I loathe to begin with a dictionary definition, but as a hypocrite comfortable with my own identity, then topography is defined as;
- the arrangement of the natural and artificial physical features of an area.“the topography of the island”
- the distribution of parts or features on the surface of or within an organ or organism.
I often think of topography as a somewhat neutral or distanced method of description. A topographical map can tell you that that there a big mountain to climb, a steep drop or a small stream without telling you how tired your legs will feel when you heave yourself to the top, the fear you’ll feel as you’ll look down, or that the stream will appear just as you’re gasping for water.
Those have nothing to do with the map.
It is topographical works of art that I am most drawn to. Her topographical approach is why I was drawn to Agnes Martin’s work in the first place. She simply marks what is there, marks out the landscape of the canvas; marks out the process of her pencil and rulers; marks out the process of her hand and it’s tiny mistakes. As a viewer, I can take from that what I like from that.
My experience might mimic Martin’s and become one of beauty and sublime heavenly perfection. Within those lines I might find peace, and calm and tranquility; a respite of order within mental chaos.
Or I might perhaps see reflected in it my mundane experience. Sewage grates; cutting mats; graph paper; contstruction fences. There is peace in that too – in having my exterior world become interior as it is extracted and laid in front of me.
Despite this, she remains maps her terrain with indifference.
The only thing that really exists on her canvas is the traces of her hand, ruler, pencil. That is all. Anything else is the viewer’s experience.
I talk of art like this because it seems to me the most truthful. I am wary of works that want me to feel, that guide my experience, that push me to feel something.
To map a surface, or a paint stroke, or a walk, or a human population is merely to record and to describe. There is a kind of inexplainable beauty in this, and to become devoid of emotion feels to me to reject fetishisation. I visited a room exhibition of 70s painting when I visited New York in January. It was in the Guggenheim I think. In it there was Frankenthaler, Louis and Noland.
Their works intrigued me because they were just about paint, but they didn’t make me feel nauseous like most paintings about paint do.
Instead of adoring it to the point of near religious fanaticism, they instead seemed to map it, to test it, to see what it could do. Louis especially. His works don’t love paint, but rather question it; test it. How does it function as a material; how does it interact with itself; what boundaries can it to be pushed to before it disappears into a dark, murky brown oblivion?
The works included here deal with mapping in a much more typical way, dealing with maps and data as expected. It’s pure information. A testing – an experiment.
I am drawn to topographical art because to me, that seems to be a way in which we might truly give the experience over to the viewer. I’ve written at length about practices ranging from the 1970s to contemporary sculptures that attempt to give ownership over the the viewer and fail as the artists cling on to their works.
Topography offers a solution to this problem. If we merely describe what is there and set up a plan for discussion, then the experience, rather than being preconceived, is opened up for us as an audience. Maps become imprinted with our lives, thoughts, dreams. We find what we want to in a grid, it’s presentation guiding us only as a form of meditation rather than gospel.