby contributing to a broadening consensus of the map makers’ propositions as fact.[iv] Moreover, the ease and convenience by which we can drop a pin virtually anywhere on the globe through Google Maps to find what we are looking for, obscures the economic, political and military forces which use this same technology for applications such as direct marketing, demographic analysis and surveillance. In effect, every time we use a map we not only reinforce their markers and boundaries, we ourselves are mapped too.
The impact of this massive proliferation and infiltration of maps in recent decades comes into stark relief in Joanne Mott’s sculpture exhibition, Mapped. At first glance, the seven world globes on stands present a welcoming, instantly recognisable sight, conforming to our expectations of vast expanses of blue, interspersed with the outlines of islands and continents. Their intimate, domestic scale generates a certain nostalgia for our early encounters with these objects when they held so much potential for dreaming of exotic faraway places. However, closer inspection of Mott’s works reveals their surfaces to be completely encrusted with thousands of colourful hand-painted spherical map pin heads. Suddenly, the beguilingly familiar quality of these works gives way to a consideration of the way these worlds have been violently penetrated by thousands of pin pricks. Historically used to mark territories and places, map pins signify intention, ownership and authority, here they are tightly packed together in their thousands, subsuming the entire planet. As the past tense exhibition title suggests, each of these infiltrated and pervaded globes represent a world that has been exhaustively and conclusively ‘mapped’; a condition in which the Earth has become utterly subservient, a mere support for human enterprise and ambition.
As a mass-produced product, the materiality of the proliferating pins themselves are emblematic of the extraordinary rise of globalised industries over the past 200 years. In Mott’s globes, belying the alluring, bejewelled quality of the hand-painted map heads, thin pieces of metal with sharp points puncture the surface again and again. Made from stainless steel, each individual pin in effect, mimics the very process of mining and excavating the Earth’s surface for the iron ore necessary for its fabrication. Similarly, the substance of the pin heads, PVC, a widespread synthetic polymer plastic used in the manufacture of countless consumer goods, has now been found to permeate and envelop the entire orb. In an article published in The Guardian last year Robin McKie reported on a recent international study which found that, staggeringly, ‘[h]umans have made enough plastic since the second world war to coat the Earth entirely in clingfilm’ and ‘that no part of the planet is free of the scourge of plastic waste’.[v] This group of scientists has determined that recent anthropogenic deposits, such as ‘the products of mining’ and the ‘virtually ubiquitous microplastic particles … which are dispersed by both physical and biological processes’, will leave ‘identifiable fossil and geochemical records’, signatures which they argue ‘support the formalization of the Anthropocene as a stratigraphic entity equivalent to other formally defined geological epochs’.[vi] In other words, humanity has altered the world to such a degree that we have entered into a new geological era, one of our own making.
The extent and impact of this man-made transformation is symbolised in the deliberate distortions and alterations evident in Mott’s works. Named after the titles of pop songs, they show the world continents misaligned (Mad World), inside out, out of place (It’s The End of the World As We Know It), or upside down (Top of the World). By changing the familiar contours, positions and shapes of the landforms we are familiar with, the artist abruptly jolts us out of the complacency by which we accept the authority and certainty of officially sanctioned maps. In their place she proposes a series of alternative worldviews which chart a much more provisional, uncertain and turbulent situation. The variegated palette of warm colours for the landforms and cool colours for the water also contributes to this sense of the planet awry. We are now accustomed to weather maps which indicate heat waves and rising temperature through a range from yellows, to oranges to reds and in Mott’s works, this spectrum is used as a clear indication of the increasing warming of the planet brought about by the burning of fossil fuels. Although these world maps are not accurate in a strictly cartographic sense, they graphically represent what has been termed ‘an inconvenient truth’, highlighting the profound destabilising effects currently being experienced across the globe as a direct result of drastically degraded ecosystems and the devastating impacts of climate change.
If, as Wood proposes, maps are ‘arguments about existence’, then Mott’s Mapped exhibition forcefully contends that we are living in a period of tremendous upheaval and instability in which humankind’s assertion over the Earth’s dominion has modified ecologies in ways which are becoming increasingly unsustainable for many lifeforms (potentially even our own). While political leaders continue to equivocate in their response to this crisis (or in some cases refuse to acknowledge it), scientists have now quantified the impact of human activity on the planet, ‘finding people are causing the climate to change 170 times faster than natural forces’.[vii] As we enter the uncharted waters of this rapidly changing environment, Mott’s work It’s The End of the World As We Know It, presents a portentous image of the shape (and colour) of things to come; a world in which rising sea levels have transformed the coastlines of countries beyond recognition, the water is an acidic green from the absorption of carbon dioxide, and the dark red and purple landmasses suggest a terrain which is bruised and inhospitable. As the artist demonstrates, although they convey a sense of inviolability, power and authority, maps can be made and unmade. The question is do we have the collective capacity to consider the bigger picture, a worldview that extends beyond our individual concerns and immediate locales, and orientate ourselves to a global consciousness through which we can plot a different path for the Earth?
[i] José Luis Romanillos, ‘Book Review: Rethinking the Power of Maps by Denis Wood’, Journal of Economic and Social Geography, vol. 104, issue 1, February 2013, p. 124.
[ii] Denis Wood, Rethinking the Power of Maps, New York: The Guilford Press, 2010, p.34.
[iii] Wood, pp.17 and p.20.
[iv] Wood, p. 52.
[v] Robin McKie, ‘Plastic now pollutes every corner of Earth’ The Guardian, Sunday 24 January 2016, URL: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jan/24/plastic-new-epoch-human-damage, accessed on 10 February 2017.
[vi] C. N. Waters et al., ‘The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene’, Science, vol.351, issue 6269, 2016, pp. 3 and 8.
[vii] Melissa Davey, ‘Humans causing climate to change 170 times faster than natural forces’, The Guardian, Sunday 12 February 2017, URL: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/feb/12/humans-causing-climate-to-change-170-times-faster-than-natural-forces, accessed on 20 February 2017.
Part of CLIMARTE’s ART + CLIMATE = CHANGE 2017 – a festival of exhibitions and events harnessing the creative power of the Arts to inform, engage and inspire action on climate change. www.artclimatechange.org