Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there. ’The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off. Other places were scattered about the Equator, and in every sort of latitude all over the two hemispheres. I have been in some of them, and …. well, we won’t talk about that. But there was one yet – the biggest, the most blank, so to speak – that I had a hankering after.
True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery – a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness.
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 1899
Most maps are filled in.
Our relationship with maps has shifted now that we have them on our computers and on our phones. We now put ourselves at the centre of the map – the map finds us and indicates where we have to go. I have always loved the dot on a public information map that says ‘You Are Here’ – it’s so certain. Those maps on a panel in the street, placed there for tourists, know where they are. This used to seem so clever and transparent, that the map and the territory were in the same place. And all that intelligence was directed at the person standing in front of it, turning disorientation into the certainty of ‘you are here’. Now we have that certainty as long as we have signal. I hate it and I usually try not to hate things. I hate the drift this sends me into, seeing myself as a tracked dot progressing slowly down one pre-loaded street and into another, my destination another dot or flag. I walk surrendered to a poorly-drawn map on a screen that blinds me to where I am. These maps are more disorienting than ever.
When I start a walk my impatience to be walking means I sometimes forget to locate where I have started from, and this makes a map much harder to use. It means scale and distance are harder to judge. It means I am often lost and can only make sense of the map at the point when I finally see where I started from. I get back hours later than I had planned.
Being born in Britain means you assume all maps are beautiful. You grow up sure that all maps are certain and are carefully drawn and you could trust your life to them if the clouds swallow you up on top of a ridge and you have to work out your direction with a compass and count your steps to avoid falling off the edge of something.
Part of my preparation before going to other places is buying a map. The trip to Stanfords in London, where they have a map of the Himalayas as the upper floor, is all part of shaking off the anxiety that I always feel before travelling. Before a trip to South America, I made my traditional pilgrimage to Stanfords, but the maps I bought didn’t have enough information to walk from. Searching them out when I was travelling was difficult, and only filled in the gaps so far: the best I found in Buenos Aires was a 1:200 000 ITMB map of Patagonia that wasn’t much better than a road atlas; but it had a blank on it and I had never seen one of those before on a recent map. I thought the blanks were all filled in. I remember the way the narrator, Charlie Marlow, in the opening pages of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, describes his fascination with the blanks on the map, the hold they have over him, and his disappointment as an adult that so many blanks had been filled in.
The blank on this map was the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. A vast area of old ice, still partly unmapped, running north south for over 220 miles, straddling the border of Chile and Argentina. This enormous plug of solid water feeds the glaciers of the Patagonian fjords to the west, eventually flowing out into the Pacific Ocean; and to the east flows into the glaciers that sit in the lakes Viedma and Argentino, and flow towards the Atlantic. There is still a stretch of the border in the ice field that remains undrawn, a persistent irritant between two countries that have fought many times about the lines drawn between them. More like trying to divide up sea than land, this ice field has only been crossed by explorers a handful of times.
A blank left by ice on the map has a completely different status to the blank space that Marlow is looking at in the beginning of Heart of Darkness. The blanks of Africa or Australia or South America are only blanks within the context of Western colonial expansion. By showing them as blank on the map any indigenous peoples, culture or social formations could easily be written over by the imposed colonial geography. Polar blanks describe actual emptiness, places where people cannot live, so indigenous populations had marked no presence.
I went to the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and found myself, after several months of travelling, looking out over a blank. I had never seen such a vast white place in the landscape before. It went further than my eye could travel, to the edge of what you could see, somehow to edge of the world. The ice was old, left over from the last ice age, a landscape of frozen geological time. I can vaguely understand the age of rocks if only in an abstract way, but the age of ice was more challenging. As big as the sea but fixed. Except at its edges, which creaked and groaned in chthonic sounds from the bowels of this frozen world that pushed out vast splinters and blocks into the water below. These staggering breakages prove the enormity of the pressure and forces held in the ice. Movement trying to pass through solid. Movement grinding its way through solid in a slow push, having to crush its way out at the edges, a dead cold peristalsis through the softer rocks and valleys of the surrounding mountains, finding liquid to fall into, dissolve into, at long last move into. This is slow and hard like labour.
In a pile of old atlases I am painting the blanks back onto maps. I smear white gesso over the information and leave only the blue of the seas. Old atlases, their time in classrooms, libraries or shelves done with, the information in them no longer correct; they only map how geographical certainty used to look, not how it looks now. And even that I’m taking away from them. Painting on a book is already a transgression, painting on maps somehow even more wrong, but I dream of an atlas with only the blue left. I think about making another map of the world with my blanks. Then I think about nothing. I empty out all that I am thinking, reading, writing. I paint out the pages, leave them to dry, turn the pages, and paint them again. I need the emptiness, a meditation of filling in the certainty with blank, and I am left only with blue.
This is an extract from Tania Kovats, Drawing Water: Drawing as a Mechanism for Exploration (Fruitmarket Gallery, 2014). Reproduced with kind permission from the artist and Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh.
To hear from Tania Kovats you can watch this short video in which the artist introduces some of the key themes and ideas behind the exhibition at Fruitmarket.
Tania Kovats, Only Blue (Antarctica), 2013 (detail), gesso on atlas, dimensions variable
Tania Kovats, Only Blue (Africa), 2013 (detail), gesso on atlas, dimensions variable
Tania Kovats, Only Blue (Pacific Ocean), 2013 (detail), gesso on atlas, dimensions variable
Tania Kovats, Only Blue (Atlantic Ocean), 2013 (detail), gesso on atlas, dimensions variable
This is part of ROOT MAPPING, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring which maps might help us live with a clear sense of where we are. ROOT MAPPING is conceived and edited by Melanie Viets.