Saskia Jordá: Cartographer of Memory
What do you get when you combine cartography, haberdashery, migration and memory with the fertile, innovative mind of an artist? Saskia Jordá. Jordá is fascinated by the origins of cultural identity, especially in a day and age where international mobility is commonplace. She uses maps of places she has lived in or traveled through to build abstract and distorted sculptural “cartograms” – including installations built from industrial woolen felt that transform from topographical to archaeological. Works that could seamlessly fit in both modern art and natural history museums.
Originally from Caracas, Venezuela, Jordá works in site-specific installations, drawings, and performances, and has exhibited throughout the world. Some of her work’s common themes include obscure anatomy, the evolution of a second skin, and the body as an alternate artifact. Her most recent exhibition at the Modified Arts Gallery in Phoenix, Arizona was entitled Cartograms of Memory. As she describes it, Cartograms is “using the experience of ‘displacement’ as a point of departure, and the vocabulary of mapping as the mode of expression.” Recently, (de)Classified Editor Heather Falconer chatted with Jordá about her work, inspiration, and the function of maps in modern life.
How did the idea of cartography come to you as a basis from which to create? Is there a story behind the map that began your maps?
It’s been in and out of my work for the last few years. I used to work in 2-Dimension, then performances, and now I’m going back and forth between 2-D and installations. Maps have always been around me – my mother worked for an airline and she would come home with piles and piles of maps of places we were going to travel. Visually, aesthetically, they were really exciting: looking at the lines and composition. When I traveled with my parents, the first stop would always be a museum – an art museum, museum of natural history – and these places always had maps.
Also, I grew up watching my grandmother, who was a seamstress. I’d watch her make patterns on paper with abstract lines and see them turn into a dress or blouse. It made me think about mapping the body – how these pieces of paper fit together to make 3-D maps of the body, how the lines graphed the body onto a 2-D plane, how our bodies relate to space and travel, and how we in turn become the line makers in a larger geographical area. I like zooming in and out in a micro–macro way.
Maps are also another language – it’s a universal language, but very specific. You need to learn the language in order to interpret a map.
How would explain your approach? Why is cartography an important focus for you?
I use maps and mapping as I would another language and as a powerful tool for communication. Almost everyone can relate to maps. A map is more than just a two-dimensional representation of a space. It is an extension of personal space, a record of visible and invisible paths that shift and change according to our perceptions. Maps can be simply ordinary tracings of land or complex depictions of personal experience. I have been exploring both the more traditional maps and the more abstract ‘personal maps’ that graph a dynamic combination of physical, emotional, and imaginary space – a memory space.
My most recent exhibition, Cartograms of Memory, features a large-scale abstract installation as well as a collection of smaller embroidered maps that are fictional combinations, extractions, and fragments of land, water, and memory places. Together they create a story of remembrance.
How do the materials you use inform the finished work? What is the significance of felt?
I have been using industrial woolen felt as my medium for various reasons: its seductive and tactile qualities, the historical connection to migration (e.g. its use in making tents for the nomadic lifestyle), and the association with ‘comfort and safety’ offered by felt as a soft layer of protection.
As a literary journal, Fringe focuses on the written word and the ways those words can be manipulated to evoke certain thoughts and emotions in the reader. Sometimes this is accomplished through syntax, sometime arrangement on the page. It seems that many experimental writers are playing with words and form to tap their readers in new ways. What is the artist-viewer dialectic for you? Do you create with the end user in mind?
I can’t make work just for the user; there has to be a personal connection to the work for me. I often wonder when making work if the user will get what I say; sometimes it matters, and sometimes it doesn’t. I try to make work that toys with an idea, but I’m also an object maker. I’m conscious of the audience – but there are various levels to the experience. My work starts with the personal, but also relates to an immediate, larger context, like migration and finding placement in the world. I live in Arizona, a state with a lot of mobility – the snowbirds come down in the winter and leave in the summer, so there is a large shift in population.
Also politically — with all the immigration changes in the last year and the economy – I’m conscious of how that relates to the larger picture in the US. People are moving back into their family homes, for example. It’s interesting to me how people in the US seem to move every five years, versus the people I know in Spain and Venezuela who stay in their homes for life. It’s rare to find people in the US who stay in one place for extended periods of time.
You mentioned politics and immigration. Has the Arizona legislation affected your work at all?
Not me personally because I’m a citizen, but I have watched how it has affected people around me. The level of fear has grown. I watched twenty houses go empty and up for sale quickly because people are afraid, and workers on the farms have been up and leaving.
Can someone viewing and experiencing your installations learn about you? And do you hope that they might learn something about themselves through the experience? Is there a lesson that you hope a viewer walks away having learned?
I think indifference is probably the worst reaction – if they walk in and learn something about me and my travels, if they see something that reminds them of something they have done or places they’ve been, that’s great. If they are indifferent then it’s sad. It’s not 100% necessary for them to learn about where I’ve lived and where I’ve visited. I want them to walk away with a sense of their own journeys and how they travel and how they look at their own surroundings – even their daily route to the supermarket. I hope that they become more in touch with their own trajectory. People will see what they want to see…some of my maps are based on specific places, like Maricopa County. It is fun to see if people can identify them. Just that they can identify the maps is interesting, and that they tried.
So, then, what role do you feel maps play in modern life? What is their significance?
Perhaps we need these maps as a way to piece together our own story?
Maps are seductive to me; they evoke a sense of adventure, and provide a way of journaling my experiences – chronicling my movement and memory. These are fundamental responses for me, having very little to do with modernity, per se.
Like mapping food: my memory is so distinctly connected to the scents and tastes. I remember the place I had the best plum, the best coffee… I’ve compiled a crazy map of food in my memory. I’ve never tried to map this, but I have a friend that made a map of hand-painted food signs throughout the US: hotdogs, hamburgers, tacos… I sometimes wonder what my food map would look like. It would become an experiential map, rather than one that provides direction or information.
I wonder, also, if mapping has become a fashion word. I think people use the term more loosely now, because we are looking for ways to connect with places and memories, and other people’s memories, and it’s a way to weave together a story through these little vignettes. We are definitely getting more abstract, but then you look at early maps of, say, what America looked like. These were based on a wild guess. Science has almost perfected clarity and now we have satellites and Google Maps, all the technology to take away the guessing. Now we are starting to go back to making things not clear and making places and memories more abstract.
Have you noticed that people, especially in rural places, sometimes give directions based on what used to be there, but is no longer? Like “take a right where the old sign used to be.” Those kinds of experiences are very interesting to me. People will happily draw a map for you, but there is a large level of distortion in personal maps that is interesting and curious – that’s where artists working with maps are tapping in. Rather than using exact measurements like kilometers, they are more focused on the experiences embedded in these lines that are sometimes silent and sometimes screaming.
You’re a collector of maps yourself. What sort of maps are these and how long have you kept them?
At a very early age – about 9 – I started keeping the maps from my travels, but when I moved from Venezuela to the US I had to throw many of them away. My stack of maps includes everything from road maps to contour maps – whatever my mom got at work, what was discarded, she would bring home – aeronautical maps, you name it. Friends save me their geological maps; I save urban planning maps in books. Subway maps fascinate me because besides having to be really efficient, they are very abstracted, and graphically exciting.
And sewing patterns, I consider those maps too. I worked in a fabric shop for a while and would take home discarded patterns. I often used them in my 2-D works and overlapped them to make fictional maps. They’re inspiring, and mysterious in some ways. When I work with them, I feel like an anthropologist, but rather than convey clear information I am trying to mix it up.
I wouldn’t say that I have a collection of rare maps; most of my collection is relatively common. But together they tell a ‘rare’ story.
What do you do with the maps that you collect? Are they mostly for inspiration, or do they serve as art in the same way your pieces serve people visiting your installations?
In my most recent exhibit, Cartograms of Memory, I use maps of places I have lived in or have traveled through to build abstract and distorted sculptural cartograms that speak of mobility, migration, displacement, and in the end, the finding of new ‘placement.’ The large forms are cut out of felt, then pieced together by sewing. A portion of this installation forms a suspended mesh of abstracted maps, representing the ‘displacement,’ while the opposite end rests grounded on the floor like a topographical map, referencing the sense of ‘placement.’ They are connected by a mid-section that acts as a transition between them, the space between chaos and order, emotional and rational, displacement and placement.
I’ve read that your “artwork serves as an exploratory map of the artist’s experience of migration and physical displacement.” Are your installations mostly about place, or are you interested in the mapping of the human body and its changes as a result of migration?
A combination of both. ‘Place’ and ‘space’ are closely linked for me. In my work I often explore the relationship between space and body, (personal space, intimate space, mind space, language space) and how it is perceived culturally. My recent works have expanded this relationship by combining the different possibilities of space/place, and overlapping them into complex layered pieces. They have provided me with a framework in which to explore my own changes as a result of migration, and my own sense of placement.
I love that you have a reference to Italo Calvino in your work (Calvino’s Imaginary Islands). Has he had any influence on your mapping? I assume it’s not coincidental that he has “mapped” with words.
I love Calvino’s writings. I have been particularly inspired by his book Invisible Cities, where he describes a series of places that are fictional and often given the personalities of women. He has had some influence in how I think about the character of an imaginary place. For example, in my recent piece Calvino’s Imaginary Islands, an archipelago of little felt islands crawl up a wall, each with its own distinct personality – I leave the viewer to imagine the life of each island.
Not to put you TOO much on the spot, what are your thoughts on the work of Edward Tufte? Do you see a place for Tufte’s minimalist approach in the art world, or would you relegate it more to the world of information design?
Hmmm. I first came across Tufte’s work in his Envisioning Information book and as compelled as I am by his approach, my work tends to invert and distort information rather than clarify it, as he does.
I don’t know about his place in the art world. I think the lines are really blurred nowadays. The boundaries between art, product design, architecture, etc., are very blurry. You’ve got sculptors doing product design, architects doing installations – people are crossing borders. Because Tufte’s trying to clarify information, maybe he’d go in the latter group – into information design – since he’s more focused on increasing the function of visual materials. Though, having said that, some of the work he has done is really beautiful. I would hang it on the wall and enjoy it aesthetically. But does that make it art because we hang it on a wall? I keep my maps in a box!
I suppose we’re opposites – he tries to make maps really clean and concise, but I’m more interested in making them more abstract. He wants to make a map readable, but I’m not so interested in making it that way. I prefer to make it more abstract. Besides, how do you visually map memory? It’s going to look like a bunch of lines and textures, who knows? I struggle with a definition of what mapping memory means. We try to define it, but our definition only works for us – it could be totally irrelevant to someone else.
A good example was my Cartograms of Memory piece, where I made a giant web of lines that derived from cartograms of places I have lived in. The result was very abstract and its meaning was probably more relevant to me than to my audience. Something funny happened when people viewed this giant floating mass of maps – most could see something that resembled a collection of dinosaur bones, much like a specimen hanging in a museum of natural history. After hearing numerous comments similar to this, my assistant started calling it Mapasaurus. The name stuck, and now I endearingly refer to it as such.