Tamsin Green – This is How the Earth Must See Itself
The first known maps – simple diagrams of the earth and sky – date back tens of thousands of years. Looking at these early representations now, it’s unlikely that we’d recognise them as maps, because they contain no instructions for finding our own position in the landscape. Like their ancient precursors, modern maps record the visible features of a place, but they also incorporate scales, symbols and grids that allow the observer to work out where they are in space. The illusion of autonomy and self-possession that defines the modern subject is not just a matter of mind, in other words, but a spatial imperative – a need to know not just who we are, but where we are.
This is How the Earth Must See Itself … the title of Tamsin Green’s book suggests a challenge to the idea of the modern map – a disruption of its logic and an unseating of the subject as a sovereign observer, gazing at the land laid out before them. This is a book about landscape, but it’s not about a particular place. It’s about the symbols and systems that we impose upon space in order to create an idea of landscape. It’s about the physical processes that shape the land, and the discourses – visual, social, scientific, historical – that shape our experience of it. It’s about the work that we do in order to know the land, and to find ourselves in relation to the often formless reality on the ground.
Green – an architect by trade – is a self-taught photographer and bookmaker. This is How the Earth Must See Itself developed out of an extensive study of Ordnance Survey (OS) maps, and from Green’s own practice of walking in the landscape. The work is themed around the five different kinds of rock features listed on OS maps – cliffs, loose rocks, boulders, outcrops, and scree. The symbols that represent these features – also known as ‘ornaments’ – alert users of the maps to potential hazards in the landscape. Small details on the map often translate into major disruptions on the ground – changes in topography that force the walker to alter their planned route. Walking in the landscape, and later, looking through the photographs she had taken, Green was struck by the variance between the way that these features were formed, the way that they were graphically represented, and the way that her own images translated her experience of them. The book takes shape around these multiple, coexisting layers of meaning.
This is How the Earth Must See Itself is a complex object. Handmade and housed in a folded slipcase, it shares its size and dimensions with an actual OS map. As well as Green’s own photographs, it contains diagrams, scraps of text, written records and geological references. There are archival drawings of fossil formations, created by OS surveyors as they made their initial survey of England’s south coast; at the back of the book, several pages of empty grid paper invite the reader to include their own field notes. ‘I wanted to take some of the physical characteristics and feeling of the map, but I didn’t want it to be too much like the map,’ Green remarks. The resulting work – which brings multiple systems of representation into dialogue – is something of a paradox: a hybrid object that combines the dispassionate feeling of a scientific record with the sensory appeal of a hand-drawn sketch.
The map imposes an order that we seldom experience in the terrain around us. It also encourages us to imagine that terrain as an unchanging presence that the map simply records. But this apparent objectivity is built on unsteady foundations. The rules that distinguish one rock feature from another, for instance, are derived partly from geological fact, and partly from OS conventions that have their roots in experience: a loose rock is classified as a boulder when it is too big for one person to move on their own. Similarly, This is How the Earth Must See Itself presents the land as we encounter it – subjectively, in glimpses and fragments. Most of Green’s photographs, for instance, are ambiguous in scale – it’s often impossible to tell whether the features they represent are microscopic or huge. Sometimes, they’re re-oriented so that the horizon line stands vertical, or presented in pairs that encourage the reader to mistake one form for another. Not many of them fit the conventional definition of ‘landscape’ photography. And the precise grids in the back of the book – emblems of the map’s objectivity – turn out to be hand-drawn. Scientific language redeployed as poetry, images that dissolve into collections of pattern and texture, descriptions that emerge out of intuition rather than fact: This is How the Earth Must See Itself demonstrates the idiosyncratic nature of the map and, more generally, of the descriptive systems on which we depend.
Maps are subjective things: human-made abstractions of place, temporary depictions of sites that are in continuous flux – convincing fictions, confluences of language and place that hide as much as they reveal about the reality of the land. They are, perhaps, as much about our need to know where we are as they are about the places themselves. This is How the Earth Must See Itself is a timely reminder of the contingent nature of landscape, and of the map itself – hardcopy maps are becoming increasingly rare, archaic objects in an age of electronic navigation. This is how the earth must see itself: as something that came before the map and that will go on existing long after the last maps are made, bemused, perhaps, by our attempts to bring order to it.