Biblioteca Vallicelliana, Rome. 31 Jan – 28 Feb 2020
Curator: Paola Paesano
Essay by James Putnam, Senior Research Fellow, University of the Arts London (UAL)
James P Graham’s new body of work comprises a series of contour maps of Middle Eastern war torn cities and refugee camps that confront issues of forced migration and its environmental impact. They offer a stark insight into the physical consequences of the Syrian and other conflicts where bombs were dropped indiscriminately on residential buildings, innocent civilians were killed or forced to flee to overcrowded camps. Although refugee camps tend to have limited visibility in the news media, they can clearly be seen from satellite images where they resemble pop-up cities in what were recently empty spots in the desert. Graham’s intricate paper sculptures are the result of his careful study of digital elevation models of these sites on Google Earth. His contour maps capture the lay of the land, with every dip, curve and peak of the surface. The street layouts of the camps and bombed cities have been carefully rendered giving the viewer an overview of the density of habitation or the extent of the urban destruction and the consequent effect on the environment. These follow the principles of stratigraphy in geology and archaeological interpretation but rather than being literal copies of the satellite images they represent the artist’s interpretations.
His working method involves cutting up to 16 individual layers of watercolour paper by hand with a scalpel, then stacking them to make a relief map where the contours become an abstracted landscape with topographic renderings. These meticulously executed maps record the abstracted beauty of the lines themselves while he looks for patterns in landscapes mainly resulting from human activities. Applying a limited range of watercolours, the maps tend to appear quite monochrome illustrating barren and scarred landscapes drained of their natural resources. Dots, white lines, and coloured plastic show details of human intervention including tracks, oil wells and waste dumps.
Although aesthetically beautiful, these delicate contour maps are paradoxically stark evidence of the human suffering caused by the intensity of habitation in the camps and the devastation of the ruined buildings and craters left after bombardment. It is as if he is symbolically expressing the damage to the landscape through his action of cutting out the contours with a scalpel. In some ways his process relates to kirigami, the Japanese art of paper cutting, which requires considerable patience, concentration and precision. The largest work in the series represents the refugee camp at Al-Hawl, in northern Syria, which is home to about 70,000 people, mainly women and children with links to ISIS. There is high child mortality at the camp due to severe malnutrition and lack of medical facilities. Graham’s project is intended to help to raise our awareness of this major humanitarian crisis. His maps are diagrammatic and network-like, pertinent to this era of digital interconnectivity while it also seems significant that the meandering black or white lines in the landscape remind us of the veins and arteries of the human body.
The exhibition’s title is an evident play on the word ‘desecration’, which literally means damage to the sacred. Some of these cities have their origins in the Mesopotamian civilization that flourished around 6000 years ago and their rich archaeological heritage has been irretrievably damaged through the various conflicts. Aleppo in Syria is believed to be one the most ancient continuously inhabited cities and its Citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was devastated by intensive bombing over a 4 year period and the red hues of Graham’s map aptly express all the bloodshed that happened there. Looking beyond the Middle East sites, his work ‘Archaeological Remains of the Anthropocene’, is an imaginary contour map of how our entire civilization might be discovered at some time in the distant future completewith excavated non-biodegradable plastic.
There is a long tradition of artists using maps or mapping processes in their work with mindsets and expectations that go beyond the geographers’ notions of cartography. Instead artists like Alighiero e Boetti have used the map as a prevailing and effective visual metaphor in their work. Graham is motivated to create his work from studying the satellite maps in order to gain a personal insight into the reality of the situation beyond the limited news coverage. His project embraces the notion of artist as researcher, using the mapping data, as he would a painting or sculptural medium. On a conceptual level this relates to the notion that maps are essentially communication devices synonymous with power and knowledge and identified with what the philosophers Michel Foucault and Jack Derrida call ‘critical cartography’. These contemporary art works therefore take on an extra significance when juxtaposed with the historic map collection of Biblioteca Vallicelliana in Rome.
Artists have a penchant for revealing or drawing attention to what is normally hidden or less obvious and there seems an increasing need for them to be cultural commentators and activists confronting issues of environmentalism and displaced people in the face of current global unrest. Graham’s project is part of this tendency while an on-going feature of his practice is the exploration of nature’s hidden, metaphysical energies together with aspects of the sacred. His dynamic multi-screen video installation Iddu (2007), featuring the active volcano on the Island of Stromboli, has been staged at international biennales and museums, and most recently at the Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome (November 2019- January 2020).
Senior Research Fellow, University of the Arts London (UAL)