“Orbis Terrarum”

Plantin-Moretus Museum

As curator Moritz Küng acknowledges in his catalogue preface, the relation between cartography and contemporary art is not a new theme. But what distinguishes “Orbis Terrarum: Ways of Worldmaking” from such predecessors as MOMA’s 1994 “Mapping” or the Stedelijk Museum/Wellington City Gallery’s 1996 “The World Over-Under Capricorn” is the place where it was presented: the former Officina Plantiniana printing house, which published the finest maps of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—including the very first world atlas, the Theatrum orbis terrarum (1570), which gave its name to the exhibition.

Site-specific works may date back to the earliest cave paintings, but site-specific exhibitions seem to be a distinctly contemporary phenomenon, reflecting fin de millénaire anxieties about both the realities of history and the limitations of conventional exhibition spaces. Here, some one hundred works by thirty-eight international artists found their way into the museum’s period rooms and several public spaces around the city. For those who like their historical museums historical and their contemporary gallery walls white, this marriage of Age of Discovery maps and Land Art, printing presses and video monitors, Flemish tapestries and billboard posters might have raised hackles. But a weekday visit suggested that the families of both bride and groom adjusted fairly well to the unconventional union of art and artifact that gave rise to an appropriately disorienting range of variants: maps in art (Broodthaers, Alighiero e Boetti), art in maps (twenty historic atlases), mapping in art (Gerhard Richter, Fischli & Weiss), maps as archetypes (Matt Mullican), or again, art as maps (Lawrence Weiner, Gabriel Orozco), as cosmology (James Lee Byars), as chronology (On Kawara), or as urban topology (Piero Manzoni, Aglaia Konrad).

The comparison with the greatest of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century mapmakers was not always to the benefit of today’s artists. What is fascinating about the historical maps, beyond their aesthetic appeal and documentary interest, is the tension they express—the uncertainty of a moment that marked a turning point not only in the knowledge of the world and in its representation but also in its political and economic organization. By contrast, the contemporary works, especially those of the hard-line Conceptualists, sometimes seemed complacently caught up in a cartographic paradigm that might best be described as the egocentric view of the world (e.g., Kawara’s twenty-three-volume I Went, 1968-79). Much more pertinent to the way we see the world today are the satellite images and computer-assisted maps that were strangely absent from the exhibition. But in its very unpredictability, “Orbis Terrarum” yielded a number of agreeably disconcerting discoveries, among them Laurie Anderson’s New York Times, Horizontal/China Times, Vertical, 2000, a simulation of Sino-American rapprochement made by cutting two front pages into strips and weaving them together; Emma Kay’s hand-drawn The world from memory I, 1998, strangely akin to the medieval mappamonde in its divisions between the known world and terra incognita; and Mona Hatoum’s Map, 1998, consisting of thousands of glass marbles forming a giant floor map that seemed to invite visitors to “explore” the world by literally taking a stand in it, at the very perceptible risk of dispersing the whole thing—and possibly breaking a few bones in the process. Among the works in public spaces, Konrad’s Atlas-Exposé, 2000, was particularly effective with its six giant views of today’s global, interchangeable cities looming down from a row of billboards over the entrance to an equally bleak and anonymous parking garage. Not the least important lesson of this ambitious exhibition is that “worldmaking,” like other creative activities, depends on a subtle mix of hubris and humility.

Miriam Rosen