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Art

Lost in Place

Map Shows Locate Us in History and The Cosmos

Nasa, Esa, S. Beckwith, and The Hubble Heritage Team
Private Collection, Virginia
Dan Meyers
NOT TO SCALE: (from top) M16 stellar spire in the Eagle Nebula; Joyce Reynolds, Arpanet, 1982 (detail); Sandtown as drawn by Sandtown-Winchester residents.

By Deborah McLeod | Posted 3/26/2008

Maps: Finding Our Place in the World; Maps on Purpose; and Mapping the Cosmos: Images from the Hubble Space Telescope

At the Walters Art Museum through June 8

Some years back Yoko Ono was invited by Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond to create exterior site-specific installations around the city. She selected derelict billboards to display the word "fly." These overpass billboards often rose from disadvantaged and deteriorating urban areas. As an art experience, the eminent artist's gigantic towering utopian pronouncements felt queasily, even ruthlessly inept, rising as they did with drive-by-scaled authority from scaffolding in the city's hard-pressed neighborhoods. They promoted the anarchic privilege of flying without the enlightening bearings of how and where. Ono had ignored the consequence of the map.

Baltimore, and particularly the Walters Art Museum, is making up for any such past oversights with a most comprehensive, relevant, awe-inspiring, and humane approach to mapping through its newly unveiled Maps: Finding Our Place in the World. The traveling exhibition, which originated from Chicago's Field Museum and Newberry Library, is the Walters' contribution to Baltimore's citywide map festival. It is the centerpiece of a trilogy of shows within the Walters,.

There is much to tell about this triumvirate of exhibitions, but the starting point on any journey should always be from home. In this instance, that would be the modest Maps on Purpose gallery. This small but empowering community collaboration, which also involved the Neighborhood Design Center, is an offspring of Art on Purpose partnering with neighborhoods such as Middle East and Greenmount West. In danger of being divided and displaced, these localities are suffering one of the great old ironies of the map--the one where the place itself is destroyed in order to better facilitate the route that crosses it. Art on Purpose doesn't put up a billboard instructing the residents of these neighborhoods to fly. It shows them how to perform that magical and powerful aerial feat--by drawing maps of their community to distinguish, archive, imagine, and express the integrity and greater prospects of place, and how to chart the roads that will lead them to some satisfactory outcome of their own design.

Because of their ability to provide users an omniscient viewpoint, maps occupy two realms simultaneously--the mortal and the immortal point of view. That is partly why they are so endlessly fascinating. But the other reasons are as numerous as the maps themselves. Maps showcases many of the most important and knowledge-altering geographical, topographical, nautical, political, spiritual, military, and statistical maps to be found in our exhaustively charted planet's diverse institutional holdings.

Upon purchasing a ticket, visitors are invited to behold the first vast unknowns of the world, as its earliest inhabitants incrementally figure out what lies farther and farther beyond their horizons. We learn as they learn how to venture out and safely navigate the way back, collecting the supporting data that will eventually bridge the entire globe and conclude the round, diversely populated fact of it.

For those with an aversion to maps, the show's paradigmatic examples may convert you. They are greatly removed from the cumbersome, torn-in-just-the-wrong-place, overwhelming things your driving partner asks you to pull out of the glove compartment to frantically determine if the exit has just been missed. They are also nothing like the frustrating misguidance of an internet map.

These maps are objects of stunning beauty, painstaking craftsmanship, nascent knowledge, and quietude. The subjects of some of Maps' famous authors and draftspeople include a topographical study of central Italy--the first map to indicate elevation with color--and an engineering scheme for managing the Arno River, both rendered by Leonardo da Vinci; the flight chart meticulously notated by Charles Lindbergh, recording points along his transatlantic crossing; Benjamin Franklin's map of Gulf Stream currents; Sir Thomas More's vision of Utopia; and Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln's surveys of potential regions of the United States. There is as much for the artist as the historian to savor here.

Among the most enchanting maps found in the exhibition are artifacts charting the practical, cosmological, and kinetic aspects of places. Some of these are three-dimensional objects: oceanic stick charts, hand-sized Inuit carvings that replicate Greenland's jagged coastline, an Incan ritual site's boundary map carved in stone, a dainty kidskin glove with an abbreviated diagram of 1850s London. Others are vividly polychromed on papyrus or bark, like the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain cosmology maps and globes, or delicately etched narratives on skins, such as the Catawba drew up to indicate the relationships of various Native American tribes and territories.

To aid in visualizing the advancement and the evolving uses of maps, the Walters galleries are divided into conceptual but user-friendly themes: Finding Our Way; Mapping the World; Mapping the Imaginary; Mapping Your World: Your Own Neighborhood and Claiming Your Territory; Visualizing Nature and Society; Mapping History: Making America; and Living With Maps.

Toward the conclusion of the installation are several anthropological mappings of statistical conditions. Charles Joseph Minard plotted the soldier losses in Hannibal's march to Italy and Napoleon's march to Moscow. The thick black swath of ink that surges upward on the chart, representing the troops, narrows startlingly as it advances toward its military destination, only to double back and taper to a fine point as it returns. The reasons for the reduction of forces--the brutal weather and challenging terrain--are charted as well. It's just a jagged black line lurching across a piece of white paper, but as a careful piece of documentation it carries a full share of pathos.

Maps: Finding Our Place in the World has a great deal more to discover. It is a world unto itself. But among its many unfamiliar wonders you may encounter an old friend or two. Herman Moll's Lilliput can still be sought just south of Sumatra. Robert Lewis Stevenson marks the spot with an X not too far away as the crow flies from J.R.R. Tolkien's Thror's map and exceedingly near Winnie the Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood, hushedly waiting to be flown over upon opening the dear old book.

But there are a few more shifts in perspective to be had before leaving the museum. In an upper gallery is Mapping the Cosmos: Images From the Hubble Space Telescope. Co-organized with the Space Telescope Science Institute and curatorial students from Johns Hopkins' Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the installation provides a glimpse into the proverbial final frontier. The word "final" tends, however, to fall toward Earth like a defunct satellite when one confronts these astounding celestial images, captured events that are billions of light years away. What the nobly adventurous Hubble makes apparent to the human eye is only slightly less color enhanced than these vivid views of time and space suggest. The strange configurations that the student curators have selected assume forms that may suggest watchful eyes, bulging wombs, reclining skulls, avenging angels, and/or spectral gods. The imagery is more Blakean than Blake, but it's definitely present. The padded bench in the middle of the room may permit extended investigation or gallantly soften a fall. What began as a map to a familiar spot ultimately invites us to float in the luminous, frigid, turbulent, metastatic, beautiful midst of nowhere. Can we mortals really map this?

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