I recently caught the last weekend of Stephen Walters’ Anthropocene exhibition at the Londonewcastle Project Space in Shoreditch, on a sweltering July day. I’ve been a map nerd for a long time, and I first saw Walters’ work on the BBC4 documentary The Beauty of Maps, which is the best programme ever made about maps ever. When I saw that he had an exhibition running in London, I made sure to get there before it closed, and frankly I was blown away.
Walters takes the name of his exhibition from the hypothetical geological period in which man, rather than natural processes, has the greatest effect on the landscape and environment. Anthropocene showcases Walters’ enormous, magnificent maps, alongside some of his pen-and-ink and pencil sketches. The result is fascinating and beautiful.
His seminal piece, The Island (pictured above) is a map of London that fills an entire wall of the project space, realised in immaculate detail. The visitor’s first impression is of a grey cloud, as though the whole huge canvas had been shaded in soft pencil. When you step closer, you see that this grey mass is text. Tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of words, jostling for space. If you lean in, you can read some of the words as they spill out over the river.
“Landing place for chalk and limestone”
“Site of prisoners’ transportation to Australia”
“Fish jump out of Thames as earthquake strike (1950)”
Walters details all the events, trivia, jokes, rumours, history, dialects, nicknames and myths that clutter up the places he draws. He builds the city of London out of the many languages that bubble out of its streets, exploring it each street at a time. Each building. The relationship between landscape and text has never been brought closer.
But the map is also satirical. Walters re-imagines London as an island, surrounded by ocean. To the East, the Kentish sea laps at its coast. To the West, the Isles of Slough cluster in the balmy climes of the Sea of Bucks.
The map is at once homage and satire, glorious and irreverent. There is probably not a single work of art in the world that could hold your attention for longer than this. You could stand here, peering at it for an hour, and still have things to see. The work is image encoded to the point of saturation with meaning and information, a sort of superinclusion that would make David Foster Wallace proud. I’m struck by the way the City in Walters’ work is a sort of grand achievement, brought about by accident and chance, a sort of unordered collaboration, a crowd-sourced monument.
Walters plays around with the uneasy relationship that has always existed between the map and the mapped. In Lewis Carroll’s short story Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, the characters attempt to create a map with the scale of “a mile to a mile”. At the end of the story, the conclusion is reached: “we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.” Borges riffed off the same idea, in his On Exactitude in Science, in which an Empire contrives to create a 1:1 map.
“Succeeding Generations… came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome… In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar…”
Walters’ task seems on a par with these fictionalised quixotic undertakings. He attempts to draw up a democratised map that forms a guide to history and culture, built up with the layered sediment of story and history. Landscape spoken into being. Or something.
The island is truly the altarpiece to the exhibition, but there are other magnificent maps showcased alongside it. One standout example is the map of Nova Utopia, a satirical and fictional place based on Ortelius’ 1595 map of Thomas More’s imaginary island. Here there are also echoes of Borges, especially his short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, in which a secret society collaborates to create the history and chronicle of an imaginary place that soon supersedes the real world. The island of Nova Utopia is divided into regions with names like “Sacrum”, “Prora”, “Activa”. It has sights for public moon worship and celebrity-hunting bus tours, vegan cafés and a University of Sustainability. Ensconced in these are stranger entries that undermine the Utopian ideal. An “Eastern Euro sex-trafficking ring” is wedged between some sand castles and an open-air cinema. The “region of the old Civil War” is now a sight for wind turbines, and a radioactive warning sign hovers over something enigmatically called “Disaster of 1986”. The map is hilarious and entrancing, and as you stand and read and explore, more and more of the bizarre history and culture of Nova Utopia falls into place. A fantasy and a critique, the map takes you on a journey through a place that doesn’t exist. Pretty much everything in the exhibition is just as amazing. Go see it next time it’s in town.