Cultural Cartography

Hello my name is Merle Patchett and I am a cultural geographer, writer and freelance curator.  The main image for this blog is a recreation of Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking (1967).


A Line Made by Walking © Richard Long


The original photograph was taken by Long on a journey to St Martin’s from his home in Bristol. Between hitchhiking lifts, he stopped in a field in Wiltshire where he walked backwards and forwards until the flattened turf caught the sunlight and became visible as a line. He photographed this work, recording his physical interventions within the landscape.

Although this artwork underplays the artist’s corporeal presence, it anticipates a more widespread interest in non-representational and performative art practices in the art world. The piece is also the first of many performative walks undertaken by the artist and demonstrates how Long had already found a visual language for his lifelong concerns with walking, mapping and impermanence.

“A map is just one more layer, a mark laid down upon thousands of other layers of human geographic history on the surface of the land” Richard Long.

Since the 1960’s cultural geographers have been involved in a project to ‘deconstruct the map ‘; that is deconstruct the notion of the map as an objective form of knowledge. The belief upheld by cartographers that their approach was ‘scientific’ and therefore ‘untainted by social factors’ was famously deconstructed by the geographer J. B. Harley in his paper ‘Deconstructing the Map’ (1991). Harley argued that the ‘rules of cartography’ and the ‘rules of society’ were mutually reinforcing the same image of the world. Instead of being scientifically neutral, Harley underlined the fact that all maps are ideological – that they are embedded within cultural and social values and beliefs that say as much about the mapper as the mapped.

It is now increasingly recognised that cartography is a contested practice, embedded within particular sets of power relations, and that maps are bound up with the production and reproduction of social life. Yet while, as geographers have argued, maps are preeminently a language of power, not protest, Katherine Harmon makes clear in her book The Map as Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography (2009) that there has also been an exponential increase in artists subverting the practice of cartography for both political and more playful purposes (Long’s work being an early example). Harmon reviews how artists have appropriated and twisted cartographic conventions over the past thirty years in order to delve into issues as varied as garbage to globalization, migration to extraordinary rendition.

Having recently moved from Scotland to the province of Alberta, Canada the ‘map’ paintings of Landon Mackenzie have caught my attention.

Through her Saskatchewan Paintings (1993) MacKenzie set out to explore the complex relationship between politics and how the land of this landlocked central province has been visually represented over time. The area’s huge swaths of unpopulated land have been clocked in associations with limitless and ruggedness. Yet when researching historical maps of the region made by white settlers in the 19th century Mackenzie noticed that labels and boundaries changed form year to year and was “quite alarmed to see a map when First Peoples owned all the land and a map three years later showing that they owned none of it”. Yet instead of simply re-presenting these maps and archival material, Mackenzie uses them as points of departure “generating her own spaces, iconography and ambiguous stories through the act of painting” (Harmon 2009: 69).

For example in the painting Tracking Athabasca: Macke It to Thy Other Side (Land of Little Sticks) she included the personal stories of Doris Whitehead, a friend of Cree, Chipewyan and Scottish ancestry. Whitehead sketched the layout of her childhood village as they both sat on the painting’s large canvas. Mackenzie then reworked the map, adding and layering up elements from other maps and sources. Whitehead had also related the story that she was the descendent of Governor Simpson, a Scottish factor at Fort Chipewan who was rumored to have fathered more than two hundred children during his tenure, and Mackenzie painted trails of white sperm across the painting to reference this trail of European DNA across the region.


Tracking Athabasca; Macke It to Thy Other Side (Land of Little Sticks), 2000 © Landon Mackenzie


In Mackenzie’s hands Athabasca, and the province of Alberta more generally, therefore becomes a cultural construct marked by ideas of entitlement and potential and her method of obscuring text and building up cartographic layers empahsises “how records and maps both reveal and conceal history” (Harmon 2009: 69).

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