Capricious and Captivating Cartography

Swaying above you, filling the capacious rafters of Leadenhall Market, you’ll find a new map of London. Part of the city of London’s annual art extravaganza, Sculpture in the City, Amanda Lwin’s A Worldwide Web of Somewheres is going to change the way you see London and the way you see maps.

The famous historic Leadenhall Market, where Lwin’s new work hangs — part of the City of London’s public art exhibition Sculpture in the City

So let’s start simple. What actually is a map? A literal definition might read something like ‘a diagrammatic representation of an area of land or sea showing physical features, cities, roads, etc.’ While this is true, it’s limited. Almost boring really. It doesn’t even begin to hint at the multiple and exciting layers of meaning you can read from a map.

Perhaps a better question is this: What can maps show us? Again, there is a simplistic and literal answer to this. They can show us how to get from one place to another, what the land will look like and any key features in the landscape. This kind of answer takes maps to be fixed and stable objects. It suggests that maps have an authority, and are unbiased. Trustworthy.

But maps can also show us more, much more. They can also be much more than a literal representation of the world. If you stop thinking of a map as something authoritative and start thinking of it as something to be questioned. Whole new worlds (pun intended) are revealed.

Amanda Lwin certainly thinks of maps in this way. Lwin is an artist for whom maps are a constant source of inspiration and stimulation — more than that really, they’re they art that she herself creates. Her series Capricious Cartography of which A Worldwide Web of Somewheres is part makes maps that are far more unstable and ambiguous than traditional cartography. These are not maps which will tell you how to get from A to B. They’re much more exciting.

Another work in Lwin’s Capricious Cartography series, entitled ‘The Cartographer Tries to Map her Way to Deptford’ — the work hangs above heads of diners at Deli X, a cafe on Deptford High Street. Although apparently abstract, the lines and knots map out the location of power networks in Deptford, stretching from the Thames to New Cross Road. At dusk as darkness creeps over the courtyard, a network of glow-in-the-dark fishing-floats glimmer in the web. This network matches up with the location of constellations above the courtyard at the end of September.

Lwin’s maps show us things that are hidden. They map things we cannot see but are there nonetheless. For Sculpture in the City, Lwin has created a new map of London, showing us some of things that we can’t usually see. Instead of the usual streets and landmarks, A Worldwide Web of Somewheres charts charts the subterranean infrastructure of the City of London. Telephone and broadband lines meet with tube tunnels, electricity, water courses, and sewerage. These underground systems provide fundamental support to our lives above ground.

Curious to know more, Smartify ventured out to meet Lwin at her studio in Haggerston, one bright and sunny Friday morning in early June. The studio was light, quiet, with high ceilings and furnished sparely. A desk with a computer, a squishy leather armchair, the wall adorned with a few images and cuttings. Most importantly the work itself — folded up against one wall with rolls of twine strewn on a chair beside it and other maps for reference pinned alongside it.

Lwin herself is small and self-composed, with thick gold rimmed glasses. At first, she appears thoughtful, but when she talks, she’s enthusiastic. Like the water-courses which she depicts, Lwin has a liquid quality to her. Ideas rise and bubble up out of her, free-flowing and smooth-running. These ideas are not unprepared ramblings however, rather they are clear and considered, the product of research and thought.

A section of John Rocque’s Map of London from 1776 featuring the area which Lwin’s ‘A Worldwide Map of Somewheres’ also covers. The large water course which runs down the middle of the map to the Thames is the Fleet Ditch which was once an open sewage system but is now hidden underground — it’s one of the underground channels which Lwin charts

Sculpture in the City didn’t officially open for another couple of weeks, and so Lwin was still hard at work on her piece. Most of the artworks featured in the Sculpture in the City have already been created, Lwin is therefore quite unusual in creating one specifically for the show. However, tailoring the creation to the exhibition has allowed her to speak directly to the City of London and the rich texture of its history and environment.

And it was around these ideas that our conversation centred. Lwin trained as an architect, at Cambridge and then at UCL and I asked how this had affected the way she makes art now. Her answer was interesting. She remains (clearly) interested in the urban environment but ‘Architects are concerned with the end-point — the final manifestation of a project — I’m more interested in the processes by which things happen’ It’s these processes which really underpin our lives and shape our environment. Far more than the buildings themselves.

The next questions were about the inspiration behind her work. Over email, Lwin had told me that the work was inspired by the fishing nets of Polynesian fishermen. What were these nets? And how could serve as an influence for a new map of London? And what did they have to tell us about processes?

Lwin explained that somewhere in the residue of her memory, she had a sense that she had once seen these nets and explained what they were. Fishermen used their nets, not only to catch fish, but also to help them navigate. Woven into the lines and the notes of each net, are visual representations of the winds and currents of the ocean which the fishermen traversed. Using these ‘maps’, they were able to read their surroundings and travel vast distances in safety.

The winds and currents were forces which both controlled the fishermen, but also liberated them. They were a danger if read wrongly or fought against, but could also help the boats conserve energy in reaching their destinations.

Lwin thinks of London’s hidden infrastructure in the same way. Like the fishermen in their boats above water, we also live above a swirling mass of currents. And this infrastructure both helps and hinders us. The tube tunnels, the broadband cables, the sewerage networks — these are all things which ease our existence, make it easier, more efficient. However, they also control us. When they malfunction — so do we. Think about the on-running effects of a simple delay on the tube, or a sewage blockage, or when rats chew through a fibre-optic cable.

Seamlessly, Lwin moves on to talk in more detail about this idea of control and liberation. She gestures to her map — ‘It kind of looks like an animal trap, right?’. This is true, you can imagine trapping a large and unsuspecting wild beast — it’s that vast and substantial. ‘But, ‘ and she turns the idea on its head ‘hanging above you, it could also look an acrobat’s net.’ Waiting to save and to protect, allowing the gravity defying spectacular to take place above it.

Lwin’s map therefore gathers up ‘weaves’ this multiplicity of ideas and meanings together and solidifies them into one physical manifestation, where they exist comfortably alongside one another. When I asked her how she thought her work differed from others in the exhibition, she paused and then responded by calling it ‘perhaps more literary… and by that I don’t mean textual or more high-brow. More that you need to read into it, to see what’s there behind and between the lines.’ Far from simplistic 2-d image, A Worldwide Map of Somewheres is a map that has many dimensions. It’s a map that demands to be read in more than one way.

To find out more about Amanda Lwin click here.

She’s also working on her first curatorial project, Unreal Estates, which takes place this autumn in an unusual location.

To find out more about Sculpture in the City click here.

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