“I Am Where?” Maps & the Creative Process

I’ve been reading/browsing a book called You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, edited by Katharine Harmon. I love maps, especially eccentrically personal ones, or maps crafted out of woefully inadequate datasets. In 2006 went to the NYPL Map Room exhibit, “Treasured Maps”. A remarkable exhibition overall, but my favorite was a series of twenty-one plates engraved by Sidney Hall*. The plates are from Edward Quin’s An Historical Atlas, published in 1828, and depict the expansion of the world—the unfurling of civilization. The first map shows Eden, circa 2348 BCE, surrounded by ominous black clouds. As one progresses through the pages and through time the clouds roll back, revealing the world as it was understood to exist in each moment in history, starting with Eden, continuing through the decline of the Roman Empire, and ending with “The End of the General Peace” in 1828 CE, which looks like any modern map of the world. (Most of the series can be seen here.)

I recalled the Hall engravings after seeing a few Liliana Porter prints on display at the Blanton Museum in Austin, Texas. (Porter’s work was part of a special exhibition, The New York Graphic Workshop, 1964–1970.) These particular prints abstractly depict a man in a small square room. (He is supposedly passing by a window, but I think that might be the Blanton’s interpretation — I just thought, Oh, that’s a man in a small square room.) The entire image is fragmented across four or five prints, each showing a different part of the whole. The high degree of simplification — there are no discernible human features, just flat black shapes on white paper — means it takes a second to realize what you’re looking at, and then another to go back through the series and assemble the fragments in your mind to create the whole.

Hall’s engravings and Porter’s prints are about not-knowing, or not-knowing-enough, and how the mind struggles to produce a complete concept. Porter’s series demonstrates this knowingly; Hall simply wanted a clever way to teach history. But his gradual evaporation of clouds works to the same effect — bringing a larger whole into existence. Each engraving contains an unknown: a dark piece of puzzle that the next print will solve. Each print simultaneously contains a secret and reveals a secret. The same of Porter’s prints, which contain a fragment of a whole, but stand alone regardless.

* The maps remind me a little of the game World of Warcraft, which, yes, I’ve played. Briefly. Characters walk through a murky landscape surrounded by a limited patch of light that reveals shrubbery, enemies, structures, and the like. As you move, the clouds roll back just as in Hall’s engravings. Your range of vision expands depending on what character you’re moving through space — a knight on horseback sees further than a lowly peasant on a berry-picking expedition. So true.

** The full title of Quin’s book is intimidatingly lengthy: An Historical Atlas; In A Series Of Maps Of The World As Known At Different Periods; Constructed Upon An Uniform Scale, And Coloured According To The Political Changes Of Each Period: Accompanied By A Narrative Of The Leading Events Exhibited In The Maps: Forming Together A General View Of Universal History, From The Creation To A.D. 1828.