FLIGHTS OF THE IMAGINATION (May 2009)

What is the difference between a rug and a map? I confess the question never entered my mind until two weeks ago when I saw Mona Hatoum’s sculpture “Bukhara” in a group show The Power of Ornament at the Belvedere in Vienna.
“Bukhara” is a handwoven Turkmen-style carpet with the ancient Bukhara pattern: a geometric, octagonal ‘elephant’s foot’ print erroneously attributed to the Uzbek city of the same name. (For 2500 years — until the end of the 19th century when borders were redrawn — Bukhara, was a center of scholarship and the arts in Central Asia. From Bukhara Turkmen rugs found their way to the West.) Hatoum hand-plucked parts of the weave to form a map of the world using the equal-area Gall-Peters Projection. (The older Mercator projection, still widely used in text books is Eurocentric making Europe look like the center of the world as well as diminishing the size of those regions closer to the equator.) I am completely taken by “Bukhara”. It is the most precise, most empathic and most evocative comment I have seen on the cultural implications of what the western world calls globalization. A masterpiece.

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Back to my question: what is the difference between a rug and a map? “Bukhara” invites the following associations and thoughts. A map is an erasure, a tabula rasa, an annihilation. A map obliterates the texture of the imagined structure of the world that it projects; it defeats the memory of lived, material, physical history. It rejects the third dimension. When I use a map to make sense of the world, I abandon my body, my time, my physical space, my unconscious. A map denies me the experience of felt difference — real difference! — replacing it with the flat, lifeless fiction of ‘Them’ against ‘Us‘ — the delusions of nationalism, of homogenized spaces and secure boundaries. Homeland security. No alarms, and no surprises. In this the map is a mental tool that allows me to paint everything with the same brush. The map is the colonizer’s hammer.

A carpet can be a map too, but of a different kind. In its design, in its intricate system of directions, patterns, and rhythms, the abstract and the material are entwined. On a carpet the theoretical is sensual, the logical is physical, and flatness has three dimensions. Where the carpet is intricate, the map is facile. Where the carpet is imaginative, the map is definitive. The carpet offers protection, the map is a weapon. The carpet belongs to the orient, the map, promising orientation, leads to orientalism.

The carpet too holds a promise, one that is less familiar but more appealing: texture, pattern, repetition, abstraction fabricated and tangible; movement in more than one direction; forms without content, questions without answers; patterns that point to other patterns. The carpet as re-presentation of a mobile order of knowledge that doesn’t support the fixed dichotomy between subject and object, culture and nature. Europeans and North Americans like to sit on chairs. A chair is designed for one person only. A chair elevates and separates. Foreigners often fall between two stools.

Sigmund Freud, an orientalist in his own right, put trust in the carpet. His richly draped consulting room promised relief from the psychic wounds caused by a symbolic order that reduces life to two dimensions. Not for long! First the Nazis forced Freud (‘this oriental Jew’) to flee Vienna for London, where couch and rugs found a new home at 20 Maresfield Gardens. Later, the modernist turn in psychoanalysis replaced Freud’s orientalist setting with the Mies van der Rohe Barcelona daybed and the Eames Chair. The rugs may have disappeared from the psychoanalyst’s office — the erasures remain, in need to be healed. Let’s find a way to begin, even if it takes one thousand and one nights:

"Whoever sitteth on this carpet and willeth in thought to be taken up and set down upon an other site will, in the twinkling of an eye, be borne thither, be that place nearhand or distant many a day's journey and difficult to reach."


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