At first glance Mapping the Self, the MCA's contribution to the Festival of Maps lineup, takes some serious liberties in how it defines what a map is. But then, as the introduction to the exhibit plainly states, this exhibit is not about maps. It's about how artists use maps, both to define themselves and the physical, social, and emotional spaces that they inhabit and/or experience. In fact the very meaning of the word "map" is derived from the Latin word mappa, for the cloth that maps were drawn on. A map is an exploration drawn out on a physical surface. With the etymology in mind, the pieces at the MCA's exhibit fit the theme a bit more logically.
Save for a few larger pieces spread throughout the fourth-floor atrium (including a clever recreation of John Baldassari's Framed Heights), the bulk of the work in the exhibit is organized into two rooms; the first deals with artists' use of mapping to define and examine themselves, and the second with the way that they use maps to explore and reimagine the world around them.
A piece by artist Patrick McGee is a notable highlight in the first section as it explodes the traditional concept of the map at the same time that it asserts itself as one. McGee took measurements of his head to come up with a new system of units of measurement; the diameter of his head (the Fit) became the measurement of length, its volume (the immersion) the measurement of capacity, and weight (the burden) the measurement of mass. McGee's piece is both entertaining and thought-provoking, especially in the context of this exhibit. It represents, after all, the physical nature of the artist's head, but it also breaks the head down into very basic calculations and reevaluates the rest of the physical world in relation to the artist. It is a philosophical mapping of the idea of physicality; a delightful mindf*ck, if you will.
The second room contains pieces that look more like...well, maps, or at least more like what you might expect maps to look like. There are exceptions to this rule, but even a glance around this gallery will reassure anyone thrown off by the first section. Chicago plays a major role here as the physical place being examined and/or reimagined in many of the pieces on display, adding to the sense of familiarity. Works by Stephanie Nadeau and John Cage are highlights, but again, one piece sort of steals this half of the show. That piece, Paula Henderson's Extended Remix, takes Chicago's 77 community areas, color codes them by their majority racial demographic, and then puts them into alphabetical order. The boundaries stay the same, but the names and colors shuffle around, creating a vivid and rather jarring reinterpretation of this notoriously segregated city's racial landscape. It is a very different Chicago seen in this map; paired with Nareau's photographic piece Redlined, it makes a potent statement about the history of racial politics in the Windy City.
Overall, complaints about this exhibit are of the petty variety. Single plaques often hold the descriptions for multiple pieces, which can be confusing. Some of the work on display seemed to lack label or explanation altogether. The thematic nature of the two rooms gives the exhibit structure, though it can be a bit loose at times; as a result, some pieces feel a bit superfluous. But as a whole, the exhibit does what it sets out to do by providing a solid exploration of the way contemporary artists are using maps in very different (and very challenging) ways to explore what it means to be human, and what it means to be part of our society.
While Mapping the Self takes up a relatively small amount of floor space, don't expect to make it through this one on your lunch break. While that would be do-able in theory, in reality you can't really get much from this exhibit unless you plan on taking your time. With most of the art on display, you'll find your efforts well-rewarded.
IF YOU GO
Mapping the Self is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art until March 2nd, 2008. The museum is open 10:00am-8:00pm on Thursdays, and 10:00am-5:00pm Wednesdays-Sundays; it is closed on Mondays. The entry fee for the MCA is $10 for adults, $6 for students and seniors (both suggested). Tuesdays are free admission.
Mapping the Self (Museum of Contemporary Art