Into Ruins

post-phd thinking, writing, art, cartography, abstraction, Robinson Crusoe – risking appearing deranged – writing-as-thinking

Grayson Perry and situated knowledges: Map of Nowhere

[M]ap-making’s scientific claims to offer progressively accurate and objective, scaled representations of spatial relations, have been challenged with recognition of the inescapable imaginative and artistic character of cartographic processes.

– Denis Cosgrove, Geography and Vision

Map of Nowhere (2008) by Grayson Perry

Map of Nowhere (2008) by Grayson Perry

Map of Nowhere by Grayson Perry (b. 1960) posits a radical scepticism about what constitutes the artist’s self.  It suggests that this self is not integral and whole, but is constituted of a ‘world’ of allusion, values and the detritus of culture.  To look at this fragile web of relationships and to map it is to deconstruct it, as Perry does.  This casts doubt on the possibility of generating ‘realistic’ or indexical meaning from cartography.

I suggest that Map of Nowhere foregrounds the difficulties in using cartographical representation as a means of generating knowledge that has an indexical relationship to observable reality.

Map of an Englishman (2004) by Grayson Perry

Map of an Englishman (2004) by Grayson Perry

Balloon (2004) by Grayson Perry

Balloon (2004) by Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry is a British artist known for making work that deals with social issues and sexuality.  He won the Turner Prize in 2003 and has become a celebrity outside the art world, particularly for his transvestism, which he manifests in a feminine persona called Claire.  His pots are his best-known work, and he regularly works in a range of media including photography and textiles.  He has made a number of works involving cartography including Map of an Englishman and Balloon.  Map of Nowhere is an etching on paper, 153 x 113cm, produced in an edition of 68 with 6 artists’ proofs in 2008.

Ebstorf World Map

Ebstorf World Map

The fact that Map of Nowhere is a direct pastiche of the Ebstorf map creates an equivalence between the artist and Jesus Christ.  The circular motif representing the world is also found in other mappae mundi, particularly the Fra Mauro map of c.1450.  The Ebstorf map is unusual among mappae mundi in combining the body of Christ with the representation of the world, rather than having Christ stand outside it, and Map of Nowhere makes the same combination here.  In Christian thought, Christ is, through the mystery of the incarnation, both human and divine, “begotten not made”,[1] part of the trinity and therefore God.  Christ has creative abilities; he is able to create in an abstract sense, understood as the ‘Word’[2] or ‘logos’ which itself instigated the existence of the world.  In the role of Christ, then, the ‘Perry-self’[3] here is both creating the world and being inseparably bound up with it.  There is an added equivalence in that the historical Jesus is understood to have been a carpenter and therefore directly, personally, a maker of things in the material world; Perry has made something of a fetish of craftsmanship as his mode of operation and, indeed, ‘craftsmanship’ appears as one of the ‘things we care about’ labelled on Map of Nowhere.

Fra Mauro World Map

Fra Mauro World Map

As God, Christ has perfect knowledge, the ability to know and see in a totalising way not available to humans.  This imagined perspective has often been called upon by philosophers attempting to theorise truth and knowledge, and formulated as the ‘god’s-eye-view’ or the ‘view from nowhere’; a feature of cartography as explored earlier.  Cosgrove reminds us of the fundamental corporeality and situatedness of human viewing, whereby the “eye is always embedded in a fleshly body.”[5] Therefore, adopting the god’s-eye-view must be an imaginative exercise, and the ‘Perry-self’ imaginatively adopts the ability of Christ to inhabit or experience the god’s-eye-view, but finds the experiment to be contradictory.  He remains embedded in the paradox of creating the world and also being bound up in it and arising from it as a social being.

Below Map of Nowhere‘s circular motif is a landscape in a perspectival style, which is linked to the map motif above by a shaft of light emitting from the Perry-self’s anus.  The symbolic world of the self therefore seems to have the ability to interact with and affect another world.  This other world has an uncertain spatial relationship to the mapped world of the Perry-self.  The viewer now occupies an ambiguous viewpoint, simultaneously looking ‘down’ on a view that combines both plan and elevation views, and looking ‘forward’ at ground level into a single-point perspective.  This may suggest that the viewer inhabits a god’s-eye-view, with privileged access to more than one interpretation of reality.

Map of Nowhere (detail) (2008) by Grayson Perry

Map of Nowhere (detail) (2008) by Grayson Perry

This creative force is further nuanced by the comic ‘projection’ from the Christ-Perry-figure’s anus of a light ‘which shineth in the darkness’.  Maps, particularly world maps, are often described as ‘projections’ of the world to denote the form in which the spherical (and real) is transposed into the flat, two-dimensional (unreal and representational) map.  This idea of ‘projection’ is an imaginative demonstration of the way in which early world maps attempted this transposition.

Map of Nowhere inverts the usual relationship between the ‘real’ and the ‘represented’.  The more recognisably ‘real’ world is a projection from the map.  Beyond a scatological joke, Perry imbues the projection (itself a Freudian term) with further psychoanalytic significance.  Freud located the creative impulse in the anal phase of development[6]: “every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own.”[7] In this way, Perry imbues Map of Nowhere’s religious iconography with a psychoanalytic mythology.

However, what is created by this anal projection is not a straightforward reflection of the territory of the map.  Indeed, cartographic projections always necessitate distortion.[8]

The Perry-self, then, claims the ability to project a ‘reality’ of sorts out of itself, but its ability to create a shared reality is not at all clear.  This implies a highly subjective experience of reality that the self may be experiencing alone.  The ‘reality’ has gone through so many mediations – the encoding into symbols, the representation in map form, the loss of meaning arising from indexicality, the inverse projection ‘back out’ from the world of symbol – that its nature is now obscure and inaccessible.

Map of Nowhere (detail) (2008) by Grayson Perry

Map of Nowhere (detail) (2008) by Grayson Perry

Raymond Williams claims that “the very idea of landscape implies separation and observation” [9], that the act of viewing is part of what constitutes a landscape as something that exists for the purpose of being viewed.

To try to explore and represent a subjective world is therefore to deconstruct it.  To select from reality in order to symbolise it is to categorise elements and uphold the fiction that parts of reality can exist distinct from each other; Perry has selected from the infinite conceptual source material of ‘reality’.

Map of Nowhere is made up of a dazzling variety of this source material.  Representations of buildings, people, trees, animals and fantastical creatures are distributed across the ‘landscape’ of the map, as well as various symbols and inset motifs, such as the diagrammatic representation of the “skeletal child”[10] to the lower right.  The human figures are all allegorical, labelled with phrases drawn from popular culture and the media, such as ‘Having-it-all’, ‘A defining enemy’, ‘casino capitalism’ and ‘stuff happens’.  The largest figure is that of ‘Saint Claire,’ possibly a reference to Perry’s female/feminine alter ego, at centre left.  The variety is not arbitrary or meaningless; the maker of any cartographic representation is always embedded in their culture and necessarily encodes this situatedness through the choices they make.

The bodies of water are rendered as black in the etching, and the main areas are labelled with names such as ‘Nature’, ‘Meaningless’ and ‘Here and Now’.  Some islands and ships are included, notably a large ship in the central body of water labelled ‘Sadness of the Excessively Logical’.  This inland sea is itself labelled ‘Despair,’ and the ship sails close to the fortress island of ‘Doubt’.  It is as if the titles of the literally ‘unstable’ places of the map (the waters) stand-in for the existential uncertainties and instabilities of the mapped culture.

Map of Nowhere (detail) (2008) by Grayson Perry

Map of Nowhere (detail) (2008) by Grayson Perry

Perry goes further than the Ebstorf map, in giving the Perry-self a body constructed out of features of the land: hands at left and right, and two feet emerging at the bottom of the circular world map, with arms, legs, lungs and even a phallus (a rock-like structure labelled ‘Know-all’) shaped from cartographic features.  He has extended the physical embodiment further and yet further compromised the ‘physicality’ of that world which is mostly notional and ideological.  The body is imagined as being inextricably part of the wider landscape, and this landscape is symbolised in terms of labels, figures, bodies of water and buildings distributed across the map, prompting an uncertainty as to what constitutes the artist’s self.

Map of Nowhere (detail) (2008) by Grayson Perry

Map of Nowhere (detail) (2008) by Grayson Perry

I place a particular emphasis on the content of the labels, which describe a landscape of speech, attitudes, social and economic practices, aspirations and values.  The text is therefore part of the cartographic representation that contextualises the imagined body of the artist into a thoroughly symbolic landscape.

Therefore, Map of Nowhere is constituted of a ‘self’ (the circular Perry-as-Jesus-as-creative-agent-as-world) and ‘creations’ of this self – potentially analogous with the artist’s works (the anally projected landscape).  However, their relationship to each other is distorted and unclear and they themselves represent a perspectival and situated selection from the world as a whole.

This selection, by its very nature, distorts that which it represents:  “To imagine that there is a totally objective cartography is to deny the element and nature of choice.”[11] The analysis conducted in appendix 2 is instructive.  It makes an addition to the artwork[12] and makes present the mediated voice of the Perry-self in the large number of ‘contemporary idioms and media phrases’ that employ a societal voice rather than a personal one and parody the observation that all language is quotation.  The phrases related to family are universally negative.  A link is made between sexual and violent terms.  By their intersections on the level of meaning unlikely couplings are created, such as those between ‘corporate drone’ and ‘creative industries’ or ‘cruelty’ and ‘beauty’.  This seems to further suggest that the whole world is quotation and allusion: the sum of social practices and socially conditioned and reproduced ways of speaking create a ‘world’, a ‘reality’, a ‘self’.  It is both iterative and reiterative.

Map of Nowhere (detail) (2008) by Grayson Perry

Map of Nowhere (detail) (2008) by Grayson Perry

Map of Nowhere is an act of deconstruction because it lays bare this selectivity and shows what the text has excluded through that selection.  Further, it occupies a deconstructive position as a map which fails to generate cartographic use-value.  In other words, it is both a map and fails to function as a map.  It is both a map and a non-map and, in collapsing this binary, undermines the privileged place of cartography within systems of representation and cartography as a system of objective representation.

This presents a further paradox.  We engage in representational practices to make chosen (selected) aspects of the world intelligible or meaningful, to ourselves and to others.  Yet this process makes the world unintelligible or meaningless, as we find ourselves decoding and interpreting so many layers of representational intervention that the result is a startlingly subjective reality.  While the work’s main concern may be the implications of this paradox for the artist, this is a paradoxical claim for and against cartography as necessary and impossible; both required to negotiate our ‘world’ and distorting of it.  It is a claim that resonates with the posited ‘contrapuntal cartographies’ in that it recognises the limitations of cartography as well as its necessity, and equates the scepticism about the truth claims of cartography with the need to reinvent and continue to make maps.

Map of Nowhere therefore casts doubt on the possibility of generating ‘realistic’, neutral or indexical meaning from cartography.  Rather than pretending a view-from-nowhere, it actively showcases its subjectivity and incompleteness.  The idea of being able to generate secure, objective knowledge about reality from representational processes is therefore extremely problematised.  All selection, consciously or not, is conditioned by the norms and values of the maker.  Perry seems to present his ‘shit’ like a Freudian child as the processed detritus of culture and to both own it and stand apart from it, with the artist or cartographer (as stand-in for any speaking subject) reduced to a processor of their social conditions and culture.  As Denis Wood cautions, “[The map’s] presence in the world is ever a function of the representing mind, and as such […] prey to all the liabilities (and assets) of human perception, cognition and behaviour.”[13]


[1] Nicene Creed, available at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.vii.iii.html [accessed 01.09.10]

[2] “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  The same was in the beginning with God.  All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life; and the life was the light of men.  And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” King James Bible, John 1:1-5

[3] I use this phrase to acknowledge that we are confronting a representation and not the ‘real’ person or self of Grayson Perry.

[5] Cosgrove, 2008, p.5

[6] “The child feels very proud when it produces stools and often sees them as part of itself.  Because they are a product of his own body, the child sees the faeces as a kind of precious gift.” Snowden, 2010, p.112-13

[7] Gay, 1995, p.438

[8] “At the global level, the first and most obvious cause of contention about mapping is that of projection.  This has to involve distortion; a projection is a flat (two-dimensional) representation of the globe and the (three-dimensional) curved globe is not flat […] The very need to choose a projection emphasises the degree to which choice is involved in the representational nature of maps.” (Black, 2000, p.29)

[9] Cosgrove and Daniels quoting Williams, 1994, p.7

[10] Grayson Perry quoted in Klein, 2009, p.162

[11] Cosgrove, 2008

[12] “[M]aps are political and politicizing texts that need to be read with care” (Black, 2000, p.165).

[13] Wood, 1992, p.24

Read on for bibliography…

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3 comments on “Grayson Perry and situated knowledges: Map of Nowhere

  1. cd305507
    14 October 2012

    I’m absolutely in love with this work. I’ve been trying to find it in print or poster form and it has proved to be impossible – do you know where I can find it?!

  2. Leland
    17 June 2013

    Amazing post, I’m going to invest more time researching
    this topic.

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