From the distance of a map-maker

By Emily Adams, MFA 2011
The recent talk of censorship in the arts has me thinking more about the relationship between map-maker and mapped; gardener and garden; artist and artwork.
I came across early survey maps of the American West designed by the US Department of the Interior. A neatly organized drawing carefully, lawfully delineates a landscape of an area of New Mexico in the nineteenth century stages of American ‘land ownership.’
US Department of Interior survey plat, New Mexico, 1880
Around that time, the US government moved the Navajo people to an internment camp in Fort Sumner while government officials remapped their landscape along reservation borders. Navajo landscape changed from something lived, known from ground perspective, marked by its four sacred mountains; to a map, a paper document depicting, in aerial perspective, space as geometrical patterns and a carefully rendered line. “We will make a boundary line outside of which you must not go… you must live at peace,” said General William Sherman**.

As I develop my farmland images in paint (departing from my earlier works on photographs), I’ve been thinking more about the way maps feel. I get a sense of awe with the aerial view of farmland because what I see vacillates between map and fields. In the true-to-form representation of the landscape as photograph or painting, the image may still be read as non-objective.
(Developing farmland in oil paint, stage I)
(Developing farmland in oil paint, stage II)

It it is interesting to me how the distance between the map-maker and the thing mapped, the dissociation of the person from the place or thing they are arranging, allows for a relationship in which the subject is a non-objective thing to the map-maker. Some contemporary voices note the violence that can arise from this distance; that the agricultural policies and practices responsible for the farm-grids are violent, environmentally and socially; that there was violence in the homesteading maps, violence in the reservation mapping, violence in Indian assimilation policies (the mapping of one culture’s visual presentation onto another)*.
Students, Carlisle Indian School: photograph by John N. Choate,
before and after entrance to the school. Pictured are Wounded Yellow Robe,
Timber Yellow Robe, Henry Standing Bear
(Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA)
As for art and artists, I’m looking at the extremes of Burtynsky’s landscapes, which hover in the sublime space between beauty and violence, and Agnes Martin’s non-objective paintings—maps of a ‘clear mind,’ as she once said. Now, I'm asking myself: How might my own paintings represent this space between map and the thing mapped? And what kinds of maps do I have access to, that are personal enough that I can use without appropriating; that I can engage in without losing sight?
Edward Burtynsky, Kennecott Copper Mine No. 22, Bingham Valley, Utah 1983
Agnes Martin
*The article is written by a student who will be visiting New York City in the Spring on a trip organized by my former colleague, Joan Levitt. I will be joining them, and helping to organize a tour of the Met.
**From Peter Iverson's 'Dine: A history of the Navajos'. University of New Mexico Press. 2002.

1 comment:

  1. Emily, you should check out the book "The Island of Lost Maps". A great book about the history of cartography entwined with a crime story about a map theif! Excellent read!