Presented at The Cultural History of Cartography: A Symposium
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
English and Women’s Studies
25 - 26 October 2012
Diccon Bewes, a British citizen partnered with a Swiss and manager of the Stauffacher English Bookshop in Bern, is the author of Swiss Watching: Inside Europe’s Landlocked Island, published and reprinted three times in 2010 and recently translated into German. If Switzerland were an island, Bewes suggests, it would be the 4th largest in Europe, after Great Britain, Iceland, and Ireland, and its mountains would be the equivalent of the sea, “the soul of the country and the reason it is the way it is, beautiful and inviting, yet defensive and unwelcoming.” On the one hand, Switzerland is 200 kilometers from the nearest seaside; on the other hand, it is in the heart of a continent surrounded on every side by countries that belong to the EU and have adopted the Euro. A landlocked island, it has acted like an island for much of its history, living in splendid isolation with a strong sense of self-determination and an idealized sense of its past.
For some reason, discussions of Switzerland in the English-speaking world necessarily begin with a map. This will prevent the country from being relocated to Scandinavia, where it frequently is confused with Sweden, or translocated to Portland, Oregon, where Bill Maher in his 2005 HBO special entitled, “I’m Swiss,” expresses his horror at George Bush’s reelection by renouncing his American citizenship and announcing that he has become Swiss.
Bewes and Maher’s maps are hand-drawn and locate spatially the clichés associated with Switzerland—the Matterhorn, the Chalet, the St.Bernard—while at the same time locating the country in relationship to its neighbors because its exact geographical location remains obscure.
We could call this kind of map-making “naïve cartography,” the term Aleksandra Mir uses to refer to three series of maps she has drawn with Sharpies, namely The World from Above (2003-4), Church of Sharpie (2005) and Switzerland and Other Islands, which was exhibited in the Zurich Kunsthaus in 2006, and will be the focus of this talk.
Aleksandra Mir was born in Communist Poland in 1967, grew up in socialist Sweden in the 1970s, spent 15 years living in capitalist New York City, moved to Palermo, Sicily and is currently living in London. She studied media and communications in Gothenburg, Sweden, received her BFA in Media Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York and studied cultural anthropology at the New School. A citizen of Sweden and the US, she says, “I wear all my national identities like second-hand clothes: loose old T-shirts, baggy jeans and borrowed sneakers. They all kind of fit, but not really.”
Mir probably is best known for The First Woman on the Moon, a project that took place in 1999 on a Dutch beach where ten bulldozers created a crater in the sand and Mir planted an American flag. She was interested in the man-made nature of one of the widest beaches in Europe, as well as the 30th anniversary of the Moon landing as both media event and as coinciding, more or less, with the years in her lifetime. It was a zero-budget production that took five months to plan and had to disappear, i.e. return back to normal, the same day. Fifty volunteers, two municipalities, a steel factory and three TV stations participated and press releases were sent out all over the world saying the first woman was going to land on the moon. What only twelve people in the world had actually experienced had become everyone’s mediated reality and in turn everybody was welcome to come up on the Moon. People climbed up on the sand and said: “I’m the first black man” or “I’m the first German.” Seven years later, a documentary video of this work was in the collection of both the Guggenheim and the Tate Modern.
Mir wanted to put a woman on the moon before the end of the millennium, knowing it wasn’t going to happen. She was not interested in rewriting art history or the male quest in land art. Rather than changing institutions, she wants to find out about the world and play herself against it. The utopias of the 1960s, the decade of her birth, are fundamental to everything she does, but she is most interested in how utopian experiments fail. Many of her projects are sparked by contemporary events or mark anniversaries within the time span of her lifetime, and half of her ideas, she claims, never come to fruition. Culture itself is opaque, Mir says, “almost like physical clay, material to be manipulated by and to manipulate in return. Being a conceptual artist is not about resolving some kind of mathematical problem; it is more like being in a car crash. It happens and then you just have to deal with it because the consequences are too powerful to be ignored.”
Mir turns to drawing as a way to break away from her big, public, socially complex projects. The first of several series is entitled The World from Above, which takes what she calls a simple bird’s eye view of the planet, zooming in on random sites, some with loaded political meaning like the Gaza Strip and others completely neutralized, like Central Park. "Naïve cartography" refers to drawing from existing maps, "so my freehand translations inevitably become naïve renderings of modern cartographic technologies: they resemble the maps made by the early explorers of our world.” She likes the idea that people who live there can complete the drawing with their own references and so the maps are never finished.
The drawings are all made with Sharpies—thick, indelible, felt-tip pens—on paper. Sharpies are what she calls an unpretentious tool in her immediate environment and in the environment of the general public, allowing her access to a “vernacular present.” The maps are simple line drawings, minimalist in their representation, not of the world or of individual countries, but of the place on the map where two countries meet.
The second series, entitled Church of Sharpie, consists of a series of maps of the US created with the assistance of 16 students. The project took 6 weeks to complete in a temporary studio in the East Village, during which Mir made the outlines of 20 maps (190”x120”) overnight and her assistants were given the task of filling them in with varying patterns and various shades of grey, depending on how new or used the Sharpie was, during the day and evening. The maps are not formal collaborations in that Mir is the sole author and owner, and yet she gives her assistants the freedom to draw any motif inside of a personal square.
The title of the series Church of Sharpie began as an insider’s joke among her assistants and refers to the rise of American evangelism under the George Bush administration. Given English as a second language, Mir suggests she might make mistakes or sound uneducated, but how different would that be from the candidate who became president?
She begins with the familiar outline of the map of the US and instead of locating place names, she inscribes slogans that define some aspect of Americanness. She is simply feeding slogans back to where they came from.
The maps are political maps questioning certain kinds of ideological positions, where they come from, what effects they have, and whether or not they can be contained within national boundaries. They represent a familiar outline of a country posing as a continent, as a kind of island that can disregard its neighbors.
About Switzerland and Other Islands, Mir says: “The show was conceived on the urban jungle island of Manhattan, produced on the fertile island of Sicily, and exhibited at the political island of Switzerland.” Islands for her represent what she calls, "the impossibility of isolation, marked by the relationship between borders and boundaries as points of awareness that need to be transcended.” Switzerland for her represents friendships, research into photographic archives, and a helium inflated airplane sculpture suspended in a permanent state of landing at the Zurich airport.
The 2006 exhibit at the Zurich Kunsthaus, curated by Marjam Varadinis, represents Mir’s first solo show in a major art museum. The Kunsthaus commissioned Mir to think about Switzerland as a political island in the heart of Europe, for which she produces 32 drawings, 4x6 meters in size, that represent political, geographical and mythological islands, including a series of undiscovered islands.
I begin with a set of installation views, which take into consideration the context of the museum, its architecture and collection. On the one hand the image rejects the notion of the map as a collectable by standing at sharp angles to its environment; on the other hand it recognizes its location by providing the viewer with a map of the country in which the museum is located. The first map of Switzerland is positioned under a mural likewise commissioned by the museum in 1916, by Ferdinand Hodler, perhaps the most iconic Swiss artist. The title of the mural, View from Infinity, represents a series of female figures that could be continued into infinity by relying on variations of a single pose. The feminine as eternally recurring figure is transformed by Mir, first by appropriating the possibility of the infinite in her series of islands and then by regendering the island as not primarily the site of the boy’s adventure story.
The exhibition poster Isola Svissera refers to a tradition of map-making that places the island in the middle of the sea surrounded by four continents as a way to represent its place in the world. Elaborate ornamentation depicts a series of sea monsters, but also foregrounds an icon from another island nation, namely Hello Kitty!, where the sea monster becomes the domestic feline and historical iconography takes the form of popular fiction.
In Insula Svizzera the word island changes from Italian to Latin and shifts the detail from what we imagine about the sea to what we know about the land through voyages of discovery where what Switzerland discovers potentially with its own ships is ultimately itself.
Lac Suissy suggests that the ships are not external but internal, sailboats on Switzerland’s many lakes that serve as one of its main tourist attractions, surrounded this time not by ornamentation that threatens from the unknown but by what contains through infinite domestic labor. The ornamental border references the lace doily as a kind of island on the surfaces of the bourgeois interior.
The final representation of Switzerland as an island sees it as an asteroid, living in the splendid isolation of outer space, where the insignificance of the country is remarked on by the impossibility of it ever having a space program. But inasmuch as there are millions of asteroids, Switzerland will become one of many in the infinite rather than alone at the continental center. As Russell King observes in Geography, Islands and Migration in an Era of Global Mobility, islands are good at emigration but bad at immigration, especially those that see themselves as small islands with a high population density. The boat quickly becomes too full. Switzerland’s own islandness, as a non-EU country, as the site of so-called offshore banking, and as a model in miniature of the very thing it refuses to belong to, namely a unified, multilingual Europe, results in a refusal to join, but also in a fear of invasion. Islandness leads to insularity, to a kind of geopolitical castle that refuses the in-migration of minarets. Tourism, after all, relies on a stay that is always temporary.
“Naïve cartography” enables Aleksandra Mir to engage in a form of political discourse through which she makes arguments about what she holds to be true of the world. What is also true is that the Swiss have been master cartographers, beginning in the late 15th century with Konrad Türst and continuing in the 19th with the maps of Guillaume-Henri Dufour and into the 20th with Eduard Imhof. The tradition of more recent topographical maps is characterized by terrain representation that employs shaded relief, in which warmer colors are used for higher elevations and cooler ones for lower areas. What we think of as Switzerland can easily be made fun of, especially on a map, but when it is done well, like the topographical map, no one remembers it was perfected, if not invented, by a Swiss.
Bewes, Diccon, Swiss Watching: Inside Europe’s Landlocked Island (London: Nicholas Brealey, 2010)
Bollen, Christopher, “Interview with Aleksandra Mir,” The Believer (Dec 2003/Jan 2004)
Burnett, Graham D., “Maps, Bodies, States,” Lincoln Center Theater Review (54 (Winter 2010), 21-22
Hollings, Ken, “An Inventory of Other Islands.” Published in conjunction with the exhibition “Aleksandra Mir—Switzerland and Other Islands,” London, May/June, 2006
King Russell, “Geography, Islands and Migration in an Era of Global Mobility,” Island Studies Journal 4:1 (2009), 53-84
Schmidt, Heinrich, “Interview with Aleksandra Mir,” Vernissage-TV, Zurich, Aug 2006
Sgualdini, Silvia, “How To Do Something With Nothing: Interview with Aleksandra Mir,” UOVO, Torino, Dec 2006