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Spring 2001

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Brave new world: Pathfinding Tang exhibit explores mapping

     It’s not only a treasure-trove of actual maps—old, new, medical, artistic—but the very concept of mapmaking that’s under imaginative investigation in the new exhibit at Skidmore’s Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery. The World According to the Newest and Most Exact Observations: Mapping Art and Science, co-curated by Skidmore faculty and Tang staff, features some 100 map-related works and objects from such diverse fields as art, history, geography, and medicine.

Handheld Subway, painstakingly sliced from subway maps, by Nina Katchadourian

     The interdisciplinary idea that drives this show is that “mapping is a creative act for artists, geographers, and scientists alike,” explains Tang curator Ian Berry. “All the objects we’ve chosen from these different fields show how the act of making a map not only reflects our perceptions of reality but also shapes them. The unavoidable processes of mapmaking—simplifying, organizing, or spatially scaling up and down—both obscure and illuminate the things they represent.”

     The exhibition includes more than 50 maps and atlases from the past four centuries. Some of them take a stab at representing realities about which early mapmakers often had to guess, like the outside of the planet Earth and the inside of the human body. The co-curators also added map-inspired works by cutting-edge contemporary artists. The mixed-media results richly illustrate the curious phrase in the show’s title, “the world according to the newest and most exact observations.” Frequently found on antique maps, that inscription appears on several of the very old maps chosen by co-curator Susan Bender, associate professor of anthropology and associate dean of the faculty. From New York State Library special collections, the Library of Congress, and private collections (including that of Alan Voorhees, husband of the late Nathalie Potter Voorhees ’45), Bender chose a historical progression of maps to demonstrate increasingly precise and technically accurate examples of the cartographer’s art, beginning with a sixteenth-century Charte Cosmographique of the winds and following with maps that zero in on North America, then the eastern seaboard, the Hudson River, and finally Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Up the Nile, a bark sculpture (complete with delta) by John McQueen

     The show’s “mappings” of the human body follow a similar historical progression. They were selected from state and medical-college rare-book and museum collections by Bender’s husband, co-curator Richard Wilkinson, a professor of anthropology at SUNY-Albany. The medical maps range from a sixteenth-century anatomical atlas to exquisitely detailed eighteenth-century medical illustrations to up-to-the-moment maps of the human genome.

     “Clearly, the history of mapping is not simply a history of how humans have found their way through the physical space of landmasses, rivers, and the next frontier,” notes Berry.

     Among the nationally known artists whom Berry invited to join the exhibit is Sam Easterson, whose installation Animal, Vegetable, Video: Memories of Manhattan from a Millennium Ago replays videos shot with cameras strapped to living creatures (a deer, fox, lobster, and pitcher plant). For the exhibit, their stuffed stand-ins adorn a twenty-by-ten-foot topographical map of Manhattan, which Easterson formed by arranging extension cords on the gallery floor. (The pitcher plant’s video is not so static as one might expect: it shows a captured bug struggling in the plant’s poisonous cup.) Artist Joyce Kozloff contributed four desktop globes featuring worlds painted from her own imagination, and a fifth that stands nine feet tall, titled Targets. Visitors can walk right inside Targets, which is lined with maps of various foreign regions that have been bomb targets for the United States military.

A 1581 charte cosmographique illustrates far more than the four winds.

     Throughout the exhibition, tantalizing objects — a map of the Hudson River in scrimshaw on a powderhorn, a nineteenth-century model of a skull marked with phrenology zones, James Watson’s double-helix model of DNA—are displayed in arrangements that prompt surprising and resonant associations. For instance, a detailed, life-size human skeleton in Anatomical Manikin (c. 1900) relates nicely to Brooklyn artist Nina Katchadourian’s skeletal highway and subway lines painstakingly excised from route maps and displayed in boxes, petri dishes, and under glass. In one especially happy juxtaposition, an 1856 medical illustration of the human arterial system is displayed next to an equally venous 1835 diagram of the Hudson River and its tributaries; both fairly writhe with arteries and capillaries. It’s interesting to note that the same incredibly spider-fine lines appear in both a 1635 map of North America and the large genome map contributed by exhibition co-curator and Skidmore biology professor Bernard Possidente.

     Made possible with support from Friends of the Tang and the MapInfo Corporation, Mapping Art and Science is the subject of two Saturday family workshops exploring its themes as well as three crossdisciplinary dialogues between Skidmore faculty and artists participating in the exhibition.

     The exhibit runs through June 3; Tang hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. —BAM

Fly Circus

by Mae Banner

What’s a nice guy like Skidmore geneticist Bernard Possidente doing as co-curator of an art exhibition?

“I’m the fruit-fly wrangler,” he grins. Possidente explains that his contribution to the Tang’s new Mapping Art and Science exhibit is to illuminate the idea of genetic mapping. “I work with fruit flies in my genetics research.”

He says, “When I came to Skidmore, I inherited a lot of really old equipment, and I found a picture of the old lab at Columbia University where the science of genetics was born in 1911. They used to keep fruit flies in half-pint milk bottles they stole from people’s back porches, and they fed them on squashed bananas. They made the first genetic maps by studying the mutations that occurred over generations of fruit flies.” Possidente says those scientists were sophomores at the time; they later won the Nobel Prize for their work.

“It’s hard enough to understand what genes are, let alone how to map them,” Possidente says. “Yet almost every day you read how scientists have mapped the human genome. How do you get people to understand what that means? I decided to try to recreate that 1911 lab, and to go from there to the most recent map of human genes.” In a Tang gallery, Possidente has reproduced the old laboratory, complete with flies in bottles capped with wads of cotton (but no bananas: too smelly, he says). In the opposite corner of the gallery, he has set up a modern fruit-fly research lab.

The tiny flies—at one millimeter long, or “about one-fourth the size of a Rice Krispy,” says Possidente—have a life span of about two weeks, “so every couple of weeks, I’ll come and put new ones in the exhibit.”

On the walls are images from before scientists discovered genetics and objects from more recent work. “We have one of the original models made by Watson and Crick in 1953—a wire and metal model that represents molecules and DNA. Also, we got the original journal in which the genetic map made at Columbia was published,” says Possidente.

He adds that once you catch onto the idea that map-making is a conceptual process, you begin to see maps everywhere. Think about it: treasure maps, maps of the world’s languages, maps of the flight maths of migratory birds, census maps, maps to the best Cajun restaurants—the possibilities are endless. Possidente says, “We make maps to structure patterns in the world and relate them to ourselves, to create a reference point.”

This item was excerpted, with permission, from an article in the “What’s Happening” section of the Saratogian for March 1, 2001.

Upcoming at the Tang

June 16–August 19
Jonathan Seliger: Floor Model
paintings with canvases stretched, folded, and glued to form objects

June 30—September 16
Work: Shaker Design and Recent Art
furniture, tools, and other items from the Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham, N.Y.

For more, call 518-580-8080.

 


© 2001 Skidmore College