Reality made visual

A new book of maps explores the way humans interpret the world, writes Paul Best.

When we think of a map, we most likely conjure up images of a school atlas, perhaps a street directory, a fold-out petrol station road map guiding wayfarers from place to place or, more often these days, an incredibly agile icon-strewn digital plan, such as Google Maps, using satellites and global positioning, to navigate us personally through time and space.

But it is so much more. Displayed on various materials – such as stone, copper, wood, silk, paper and more recently the computer screen – the map throughout the course of history, from the Babylonian world maps on clay tablets around 700-500BC to today’s mapping of the human brain’s architecture, is a form of graphic design providing spatial understanding of our world. It can be scientific and functional, political or cultural as well as artistic.

A new publication Map: Exploring the World – containing more than 300 maps, playfully laid out in pairs for the reader to intuit the commonality, spanning 5000 years – purposefully sets itself the challenge of looking at the map beyond its use to see distance or boundaries, as most map books do. A task even its contributors had to wrestle with.

“One of the things we struggled with, with this book, and one of the interesting things about working on it, was the constant back and forth about what a map is,” one of Map’s contributing editors, John Hessler, says on the phone from Washington DC, where he works as a specialist in modern cartography and geographic information science at the US Library of Congress. “Is that a map? Is that not a map? It had to represent a concept that had some spatial form, spatial action.”

The book contains many maps easily recognisable as such, whether it be Saxton’s English counties (1579), Paris’s 20 arrondissements (1863) or a satellite image of the Earth (1990); even those with a cultural or political bent, such as Hollywood stars’ homes (1937), Where Detroit Commuters Run Over Black Children (1971) or John Bartholomew’s world powers from the 1957 The Times Atlas.

But there are many others that are less so. In fact, the volume is full of examples that appear more like works of art than cartography. It’s no coincidence, explains Daniel Crouch, another of Map’s contributors and owner of Daniel Crouch Rare Books – a dealer specialising in atlases, map, plans and sea charts – on the phone from London. Map was consciously designed to look like publisher Phaidon’s art books.

“[It] wanted to show the map-maker’s art,” he says. “From the Assyrian stone tablet and the Sheldon tapestry maps of four British counties from the 16th century, through to Harry Beck’s map of the [London] Tube, which I think is one of the most visually arresting of all maps.”

For instance, 21 maps are the work of contemporary artists: Grayson Perry’s Map of Days (2013) or Jasper Johns’ oil on canvas of America (Map, 1961); Ai Weiwei’s sculptural ironwood Map of China (2006), crafted from dismantled Qing Dynasty temples, or the 2006 installation art of Maya Lin’s Water Line (aluminium tubing) and Blue Lake Pass (particle board).

Cartoonists and graphic artists – often incorporating humour and satire into their interpretive maps – also feature. Like a 1941 Russian propaganda lithograph depicting an ape-like Hitler marauding across Europe; or Saul Steinberg’s 1976 New Yorker cover, View of the World from 9th Avenue, which skewers the parochial/myopic nature of big-city dwellers.

Beyond Manhattan, the rest of America is a mere strip on the other side of the Hudson and China, Japan and Russia an even more anorexic strip on the far side of an attenuated Pacific Ocean. Included, too, are illustrative versions from literature (EH Shepard’s Hundred Acre Wood from Winnie-the-Pooh and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island).

Crouch says map design historically was “as much a work of art as … [a] matter of science”, pointing out that early cartographers such as Albrecht Durer and Hans Holbein, were better known as artists. It is “only in recent times, where the scientific aspects of cartography have come to the fore, that people tend to separate out art from map-making,” he indicates, adding cartography and graphic design constantly inform the other.

But even scientific maps in the book have undeniable decorative or art-like qualities. Artur Furst’s 1924 Supply Lines Under Potsdamer Platz or Daniel Coe’s 2013 image of the historical channels of Oregon’s Willamette River both could be abstract art.

Cultural maps, too – where the viewer may not recognise them as such, or understand the symbolism – can at least be appreciated aesthetically. Aboriginal artist Estelle Hogan’s Baltaltjara (1997-9), a stick chart of the Marshall Islands or a watercolour on cotton of a Jain pilgrimage from about 1750 are such examples in Map. Like art, the map is in the eye of the beholder, what Hessler refers to as the “experience of viewing”.

“The thing that connects all maps is humans acting in space in some way,” he says. “Sometimes [they’re] deeply cultural … then there is this other level where … one can think about that as any piece of art.”

Map also explores examples of modern cartography that visualise spatially and dynamically (factoring in the dimension of time) enormous, complex and constantly changing data sets in an easily digestible form, such as Facebook friend connections, Twitter traffic, the spread of Ebola in West Africa and the as-yet incomplete mapping of the human brain.

Even among these new digital images, the artist is at work, for example: data artist-software engineer Eric Fischer’s 2015 online photo postings of locals and tourists across four major cities; or Kate McLean’s 2012 scent map of Glasgow (known as ephemeral cartography), showing how various smells – such as fast food, moss or Bovril at the footy – drift and dissipate.

“The reason cartography has come back in such a profound way is because we have become, even more than we were in the past, a profoundly, profoundly visual culture,” says Hessler. “It has a power to stimulate visual thinking on a whole range of levels.”