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Scratching on a map to indicate where you have been around the world or hanging a map of your hometown on the wall, maps are not only functional but have also been elevated to art by many. What makes maps so special that they are used as art? And in what way does art play a role in the ongoing Maps unfolded exhibition - from atlas to street map at the Allard Pierson? Once a month, the Library highlights a theme from this exhibition. This time: contemporary art.
Reinder Storm
Picture of Reinder Storm, made by Folia

In the previous edition, we wrote that maps have always played an important role in human history. But in our modern world, maps are still indispensable. We refer specifically to the functions that maps have; they help you get from point A to point B. However, maps also have other applications, namely that of art. We discussed this with Reinder Storm, curator of cartography, geography, and travel at the Allard Pierson, the heritage collections of the University of Amsterdam, and part of the University Library.

What makes maps so special that they are used as art?

"Maps symbolise a place. A place where you come from, where you belong, or where you are going. Everyone has 'a place'. Seeing a place on a map stimulates the imagination and touches people emotionally." According to Storm, this can be a reason why people hang a map on the wall. "In addition, a map has all the characteristics of art. It is visual, colourful, stylised, flat (i.e. for hanging on the wall), decorative, meaningful, and also factual. Maps could be called a form of 'useful art.'"

Is hanging maps on the wall a recent trend?

"No, certainly not. In the past, people already hung maps on the wall. Hanging a map in the house showed an interest in science and a 'broader perspective' than just the living room," says Storm, referring to the painting De luistervink by Nicolaas Maes in the Maps Unfolded exhibition. It shows a map hanging in the house. "Even more famous are the maps in paintings by Johannes Vermeer. Maes did not paint a 'real' map; Vermeer did." Storm adds that hanging maps may also be a matter of financial reasons. "This form of art was probably cheaper than a painting."

You have enriched the Maps Unfolded exhibition by including works by artists who have been inspired by cartography. Can you tell us more about this?

"It is not uncommon for artists and heritage institutions to collaborate. There are several artists who are inspired by their surroundings. Given the characteristics of maps, artists can make good use of map material in their art. In our exhibition, works by contemporary artists Gert Jan Kocken, Remy Jungerman, Jan Rothuizen, and Qiu Zhijie can be seen." But sometimes it happens the other way around, Storm says. "It also happens that an artist creates maps that become art and are included in an exhibition as such. For example, see the work of designer Sebas van den Brink. The Allard Pierson has already received some beautiful works from him for the collection."

Reflections by contemporary artists

The Allard Pierson invites contemporary thinkers and artists to reflect on its heritage collections in the supplementary exhibition Open Map Reflections (opening on April 7th). Historical pieces are given a new context by the artists Gert Jan Kocken (1971), Remy Jungerman (1959), Jan Rothuizen (1968), and Qiu Zhijie (1969), who each provide their own unique interpretation of themes such as the treatment of colonial past, war and violence, mapping of identity, and capturing images of time.

In his work, Gert Jan Kocken uses historical maps and documents and overlays them to analyze, connect, and understand the past. In the work Depictions of Rotterdam 1940-1945, he captures various events in Rotterdam in one layered map.
As an illustrator, Jan Rothuizen maps out places, people, and situations. His style is a combination of cartoon drawing and cartography. With light and accessible texts and drawings, he brings the depicted places to life and makes complex themes discussable. Rothuizen is inspired by how an environment affects the people who move within it.
Western philosophy and Chinese history are important influences in the work of Qiu Zhijie. He literally maps out cultural, societal, and emotional infrastructures. His maps of life resemble traditional Chinese ink paintings of landscapes. However, upon closer inspection and reading, it becomes clear that there is a world of imagination and associations hidden behind them.
Remy Jungerman's love for abstraction is inspired by the art of the De Stijl movement and the grid of maps. He also incorporates colonial history and his own past in his artwork. The work Orgade (2008), which uses fragments of (Dutch) maps, is a testament to Jungerman's love for the grid and primary colours, which also refer to Winti, an Afro-Surinamese religion.

The exhibition Open Map - From Atlas to Streetmap can be seen from 2 March to 20 August 2023. The supplementary exhibition Open Map Reflections opens on 7 April.

See also the previous article in the Maps Unfolded series, about The Opening.