Gallery Wendi Norris’ exhibition Seeking Civilization: Art and Cartography ostensibly questions how mapping practices have been reformatted to reflect changes in citizenship, power, and nationhood. The exhibition draws its frame of reference from Robert Storr’s 1994 exhibition Mapping at MoMA, which included one of the same works featured here. The refrain by seven artists—the majority living within the rapidly shifting geography of the Bay Area—is one which situates us within a complex of overlaid cartographies, which cannot be delineated by the clear partitions and broad strokes of traditional mapping. Instead, these artists transform the flat surface of various maps into rugged terrain, full of fissures and interruptions.
Miguel Angel Ríos’ Le Premier Voyage à L’inconnu (1992-93) is positioned as the cornerstone of the exhibition. Featured in the 1994 MoMA show, it seems to foreshadow the deconstruction of space in the other works. Ríos’ large work takes on a map charted by Columbus’ expedition team in 1500 CE, depicting the Western, imperial vision of the Americas as a warped and inconsistent stretch of coastline. In Ríos’ version, the map’s borders are jagged and broken, painted in thick red acrylic. In alternating strips, he severs and offsets the landscape, truncating Columbus’ vision of totality within a dark void. Its surface is pleated in alternating chevron patterns, distorting Columbus’ sweeping vision of the continents. At a massive ten and a half feet, the pleats’ arrangement conjures imagery of tire tracks, as though the map were not merely a reference for direction but an imposed landscape in its own right. From a distance, it appears as a mirage, generating a shimmering vibration.
Other works share the encompassing scale of Ríos’, situating the viewer within the sculptural space of a map. Val Britton’s abstract work on paper Study for Voyage spans 17 feet. As a preparatory drawing for her much larger 55-foot public commission at the San Francisco International Airport, Britton’s piece combines drawing, watercolor, and collage to represent the chaotic network of trajectories, destinations, and travel routes that provide mobility for some against a backdrop of security checks and surveillance for others.
The red incandescence of Omar Mismar’s neon The Path of Love #3—a map tracking walking routes taken in the process of convening with various Grindr dates—permeates the space of nearby works, relighting the side room of the gallery with the glow of a late night city street or nightclub. The neon reaches over 10 feet to the ceiling, buzzing quietly and flickering with pulses of electricity. Few other sounds pervade the gallery space. Adrien Segal’s sculpture Grewingk Glacier reproduces the form of a receding Alaskan glacier in ice, cast from water collected at the foot of the glacier itself. A specially-designed pedestal collects the runoff in a hidden basin as the piece melts, disappearing one drip at a time. The process takes 72 hours until the waning artwork dissipates entirely. It will be recast twice a week during the exhibition’s run.
Across the gallery, Guillermo Galindo’s tattered flags, collected after their removal from water stations along the California-Baja border, are printed with sound scores. The abstract musical scores printed with Miro-like curves and transferred black-and-white imagery were created specifically for Seeking Civilization. They add an imagined sonic dimension to the exhibition, waiting to be read, played, or reinterpreted. Like other experimental scores by Galindo, they can be read in any direction and are responsive to the improvisatory inclination of the performer. Their tattered and sun-damaged edges and seams trail off like a pianissimo melody or a hushed lull in a musical performance. Other portions of the flag-scores are worried by stitching, imagery, and scar-like rips and tears, perhaps an anxious or frantic coda.
During the opening reception, Galindo performed a 15-minute sound piece titled Sonic Borders #2. The composition took form through a variety of refashioned object-instruments, whose parts (crushed plastic bottles, animal bones, a metal railroad spike, and rattles formed from found shotgun shells) were collected along the border. These sounds (the clanging of metal springs against various surfaces, the quavering of air blown across plastic bottles) were overlaid with the sound of Galindo’s own breath sampled and amplified through looping mixers and a stereo system. The resulting piece was atmospheric and foreboding, drawing together a sonic landscape of whistling high tones, heaving respiration, percussive rattling, and low, metallic drones. The instruments themselves function as artifacts of the border wall’s demarcated space, as the piecework of fragmented materials. Their brittle and leaden surfaces lend a specific, harsh quality to Galindo’s compositions.
Sonic Borders #2 proposes a process of nation-making and, perhaps, unmaking that shares much in common with the work of experimental avant garde composers of the twentieth century. Many of these composers’ works drew attention to the changing quality of a sound as a subject moves through an acoustic space (as with Raymond Murray Schafer’s World Soundscape Project) or the droning resonant frequencies unique to a specific architectural space (as with Alvin Lucier, I Am Sitting in a Room). Similarly, in Galindo’s instance, the emphasis is on the subjective experience of politically-formed space, from a collection of sonic elements sourced in the bisected desert landscape of our borderlands. As such, the architecture(s) of the US/Mexico border wall, as analyzed through the filter of acoustics, become one of political feedback loops, overlaid geographies, discordant stretches of cacophony, and a harsh, dissonant logic of division.
In Seeking Civilizations, the artwork may aim less at locating any distinct hub of culture or civilization so much as pointing out the flawed legacies emboldened by nationalist claims and cartographic grand narratives. By rewriting the idea of place with both ephemeral materials (ice, neon light, and sound) and distressed or folded surfaces, these artists return to the inconsistencies of geography—whether along borderlines, arctic extremes, or within San Francisco’s streets and airport terminals—to examine the common experience of seeking mobility.
Seeking Civilization: Art and Cartography runs March 23 - May 6 at Gallery Wendi Norris.