DO YOU REMEMBER atlases and the unfathomability of the fold up road map? In the pre-GPS days of our world and our sense of geography, the atlas was a subtle and beautiful reminder of how small we are on this planet. Without all the loudness of internet-based hyperbole in the bid to earn hits or views, the atlas was a quiet and detailed testament to the exhaustive work that a geographer would be responsible for, in the plotting of every highway and byway, every brook and dam in the landscape.
It was an artwork about adventure without all the gloss. Armed just with the longitude and latitude, with oblique keys as to what lies where, and gentle, hand-drawn teasers into the height of the land, the culture of the map has always been like an uninterpreted poem, waiting to be explored. And this is where South African artist Gerhard Marx comes into the fray.
In this, his seventh solo exhibition at the Goodman Gallery, he presents a body of work that explores and explodes the notion and the idea of the map. It’s about losing and finding yourself, and in its balance between incisively cut lines and an honouring of the broken borders, the official markings and the texture and substance of the original maps that are cut up and displaced here.
But as you gaze at these works, take a step back. And look at the bigger picture. There’s something of the ilk of a sacred geometry at play here, that embraces the multifarious bits of map that are tossed hither and yon by the artist’s scalpel and gluing instincts. With a subtle doff of the proverbial cap to the work of Dutch master of op art and linear precision MC Escher and his forays into the mysticism of perspectival tricks, the work coheres in a way that messes with your sense of landscpae as it shifts between being two-dimensional art on a wall and a cipher to something much deeper.
On a surface, these are abstract works. As you step closer, you recognise the mapwork diacriticals for hills and dales, for suburb names and streets, and you get caught in a whirligig of landscape from the inside. The smaller reconfigured maps to the left of the gallery’s entrance embody a sense of dry wit with its red line, painted calligraphically over all the stuck together displaced map pieces. It’s about a vortex, as it is about getting helplessly lost in the world.
You may look at these works and think of William Kentridge’s engagement with the aged pages of encyclopaedias or ledgers, books that have had another life, another purpose, and ones that are being revisited for their substance and tone and for the backdrop they offer to a fresh artist’s perspectives. Something similar happens here, where Marx sidles you into a beautiful and elegant concatenation of distance and nearness, of landscapes familiar and unknown and of mystery in the commonplace.
- Ecstatic Archive by Gerhard Marx is at the Goodman Gallery Johannesburg, until March 9. Call 011 788 1113.