To call this map ‘detailed’ seems grossly inadequate.
This is ‘The Island’ - Stephen Walter (2008). It’s a 5-foot wide piece of graphite on paper, depicting the urban features of London. But, obviously, it’s a whole lot more than that. (I sadly lack access to a satisfying full-resolution image of it, but hop over to the artist’s website for a closer look).
This map hails from the nebulous world of art cartography- maps that, for lack of a better definition, emerge from the world of fine art as opposed to from the cartographic establishment. Mostly though, art cartography’s hallmark is eschewing any practical use for their maps, instead designing them to investigate more philosophical concerns about the landscape and man’s relationship to it.
These drawings have evolved through a fascination with maps, public and sub-cultural signs, symbols and obsessive tendencies. - Stephen Walter, artist statement
Walter has very meticulously transcribed the most minute details of every neighborhood in London. Well, sort of. What’s on the map is actually rather curated. We don’t get to see every local business and every residential high-rise. But we do get many other curious features. A tiny sampling: among the rest of the labels, we get to see areas where there are supposedly “conformists” and “lesbians”. The homes of political figures are designated, right next to the hospitals and the pubs and the IKEAs and the football clubs. Other labels point out wasteful spending projects, marshes turned into parking lots, and neighborhoods destroyed in WWII.
The production of this map took over a year and, despite its free-associative appearance, involved quite a bit of research (well, unstructured research, it seems. “The celebrity related trivia was gathered on purely capricious grounds”, it was reported.)
The title, “The Island” is referencing the fact that this map treats everything outside the borders of London as an ocean. Labels like the ‘Sea of Essex’ and a few London exclaves are visible out in the whitespace. This supposedly a tongue-in-cheek reference to the way many Londoners fail to acknowledge anything that occurs beyond the city limits.
Walter creates landscapes where objects are slowly taken over by their symbolic representations. Leaving us with forests of geographical map symbols and places where every inch is mapped and quantified for human purpose. - Stephen Walter, artist statement
In many ways I don’t know where to begin (nor finish) talking about this map. It is dense and arcane and overwhelming. It is highly cryptic but it also seems to speak for itself.
One way I might be able to speak to it is how it informs me as a cartographer. This piece speaks strongly to the act of abstraction – one of the most fundamental components of cartography and also one of the easiest to take for granted. ‘All maps are simplifications’, as they say; a map that contained every last bit of information from the place it depicts would have to be a 1:1 reproduction of the region. But even that wouldn’t be the full story, would it? There’s also thematic data, historical context, local wisdom, cultural values … any geographical feature you can look at today is the product of a near-infinite amount of events and processes and happenstances. To fully contextualize all this information into a map would require more than just a 1:1 scale, but rather a map that is unthinkably large. Even given a 5-foot wide canvas and a ridiculous level of detail, Walter had to make some serious sacrifices in what features (both physical and non-) he could put on his map… and the result can only hint at the true urban denseness and cultural heritage and everyday hustle-and-bustle of the city of London.