For a number of reasons the map has become the model and metaphor for the work of contemporary visual art. It is abstract at the same time as being representational. And it can never be mere decoration because it contains information even if we dont always have the key to decode it.
A map, however, is never innocent. It is always ideological. We only have to look at how the states are drawn on a map of the United States to see this. The borders only occasionally follow rivers or natural contours; for the most part they are the rectilinear result of political land distribution by settler powers. This diagram of the land would be as incomprehensible to the 19th Century indigenous inhabitants as their cosmologies would very likely have been to the European arrivistes.
The two long walls of the main gallery are dominated by five works assembled from assorted fabrics: felt, woven cloth and silk organza. Their jagged shapes are obviously the map outlines of territories, even if it isnt immediately clear which particular nations are being represented.
In two of these untitled maps, there are clusters of small, round marker pins which recall the wall maps of rooms where battles are planned, incidents investigated. In order to decode these works it is necessary to know that the contours have evolved by superimposing the map of the state of Wisconsin over the map of the province of Guizhou in southern China.
And where the two outlines overlap, other internal shapes are formed with blurred borders, where we may suppose an exchange has occurred between the Miao people of Guizhou and the settler population of Wisconsin. Or perhaps, more generally, a meeting between east and west.
But since contemporary art is increasingly an interdisciplinary art of ideas, the real interaction is between feminism and art, anthropology and sociology, and tradition and modernity.
Contemporary fiber art has its origins in the feminist initiative to have the traditional womens crafts of weaving, sewing and embroidery included in the high art of sculpture. Nene Humphrey is a fiber artist, originally from Wisconsin, who visited the Guizhou province to study the local weaving tradition. There, in the absence of a written language the historical narrative of the Miao people is recreated symbolically in the patterns stitched on the garments that are worked on and worn by the women of the tribe.
Since this is obviously a visual language that the outside world would find impossible to decipher, it serves the same purpose as the map of an unknown territory; its value lies not only in the fact that it has meaning, but that that meaning must be, at least to some degree, impenetrable to the stranger.
The major work in this exhibition is the large floor and wall installation that gives its title to the whole exhibition, Weaving Geographies. This work dominates the gallery space and in comparison, the untitled wall maps seem to be merely undeveloped sketches.
Weaving Geographies seems at first to be a three-dimensional map of the night skies. A dark blue curtain runs like wainscoting across the wall between two doors. Small specks of light pepper the blue curtain like starlight, but are in fact a pattern made by scattering grains of rice on the sensitized fabric before exposing it to sunlight, a process known as cyanotype.
On the curtain, thin red ribbons have been pinned at intervals, and then run down the wall and across the floor to attach to a crocheted circle. Around this red and blue crocheted sun are placed spheres or planets of various sizes resembling balls of ribbon rolled out on the floor.
Some are attached to the central circle, and some have broken free. Some remain isolated and others form clusters; small globes attach themselves to larger ones, like parasites. Connected and disconnected, all these small worlds revolve around the same center. What then does the center represent?
In her statement, Humphrey writes, Weaving Geographies explores the idea of weaving two cultures together while respecting their distinct threads of identity. Since the red and blue are woven through the same circle, the center must be the artist s idealist projection, a sort of spiritual core in which everything becomes unified, but also where all difference is erased.
What the artist has learned from the Miao people and applied here is the use of needlework to tell a story. In Humphreys narrative, it is the diagram of her proposed unity of the world.