Jorge Macchi and the Argentine School of Cartography
One must begin with Jorge Luis Borges and his astonishing and immensely synthetic short story, ‘On Exactitude in Science’. In it, under the pseudonym of a Suarez Miranda writing in the year of 1658, Borges describes the perfect map:
‘… In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography’. (1)
Traditional cartography is above all an exercise in scale—the transposition from the macro to the micro—which inescapably results in reduction and simplification. The ultimate map, the one that can faithfully reproduce and represent the territory in its entirety, encompassing each and every detail of its reality, lies somewhere between ruin and utopia, impossibility and fiction, the year 1658 and the year 1946. Following Borges, the ultimate map is also the last one; an account of the existence of its last remains dates from the 17 th century, and even then it could only be experienced in fragments, which in this context entails taking on certain fetish-like qualities (one thinks of sacred fragments of cloth or wood). If we acknowledge the limits of contemporary cartography, its utopian exactitude and science, if we accept the fact that the perfect map has been drawn, constructed, abandoned and left to rot in the landscapes and cityscapes it longed to represent, we may envision a new territory for maps: one that is in the realm of fiction and fragment, the personal and psychological.
This is the driving force behind the thought and practice of the Argentine School of Cartography. Jorge Luis Borges (Buenos Aires, 1899-1986) and Suárez Miranda (active in the 17 th century) are the philosophical, theoretical and literary fathers of the School, and two of its pioneering contemporary cartographers may be singled out: Guillemo Kuitca (Buenos Aires, 1961) and Jorge Macchi (Buenos Aires, 1963).
In order to understand Guillermo Kuitca’s maps, one must consider his architectural floor plans, particularly those of residential flats, which have appeared in his paintings and drawings since the late 1980s. Kuitca’s floor plans go beyond technical and architectural drawings in order to convey passion and pain. In a similar fashion, and in contrast to the exactitude and science of traditional European cartography, Kuitca’s maps contain, along with lines and traces of borders, rivers, roads and walls, a number of subversive elements that serve to read the map (like the floor plan) against the grain: tears, bones, drops, veins, thorns, barbed wire, cracks, serpents, syringes, often with stains and smudges on canvasses, sheets of paper and mattresses, placed vertically or horizontally. Superimposed on mattresses, these maps can be read as a ruin or a fragment of Borges’s perfect map: the maps on mattresses conflate the micro with the macro, the personal and bodily with the imperial and geographic.
At this point, it is pertinent to invoke a close relative to the Argentine School of Cartography: the Italian School, which is led by the Cuban-born master Italo Calvino (1923-1985), a native of Santiago de las Vegas. Calvino pioneered the genre of the literary map in his Invisible Cities, published in 1972, a cartographic work absolutely devoid of images, relying solely on description. In his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, published in 1988, Calvino states his interest in the city as a complex symbol that allowed him –as it did Borges and Kuitca and, as we shall see, Jorge Macchi– ‘greater possibilities of expressing the tension between geometric rationality and the entanglements of human lives’.
Macchi is a fabulous and copious cartographer. His cartographic inclination is first evident in the early work Accident in Rotterdam (1996-1998), which he made while living in the Netherlands (2). The piece consists of a series of six photographs where one sees two small toy cars, one black and one white, colliding at an intersection. If the cars are toys, the streets are in fact the shadows on the floor of a window frame above. The photographs could be seen as a reconstruction of an accident, a mapping of an event that took place at some unidentified intersection in Rotterdam. Vidas Paralelas [Parallel Lives] (1998) is another important early cartographic piece; in a more calculated fashion, it also contains the element of the accident, something that will be taken up by Macchi in his most accomplished map, Buenos Aires Tour. Vidas Paralelas consists of two rectangular panes of glass that have been shattered and have the exact same cracks, configuring a deeply uncanny and absolutely perfect duplication [Felix Gonzalez Torres’s Perfect Lovers (1991)], two identical clocks ticking in sync, comes to mind). The shattered cracks on the glass might suggest itineraries or trajectories through a territory or ground, something that will be taken up by the artist in a later work.
Shattered glass is the central element and point of departure for Macchi’s cartographic chef-d’oeuvre, Buenos Aires Tour (2003), which takes the form of an installation as well as an artist’s book (3). A pane of broken glass has been superimposed onto a map of Buenos Aires, and each of its eight cracks demarcates a line to which the artist attributes colors and numbers, much like a traditional cartographer would. With the shattered route at hand, Macchi returns to the real city, following a cartography determined by a calculated accident; he seeks meaningful elements that might give insight into the life of Buenos Aires—a gesture that can be seen as a search for the map’s ‘Tattered Ruins’, to use Borges’s terms. How can one translate or represent the living, chaotic, ever-changing being that is the city, be it Macchi’s Buenos Aires or my own? And what form might that take? Macchi identifies forty-six points of interest along the lines traced by the shattered glass on top of a traditional map of Buenos Aires. In a personal scavenge through his city, the artist collects objects he finds in the streets or takes pictures, thus recording (by means of photography) or archiving (by means of collection) specific sites of the city through its fragments. (4)
An extraordinary object was found on the first stop of ‘Linea 1’, Riachuelo (5). It consists of a notebook with sixty handwritten pages measuring 13 x 29.5 cm each; only a few pages are left blank. The notebook has probably not been left on the streets for very long, but it seems to have weathered some rain: most of the writing is still legible, though there are visible signs of the blue ink having been splashed with water, staining the writing and the paper throughout the notebook. On its cover, one can just barely make out what is presumed to be the name of the owner of the notebook ‘Luis M’. The notebook is filled with notes on learning English; most of the pages contain a handwritten dictionary with the meaning and pronunciation of English words in Spanish. This object is so central to Buenos Aires Tour that it has been reproduced in its entirety and to scale, determining the dimensions of all the other elements of the work( 6). And why is this seemingly humble, handwritten notebook so exceptional? If the dictionary is the total book, the map is the total landscape; both dictionary and map aspire to encompass everything, all words or all terrains. The dictionary contains the map, the map contains the dictionary—map, landscape and terrain are all words to be found in the dictionary; the dictionary itself, as an object, may be found in the terrain and the landscape. Macchi evidences this mirroring, this palindromic and mutuophagic tautology. And very much in the spirit of the Argentine School of Cartography and its associated School of Translation, this dictionary is of a personal nature, bearing the traces of the handwriting of a mysterious ‘Luis M.’, his family name enigmatically withheld; everything in this dictionary that was abandoned and left to rot is stained by water, suggesting that lines, whether they delineate letters or words, drawings or texts, borders or routes, dictionaries or maps, are never written in stone.
Buenos Aires Tour is a complex act of investigating and documenting the city; it is only incompletely or partly effected, through fragments and souvenirs (7) produced by the initial gesture of chance that lay the grounds for the methodological principle of the cartographer turned flâneur. Chance is also the method of the statistician, who randomly selects samples or micro parts of a larger, macro universe in order to compose an approximate and reliable representation of its state of affairs. The methodological grid of Buenos Aires Tour is neither orthogonal nor geometric, but erratic, defined by chance and accident: it is the shattered glass.
The city grid occupies much of the cartographer’s mind; it is the initial principle of the urban planner and the traveler. If by means of shattered glass Buenos Aires Tour looks beyond the city’s grid to seek its interstitial elements, Macchi’s well known series of cutout maps does the opposite: they attempt to transform the city into pure grid, representing it through its bare bones. Cutting out all the edifices, squares and plazas of different city maps, drying out the flesh and fluids of different cities, to leave only their streets (or, in the case of Venice, canals): La Plata (La Ciudad Perfecta [The Perfect City], 2003), São Paulo (La Ciudad Quieta [The Still City], 2003), Lisbon (Silent City, 2004), Mexico City (Ciudad Cansada [Tired City], 2004), Venice (Venecia [Venice], 2004). Again one thinks of Calvino and his character Kublai Khan’s particular interest in the cities of his empire that were ‘cities light as kites appear, pierced cities like laces, cities transparent as mosquito netting, cities like leaves’ veins, cities lined like a hand’s palm, filigree cities to be seen through their opaque and fictitious thickness’. (8)
In Macchi’s hand, the focus on the urban grid reaches a limit on a number of occasions. The first one turns, once again, to his own city: Guia de la Inmovilidad [Guide to Immobility] (2003), a small spiral-bound guidebook of the streets of Buenos Aires. All the pages have been cut and, when the book is open at any spread, one is confronted by an array of layered cutouts of urban grids of different sections of the city, framed by the guides along the edges of the page: A, B, C, D and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. This sort of superimposition echoes the floor plan of a skyscraper with its layers of storeys, or a book with its layers of printed pages—accumulation leading to paralysis. Here, the layering has an effect that leads to powerlessness. If the abstract geometric grid is silent and mute( 9), the superimposition of empty, hollowed grids provokes immobility. A number of other maps by Macchi establish different relations with the grid. The year 2007 was particularly prolific in that production: Missing Points, Meeting Points, Atlas, Damero [Checker Board], Red Negra [Black Network]. In its most radical incarnation, all that remains of the map, whose body is now completely emptied and hollowed of all flesh and fluids, is its grid; in works like Map (2009) and Tour (metal maps) (2010), it becomes pure abstract geometric composition. Resting on the table, these maps, which appear to be unfolded, have become sculptures; they evoke mid-century masterpieces of the grid, the Reticularae by Gego (1912-1994) and the Bichos by Lygia Clark (1920-1988).
Other cartographic operations have been explored by Macchi. In Sin título (cerebro-mapa) [Untitled (brain-map)] (2009), the map takes the form of a human brain, as if it had been cannibalized—a particular type of tropical ingestion that offers food not for the body, but for the mind (10). Alternatively, the drawing suggests that mental travels or journeys through the imagination follow their own course. Still within the bodily reading, when all bones are extracted from the map’s corpus, all that is left is fluid, and the result may be Blue Planet (2003) or Seascape (2006), which offer world maps that consist only of oceans. On other occasions, there are semantic and conceptual plays on names, words and colors, such as Mar Negro [Black Sea] (2004), in which the name of the Black Sea in Spanish is written on white against a black background in a speech bubble, the white letters floating like islands surrounded by black ink.
Imperfect, improbable, and imprecise, Macchi’s maps do not provide us with the illusion that the world can be perfectly reduced to or mastered by an all encompassing visual representation, whether flat or perfectly round. They tell us that reality is too complex and fugitive to be fully translated onto any scale, and one can only understand it in an incomplete and fragmented fashion. This is the lesson of the master the Argentine School of Cartography.
1. The short story, quoted here in its entirety, first appeared in 1946 in Los Anales de Buenos Aires. It was later published in El Hacedor, 1960, under a section titled ‘Museo’. The story appears under the authorship of ‘Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro cuarto, Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658’.
2. An even earlier cartographic work worth mentioning is 32 morceaux d’eau, 1994, where the fragments that appear are of water.
3. In this reading, I will focus on the artist’s book version of the piece, which was published by Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Castilla y Leon (who owns the installation), Galeria de Arte Distrito4, Galeria de Arte Ruth Benzacar and Turner in 2003 in an edition of 1,000 copies, 100 of them signed and numbered.
4. The artist’s book edition, which consists of a box with several objects inside, contains the following statement: ‘This guide gives visitors who are staying in Buenos Aires for just a few days as well as people who live there the possibility to deepen their knowledge of the city. Buenos Aires Tour has eight itineraries that reproduce the net of lines drawn by the breaking of a pane of glass over a map of Buenos Aires. Forty-six spots have been chosen along the different lines. This guide provides written, photographic and sound information from each of the spots. With the aid of the map and the cd-rom the visitor will be able to establish his or her own itinerary, beyond the ones proposed by this guide’.
5. And perhaps Riachuelo line was identified as number 1 precisely in order to give precedence to the remarkable object that the artist found there.
6. On the back of the notebook, we find the inscription: ‘Este ejemplar es una reproducción integral a escala’. The book determines the scale of all other objects as well as the box that contains it, which is designed to fit in it snugly.
7. I attempted to offer the incomplete volume of São Paulo, gathering artworks and accounts by artists and critics, published as ‘Fragmentos e Souvenirs Paulistanos’ volume 1 (São Paulo, Galeria Luisa Strina, 2004), in which Macchi participated.
8. Calvino, Italo, Invisible Cities. Translated from the Italian by William Weaver. New York: Harcort, Brace & Co., 1972.
9. Krauss, Rosalind “Grids”, in The originality of the avant-garde and other modernist myths (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1986).
10. de Andrade, Oswald ‘Anthropophagite Manifesto’, Revista de Antropofagia, Nº1, São Paulo, 1928, republished in many sources available online.