The Gentle Author visited Adam Dant in his studio in Club Row off Redchurch Street to learn of the origin of his fascination with drawing maps and the pursuit of creative cartography
What brought you to the East End of London?
I came here in 1993, directly from Rome where I spent a year as the Rome Scholar in Printmaking at the British School. I had often visited Brick Lane and Petticoat Lane markets in the past and, growing up in Cambridge, always entered London via Liverpool Street Station. The badly-lit, derelict streets surrounding Spitalfields Market where meths drinkers gathered around bonfires of orange boxes seemed very dark and dodgy – quite the antithesis of Cambridge with its culture of Reason, savoir faire and sandstone gothic pinnacles. On the evening I returned from Rome, the artists Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas were hosting the closing party for their shop in the Bethnal Green Road and I bought bottles of brown ale from The Dolphin pub on what seemed to be a very gloomy Redchurch Street, unaware that I would be moving to this neighbourhood within a few weeks.
Tell me about your studio.
Before I moved in, this building was a mini cab office but it was forced to close because the massive aerial on the roof was interfering with neighbours’ television signals. I used to take cabs from here, and I have a vague memory of walking past one evening and seeing it being attacked by a mob of angry scaffold-pole-wielding rival mini cab drivers. Inside it was a mess, a filthy grey carpet with haphazardly-trimmed edges and a couple of Space Invaders games in the corner. I lived here in my studio on Club Row for several years when I was a bachelor. When I moved in, I found I had the benefit of half a dozen phone lines and a stack of business cards with a blue car graphic and the words Tower Cars, Fully Insuranced. These ‘fully insuranced’ owners had sawn all the bannisters off the staircase which had a length of carpet nailed to it in a random fashion. Upstairs, an ancient water heater held together with dried-out masking tape was dripping in the corner and chicken wire covered the windows.
Was the whole street like that in the nineties?
Almost everything in the neighbourhood had become a crumbling wreck while under the dubious charge of landlords who were too parsimonious to spend any money on buildings that seemed to them no more than burdensome elderly relatives, even if they were in possession of bountiful legacies.
In one attic, an entire wall wobbled dangerously when I lent against it. ‘Don’t worry, there’s a few more years left in that,’ the landlord told me reassuringly, meaning, ‘If you think I’ll be spending any money on this place, dream on.’ Once I stood with a neighbour and his landlord in an ex-sweat shop, watching flames from a pre-war ceiling mounted gas heater singe a mildewed flap of wallpaper. ‘Yes, I think the burner seems to be working fine,’ he reassured us, before stepping over a missing floorboard and walking downstairs to his waiting Bentley.
The building adjoining my mini cab office was left derelict and empty for eight or nine years after my arrival. Every few weeks, the owner would appear in a van and throw bundles of leather trimmings through the doorway. Rats lived amongst the crumbling bin bags and moulding strips of leather inside. During dinner at my neighbours, one of the rats pushed a loose brick from the wall and stuck his furry face through the gap, which rather spoiled the cheese course. Yet despite regular enquiries, none of these people either wanted to sell or restore their collapsing assets and, even today, some of these buildings have received no attention since the blitz.
At the time I was working at Agnews, the old master picture gallery on Old Bond Street. Some Irish labourers came into the gallery one afternoon and asked if anyone wanted to buy some oak floorboards. They had been using them as ramps for their wheelbarrows while gutting the old Barclays Bank which was to become a handbag shop. I persuaded them to deliver these concrete-splattered planks to my studio the next day for a hundred pounds in cash, and I planed and sanded the hefty wide boards and fitted them upstairs. Downstairs served as The Gallerette for a year. I laid a smart parquet floor there to improve the acoustic for an audio exhibition which sounded muffled without it and I painted the ceiling in the style of the Palazzo Altieri one rainy Bank Holiday.
Did you find yourself part of a community?
Yes, the community I had entered and which coalesced around me was quite tight, due in part I think to the geography of the neighbourhood which felt like a walled enclave. It was called The Boundary. The Bengali people who lived on the Boundary Estate worshipped at two mosques on Redchurch Street and ran the butcher’s shops, grocers and garment factories, sometimes socialising at St Hilda’s, our local community centre – where I went to play badminton and run off pamphlets on the ancient Gestetner printing machine.
Here on Redchurch Street, my neighbours worked mostly in creative fields. There were furniture designers, a stained glass artist, a saxophonist, a gang of Italian lesbian anarchists who drove round in a fiat cinquecento painted in pink leopardskin, a playwright, a documentary filmmaker, a rubber garment maker and many more. They lived in the curious collection of abandoned warehouses, shops and offices, and were to be found every night in The Owl & Pussycat, an ex-dog-fighting pub, where the area’s history was a frequent subject of discussion. Everyone had read Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago and knew the exact location of Shakespeare’s original Theatre. They spoke about the arcane origins of the street names, claimed that a ‘ley line’ ran directly through the nicest house and on towards the bandstand at Arnold Circus. I painted a map which was an aerial view of the area for my friend James Goff who had pioneered this neglected neighbourhood even before the artists arrived in Shoreditch.
How did your map-making evolve?
The second map I made of my neighbourhood was an attempt to encapsulate the history and the lore of the place as a world unto itself. The area had quite distinct edges, so I depicted Shoreditch as literally a distinct world, wrapping the streets around an imagined globe – a reference to Shakespeare – with his theatre and characters populating my map.
After this, I wanted to create a map of the area in the present day. The idea of creating a map of Shoreditch as it appeared in the dreams of residents came from hearing friends in The Owl & Pussycat describe how, in their nocturnal reveries, they had all shared visions of Shakespeare’s theatre at New Inn Yard. Pursuing Carl Jung’s concept of collective dreaming, I visited the Jungian Institute for a symposium on this notion. It was hilarious. A young German woman with a severe haircut and a clipboard took notes as the assembled ragbag of North London Jungians, unaware of just how much they were revealing, described incidents from their dreams.
‘Suddenly my mother appeared and snapped my spectacles in two,’ was a gem offered to the group by a confused-looking, frail, elderly man in a tweed jacket. A gushy young woman with a dense mass of black wavy hair spoke of ‘a huge wave which keeps rushing on and on but never seems to break.’ Despite offering gold dust for the novelist, this was not what I was seeking for my map. So I asked local cafe owners to distribute pamphlets I had produced among their customers, inviting residents to recall any dreams that took place in Shoreditch. Over a few months, I collected descriptions of around sixty dreams set in the neighbourhood and my Dream Cartography of Shoreditch employed the streets and buildings as the landscape for entirely personal subconscious encounters.
What attracts you to draw maps?
I think my Map of Shoreditch in Dreams illustrates why cartography as a visual form appeals to me. The familiar, the quotidian and the eternal elements of a place can all be captured on a map, with the streets, the topography and the features providing the language to manifest a precise vision of a subjective reality, which might otherwise be overlooked in favour of a more mundane perspective.
In producing my maps, I seek to depart from the obvious and superficially useful qualities of cartography. Instead, by pursuing unexpected, unlikely or challenging methods of structuring or rendering the landscape of a place on paper, I hope the outcome is a work of art rather than just a means to get from A to B.
A map can be a puzzle or a game – a pictorial space where a viewer can travel through time and project themselves into history. Unlike a photograph or a topographic view, which records a location in a moment in time, a map is a representation of a place where we continue to extend the threads of physical history even if these are no longer visible due to being buried or trodden underfoot.
Even when the buildings remain, the sites of our daily engagements and our cherished urban nooks and crannies are constantly being refashioned and repurposed until they disappear. The layout of our streets are dug up, rationalised and reordered. Consequently, our cities get transformed beyond recognition. Yet even when they are razed to the ground, all the places where we walk are essentially constant. In the widest and most profound sense, they part of a cosmic cartography that is eternal, infinite and immutable. As long as we live, they live in whatever form we care to imagine them.
Do you have a favourite cartographer?
John Ogilby, the seventeenth century Scottish cartographer, designed his road maps as trompe l’oeil scrolls, depicting solely what the traveller needed to know, cartographically speaking, in order to get from one place to another. The exclusive nature of such maps embodies the familiar notion that what the artist leaves out is as important as what they include. In creating my maps, subdivision and organisation of the source material takes place in a manner comparable to an artist laying out colours on a palette in preparation for a painting. This categorisation inevitably ends up as lists, which means that – unlike a painter – a cartographer always knows the moment when the work is finished, once the last item on the list has been ticked off.
Of course, there will always be something missing even from the best maps ,otherwise there would be no need for explorers. In 2002, during the World Cup in Japan, I produced a map which could be folded up and hidden in the heel of a shoe. In the style of John Ogilby, it showed the most direct route from London to Japan, identified borders, features of topography and the major cities. I provided useful phrases in the languages of all the countries traversed and suggested items which might be collected and used for barter en-route, as well as predicting climate and weather conditions to be anticipated along the way, and even offering panels where fans could record the progress of their teams towards the final when they arrived.
How is it possible to draw more than one map of the same place?
Many of my maps depict the immediate locale of my home and studio. Although my original intention in making a different map of Shoreditch every year was to familiarise myself with the area where I had chosen to live and work, I soon realised these maps were also a means of establishing my presence and identity in this place.
Just as different artists will each the see same scene from their own perspectives, similarly one person can recreate the topography of a place in diverse ways on diverse occasions. There are so many contingencies when we look at a map, and we can chose to interpret these or we can choose to take it at face value. An obvious example of this is my invention of the art historical orthodoxy known as Underneathism, depicting the world as viewed from beneath.
When the familiar ‘God’s eye’ view of the earth is inverted, the resultant perspective appears strangely malevolent. Yet Underneathism also exposes the familiar reality of isometric views -utilised by Google street mapping and video games – as equally artificial. Their use of this perspective only appears to us to be the natural order because of our exposure to it through years of constant use.
After a day spent in my studio creating Underneathean views, I found that stepping out into the street was as disorientating for me as it must have been for a Londoner of the eighteenth century to have been
lifted up from the beer garden of a Hackney pub in a hot air balloon.
What is the future for maps?
In the past, a globe in your pocket, fashioned from intricately-engraved and hand-painted gores pasted to a lacquered plaster sphere and housed in a handsome leather pouch, might represent the apogee of geographic knowledge. I imagine it elicited the same kind of thrill and sense of conquest delivered today by the smartphone app. As new ways of imagining maps constantly supplant the old, the qualities that we find beguiling, artistic, quaint, unfamiliar and perverse in the antique will inevitably be inherited by the app map. One day, we will laugh at how difficult it was to find London Underground stations on an iPhone map.
Are some maps better than others?
Like the canon of painting or sculpture, the canon of cartography – particularly maps of London – is defined by historic moments embodied in innovative fashion and new discoveries described with prescient and appropriate perfection. The resulting maps are often born of unusual imperatives and spring from a particular circumstance. Just such an example is Harry Beck’s 1931 map of the London Underground. Despite millions of Londoners seeing it, using it and touching it everyday, it continues to reveal itself as a cartographic wonder.
Unlike a famous painting or sculpture, a map can be altered, annotated, improved and fiddled with many times without impugning its integrity or compromising its innate expression. In the creation of my maps, I often start with a basic template to which I pin and glue a bunch of stuff. My work in progress often looks like those huge table maps you see in war films, with models of boats and submarines pushed across them by smart young members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force wielding roulette rakes.
The map becomes fascinating to me when everything is in place, like the frozen moment of theatrical denouement in the tableau for a history painting. The pleasure of casting your eyes over a completed map is contingent on pinning down such a moment in its evolution, while the subject is at its most interesting – such as when the engraver Wencelas Hollar depicted the City of London viewed from the South Bank immediately preceding the Great Fire of 1666 and, shortly afterwards, during the conflagration.
What do you look for in a map?
There are so many different kinds of map! There are maps that fill entire corridors, like those of my supposed ancestor, Ignazio Danti, at the Vatican Palace and then there are maps with covers designed by artists and proffered by London Underground, that you can slip in your top pocket. Although we need maps to show us how to get from here to there, once the map is in our hands we want to feel like the pirate who has the only existing means of finding where the treasure is buried.
Do you use maps in your daily life?
While on trains, I often spot an odd landmark or an interesting rural scene. Nowadays, smartphones allow me to identify the location of any fleetingly-glimpsed idyll immediately and learn the history of the place, and – with the benefit of a long journey – no doubt also the names and addresses of its shops and inhabitants, stretching back for as many years as digitised historical records exist. The research I used to do prior to Texan road trips, regarding the history of the remote boondocks ‘population 45 souls’ en route, has been more than adequately replaced by consulting local historical society webpages on my smartphone.
Yet, despite such convenience and thoroughness, I still scribble maps in notebooks and on scraps of paper to enable me to arrive at the correct location for a meeting. These sketches are more than a practical device, they are also an exercise in breaking free of the tyranny of the compass, since North is not always at the top of the page. Someone once told me that dogs evacuate themselves while orientated towards magnetic North but – having a dog myself – and, observing its cartographic impulses, I can scotch this theory. Why should not a map be orientated according to the direction of travel? Or be rendered according to any other imperative you please?
What do you say to people who complain they get lost following your maps?
You are holding it upside down!