A provisional map of belonging

 by Sean O’Toole

Published in Gerhard Marx’s monograph:
Ecstatic Archive, 2019

Every map, whatever its temporal achievement, is an argument with obsolescence. Maps represent a wish for clarity and certainty, but the diagrammatic stasis and composure they propose are constantly battling dynamic forces. Road builders pierce through mountains rather than negotiate their natural contours. Developers transform peripheral farmland into new tracts of suburban housing as the city swells. Colonists arrive in a new land with memories of old place names and new languages. The landscape, that vivid social construct so often confused for land, is constantly being remade. In the last three decades of South Africa’s democratic era, maps and the notional truths they figure have been subject to constant update. Provincial boundaries have been remapped to expunge ideological fantasies like the homeland system, and towns and streets have been renamed to acknowledge older vernaculars and newer political heroes.

These changes have spurred rich and sometimes fierce dialogue. In a penetrating 2008 essay, novelist Ivan Vladislavić linked the on-going process of renaming places to larger societal changes following the end of white-minority rule: “In times of social transformation, the revision of history and the reshaping of the physical world go together. Territory is reclaimed through being renamed.” Renaming pre-empts remapping, which, as a social phenomenon, provided Gerhard Marx with the initial prompt to begin working with maps. It was while travelling with his wife, Maja, in the late 1990s that Marx first recognised how older South African maps had stopped serving as reliable indexes to the landscapes he travelled through. Sign and signifier were at odds. As he later put it, the obsolete maps revealed “a disjuncture or dissonance between the physical, phenomenological land and the way we read it as landscape,” as a named and mapped thing.

Since making his first map drawing in 1999, Marx has consistently and adroitly explored this slippage in his map drawings. Using old map books and decommissioned maps, he has created a fascinating body of work that offers an imaginative meditation on the landscape genre, arguably South Africa’s most contested category of art. The artist’s map drawings are distinguished by the way he maintains a dynamic equilibrium between material and metaphor. This essay focuses on how Marx’s painstaking engagement with maps invites rich and associative readings, interpretations that exceed the temporal political remapping of South African territory that first instigated his map drawings. At its core, Marx’s practice speaks to far deeper epistemic quandaries around human knowing and belonging.

Maps, much like metaphors, can be bountiful things, but they are also unwieldy. Physical maps are complex social documents inferring time, knowledge, ambition, power, technological progress and human imagination. Straddling the worlds of art and science, they function as both practical technology and imaginative proxy. While often discussed in relation to western rationalism, maps are not reducible to this history. Mapmaking is an atavistic impulse, a necessity as much as a desire born of humankind’s non-sedentary habits of wandering. Mapping in its more modern sense is defined by a programmatic function. Maps are statements of current knowledge and future ambitions. The earliest printed maps of the Eastern Cape, for instance, were produced by drawing on the insights of military engineers.

Object and motive are often narrowly twinned in mapmaking, which is why it is perhaps safer to think of a map as an immanent analogue of the real — “a slanting light that illuminates the fugitive object”, to quote Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli. Being expressions of time, maps are ephemeral, subject to change, mutable. Marx’s subject is this impermanence; the elusive unknown unknowns, to quote a hawkish American defence secretary, shadowing every map. A 2012 quarrel involving two senior South African academics around maps and their history offers a way to better illustrate these fanciful assertions.

Prior to the publication of Andrew Duminy’s book Mapping South Africa (2011), scholarship around South African maps – be they political, scientific, geological, whatever else – was atomised and dispersed; it was also frequently bounded by larger continental frames. Mapping South Africa addressed this lacuna by providing the first survey of maps and mapmaking in South Africa. The book includes a 1489 map of the world by German cartographer Henricus Martellus, the first to depict the southernmost tip of Africa after Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias rounded it a decade earlier. Maps chase reality, rather than define it.

Duminy, a history professor from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, came at his subject obliquely: he was interested in how European navigators charted unknown coastlines. The book took five years to produce. In his introduction Duminy concedes that writing about maps is by no means self-evident: “It has been necessary for me to enter such specialised fields as cartography, nautical navigation, astro-navigation, photogrammetry, land and marine survey, geology, botany, printing, and microwave and radio technology. The possibilities for error are endless.”

Reviews of Mapping South Africa were evenly split: generalists welcomed its publication, while specialists uniformly voiced dismay. Leading the charge against Duminy was Elri Liebenberg, a former geography professor from the University of South Africa and a respected authority on maps. “The history of cartography of South Africa has been a long-neglected subject in this country,” noted Liebenberg in her 2012 review. Duminy’s book, she ventured, offered a poor account of the tumultuous history of southern African map history, being filled with a “multitude of blatant factual errors, gross mistakes and incorrect statements within the text”. Many of Liebenberg’s criticisms are technical and beyond the remit of this essay, but one point – regarding the rich materiality of maps, and the lack of due consideration thereof by Duminy – is of direct interest in relation to Marx’s work.

“The progress from woodcut maps to engraved maps, stone lithography and litho-offset maps is not explained, and no reference is made to the difference between hand-coloured maps … and lithographically-printed colour maps,” stated Liebenberg. Her criticism surfaces an easily overlooked point: maps vary, sometimes markedly.

Stacked in a corner of Marx’s studio in the Cape Town suburb of Rosebank is a large pile of decommissioned maps obtained from an archive at the University of Cape Town. This non-linear palimpsest is also a haptic archive of maps as made objects. Some even reveal their original use in teaching.

“Sometimes I find old historical maps that are pockmarked with holes where thumbtacks were inserted,” says Marx. Maps leave traces as much as they abstractedly signify them.

Two decades in and Marx is now able to detect subtleties in the ways that different maps will perform as raw material and as collaged fragments. Printing techniques, paper quality, backings, inks and other user-defined criteria that went into the production of a map all influence how the paper responds in the studio during the protracted process of composition. I will return to this process shortly.

In his response to Liebenberg’s scathing review Duminy argued that books pose problems around what to include and exclude: “A book is not a mere sequence of facts or details, and does not stand or fall solely by their accuracy … a book is as much about argument, insight, understanding, interpretation, historical imagination, and many more things as about facts.” It is, in essence, a patient collage of fragments.  Essays such as this miniaturise this labour, as do the actual maps Marx scours for fragments to revivify in his collages.

Maps are tacit exercises in incompletion, assertions whose half-truths and best attempts are always negotiable. In a 2019 account of Henry Hall’s pioneering 1856 Map of the Eastern Frontier of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope, Liebenberg concedes that it was “planemetrically not very accurate”. This is explicable given Hall’s sources: “Apart from consulting the travelogues of early travellers and hunters, Hall also collected as much authoritative information as possible from contemporary travellers, civilian surveyors, military and marine engineers, missionaries and knowledgeable and scientifically-minded fellow countrymen.” A map is, among other things, dialogical.

Perhaps I’m over-emphasising the artistic qualities that undergird mapping. Maps are, after all, expressions of scientific achievement. In a thoughtful review of the Duminy-Liebenberg debate published a few months after the initial skirmish, literary scholar Coilin Parsons cautioned against reducing the history of mapmaking to a teleological narrative in which “the science of cartography moves inexorably, though perhaps haltingly, from a benighted past to an enlightened present … from one discovery to the next, leading inevitably to the modern map.” Many historians of cartography, wrote Parsons, have found that “the more compelling story of maps relates to their social formation rather than their contribution to science”. By this reckoning a map’s fallibility is a point of insight, not a fatal indictment.

Marx’s collaged maps operate in this way, as sites of dreaming and oblique insight. During a visit to his studio the artist likened his slow process of collaging feral elements to create a map drawing to another labour of the hand, weaving. Unweaving, he summarises his craft. “The idea is that you’re taking the logic of a map and winding it back onto itself. I’m straightening it, in a sense, into a neutralised space.” From this zero point, in which the original weave of knowledge is unspooled, he then builds and constructs. “I am interested in taking the flatness of the map and creating a spatiality within it. In a sense it becomes a landscape, rather than a flat depiction of land. There is the sense of the land, but at the same time there is a spatiality.”

The will to undo maps is deeply encoded in twentieth century art. On a drift through Paris members of the Situationist International are said to have used a map of London to guide them. Guy Debord, a Marxist theorist and artist loosely associated with the Situationists, found profit in cutting up maps, as did Robert Smithson, whose map works share visual affinities with those of Marx. In his 1967 map collage, Ruin of Map Hipparchus (100 B.C.) in Oswego Lake Quadrangle (1954-55), Smithson overlaid a hexagonally trimmed map of the Middle East onto a mostly green-coloured map of the Pine Barren’s area in New Jersey. The result is a hybrid of place and time, which is how Marx concisely defines his map drawings.

Where Smithson came to his map works somewhat logically, having studied painting and drawing, Marx is a sculptor by training. A 2000 encounter with Kay Hassan’s paper constructions and installations at the Pretoria Art Museum radically shifted his sense of collage. For one thing it vested the realisation that a drawing can exceed its two-dimensional flatness. “It is not a graphic thing; it can also be a sculptural, constructed, made thing,” Marx told me. “I think that is what a collage is: it is a drawing, but it is also an object.”

Marx’s map drawings acquire their objecthood in a defined working space. Designed by architects Heinrich and Ilze Wolff, the artist’s studio abuts that of his wife, who is also an artist, and was designed in response to their habit of moving around their art, and away from it. A butterfly section in the design allowed for the biggest walls to be at the ends of the rectilinear space. Work in progress maps are displayed on these walls for consideration between bouts of horizontal labour.

Marx’s studio practice is integral to an appreciation of his conceptual ambitions. The labours and materials that occupy him in this space speak to a central dialectic in his work: the shuttling between (lapsed) iconicity and (transformed) materiality. Procedurally, the creation of a map drawing follows a defined trajectory. The black ground on which he floats his drawings is prepared by coating the substrate with between six to ten layers of acrylic paint. The drawing process itself involves scouring map books and single-leaf maps for usable elements – topographical features, graphic signifiers and map borders – in his collages. His map books bear traces of previous searches and resemble a cross-section of Emmental cheese.

Each collage is a composite of hundreds, sometimes thousands of carefully sliced and pasted fragments. Marx’s criteria for cutting out pieces depend on the drawing he is engaged with. During the drafting phase Marx will expend energy on creating preparatory studies to develop the logic of his drawings. The pasting process that follows is slow and accumulative. Glued up fragments gently abraded with aluminium oxide sandpaper. Gradually, an image takes shape. The process is completed when all excess glue and drawing lines are sanded away and the black ground is polished to lustrous black.

Marx has developed four categories of map drawings. In his Calligraphy and Cartography series he uses the lines denoting roads and pathways on maps to “draw” abstractly. His meticulously drawn lines seemingly float above the landscape. Their varying thickness imbues them with the “gravity in brushstrokes”. Depths in Feet is a mesmerising series that figures masses of water and ocean from fragments of oceanic blue. Transparent Territories and Ecstatic Cartographies are related to each other. The former series grew out of an idea of breaking with the dead-on aerial view of the map. “The series started with the idea of folding maps over each other to construct these structural complexities in which the map loses a sense of where you’re at. I’m bringing the map back to earth, into the world.”

Ecstatic Cartographies, for which his exhibition Ecstatic Archive is named, also features structural and perspectival illusions used in the Transparent Territories series, although these “folds” – created using bold black lines culled from map borders and shard-like cutting – are underpinned by more volatile energies. The distinctions between the four categories are, to a degree, self-evident in their form and composition, although every map Marx produces is functionally a description of nowhere. This is the great unifier bounding his map drawings.

To function as a portable symbol with defined use value a map needs to be rescaled. This is an obvious insight for any map user, but is nonetheless worth expanding on.  A map is a distillation, a translation. A map that seeks to include everything runs the risk of enacting the absurdity proposed by Jorge Luis Borges in his 1946 parable about an empire whose quest for cartographic exactitude results in the production of a 1:1 scale map. Marx is gripped by the idea of translation. It stems from his interest in the art historical image as an actual translator.

“I’ve struggled for a long time with my intrigue for St Jerome in his cave,” says Marx, referring to images portraying the Christian priest and first translator of the Bible into Latin. Renowned for his ascetic withdrawal into a cave near Bethlehem, St Jerome was frequently depicted going about his labours in caves and wildernesses, notably by Hieronymus Bosch and Giovanni Bellini. “That image of the translator in his cave, who is completely part of the landscape, is central to my reference. He is the extreme form of embeddedness, and in a strange way I am trying to depict the complete opposite, a sense of groundlessness. That vision of St Jerome is the antithesis of what I am trying to map.”

How to figure homelessness and the desire for refuge in an idiom consistent with the present? Paint St Jerome? Hardly. He is a lapsed model of knowing in our post-Christian world, a dead sign. Marx’s interest in translating questions about belonging and embeddedness into a visual form however hold. Rootedness and estrangement are not simply expressions of a post-apartheid moment; they are quiddities of our global present. Resolving their expression in a visual form is tantamount to an act of translation.

In a 1923 essay that originally appeared in a German edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, Walter Benjamin describes translation as involving more than the mere transmission of information. Its ambition should be to relay “the echo of the original”. Translation in this sense, wrote Benjamin, is a “somewhat provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of language” and involves “touching the original lightly and only at the infinitely small point of the sense, thereupon pursuing its own course”. Understood figuratively, this description strikes me as somehow true of Marx’s joyful process in the studio. Rooted in the lapsed temporalities of old maps, his map drawings celebrate the possibilities of imaginative drifts and temporal flux. In his landscape of fragments there are only ever provisional moorings and contingent safe havens. Home is possible, yet also far off.

Sean O’Toole is a writer and editor living in Cape Town