A question prompted by the maps that adorn the walls in Vermeer's paintings is whether they were primarily informative or decorative. Because maps are the products of scientific research it's easy to forgot that they are essentially pictures: diagrammatic images that approximate the physical world. And however accurate and current the information it provides, a map involves selecting the elements that best meet the user's preferences and preconceptions. As Kathy Prendergast has observed, "all maps are subjective". It is no surprise that artists adopt the aesthetics of maps to chart complex geographies of emotion, character and circumstance.
At the 1995 Venice Biennale Prendergast was one of two artists representing Ireland. Her exhibit included 49 of her City Drawings, a series-in-progress that aimed to create an individual cartographic sketch of every capital in the world. This was an ambitious project that on completion would comprise almost 200 drawings. Begun in 1992, before "globalisation" became a familiar term, the drawings gave a prescient perspective on the world, and Prendergast was awarded the Biennale's Duemila Prize for best young artist.
This was not Prendergast's first venture into mapping. Her Body Maps series, from 1983, used diagrammatic watercolours to signify cartography's role in control and exploitation, drawing on traditional cultural associations of the female body with the landscape, both presented as common territories to be colonised, excavated and cultivated for gain. In 1989 her tent-shaped map As Small as a World and as Large as Alone alluded to migration, habitation and the translocation of home, a theme that continued with her evocative emotional map series addressing the naming of places after events and experiences, a toponymy of love and loss.
The City Drawings created a particular challenge for Prendergast in representing real places but as points of departure. As she observed: "I started to think how I could make something that was rooted in reality" but could "also be about the imagination; and that's when I started to do the little city drawings".
Each city, regardless of size, is depicted on identically sized paper – a kind of democracy of scale, although more condensed cities indicate something of their weight and power in the world. In focusing on cities rather than countries, the series could be taken to imply the decline of the nation state, and the contemporary focus on cities as hubs in the complex transnational networks of finance, trade and transport and interpersonal social webs of technological communications. But by targeting capitals the national remains implied; typically, Prendergast’s work embodies the contradictions of reality.
The artist’s primary concern, though, was her maps’ impact as animate structures. Their evolution as arenas of human engagement can be seen in the spreading lateral networks of roads and pathways as they flow around rivers and green spaces, shaped by the contours of coastlines. Their organic growth means, though, that they remain open ended, indicating that no city can ever be completed. Similarly, the ultimate number of capital cities fluctuates in response to political change, so the parameters of the project itself remain ever fluid.
Although each city is recognisable, with familiar landmarks, these maps are devoid of any label, intentionally denying them the original role of maps as products of ordnance survey or military intelligence. The drawings approximate satellite views of cities – magisterial yet mute perspectives of places without words or textual signs.
You can read more about this week's artwork in the Royal Irish Academy's Art and Architecture of Ireland; ria.ie
Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks is a collaboration between The Irish Times and the Royal Irish Academy