City Drawings as Spatial Grotesque
By Sheila Dickinson. Originally published as part of Constellation 10 on October 1, 2010.
In Irish society there is a desire to keep things in their place, maintain tradition, and present a continuum of order, which became heightened after independence in 1922 when the desire for stability, secure social boundaries and norms increased. The Republic’s first Taoiseach, Eamon DeValera, further supported these norms in the 1937 constitution, wherein woman was “consigned to the home” in binding legal terms, woman’s traditional and acceptable role as mother was fortified. Fifty years later in the 1980’s, rules regarding woman’s “proper place” had begun to change. As of 1973 married women were allowed to keep their jobs. However, a wild, raucous, disruptive women’s movement of burning bras and mass protest in order to take woman out of her “proper place” did not occur with the same velocity and power as in the U.S. or England.
If beauty is part of a continuum of order and civilization, then it is in keeping with cultural norms. Ugly, by contrast, is nature that “is not in its place”, falling out of its assigned order and the rational. Women’s beauty in Ireland was directly related to their proper place in the stable, domestic private sphere. The work of several key contemporary Irish women artists is visually ugly and at times so disgusting that it repulses the viewer. Their art upends the hierarchy of beauty, order, and norms. The pain of bramble, bees, and thorns (Alice Maher); the wicked irony of the bestial cow-woman mutating into monster (Dorothy Cross); and the world remapped, painfully slowly, against the rush of the modern, and with its historical power destroyed (Kathy Prendergast) – all involve a refusal of both aesthetic and social beauty. Trapped in an order, in the sealed and orderly construct of beauty, transformation can occur through becoming misshapen. Through their anti-aesthetic, spatial actions, the grotesque nature of the existing system of social order is revealed. Inequality of women is grotesque and inhumane. To engender political transformation, an aesthetic transformation is required.
The grotesque in art causes objects, forms and materials to become misshapen, monstrous and strange. Such an aesthetically misshapen world would allow for “in a political sense, anarchy to rule, as borders are fluid, identities are blurred, and the dominant organizing principles that order the world are gone.” What would a map of this bizarre and grotesque world look like? This world that removes the “dominant organizing principles” would look a lot like City Drawings, Kathy Prendergast’s ongoing mapping project, which radically disorients the viewer.
City Drawings are accurate, transcribed from geographically executed maps. She removes all rational, scientific, or useful information. When exhibited, the individual City Drawings are hung at eye-level closely together in a row that runs around the room. The viewer is given a sheet of paper with the list of cities that are mapped. However, there are no numbers or other indicators to match the city map to its corresponding name. It is difficult for the viewer to continually check the name with each city drawing when there are more than 180 in total. After fifty, this naming task becomes boring, frustrating and pointless. The viewer becomes, much like the city maps themselves, only spatially aware of the allotted A4 piece of paper, condensed or expanded to fit. Lined up around the room the world as we know it disintegrates.
Where does the viewer stand in this new world order? How does one tell a developing nation from a first world country? How do these organic looking blobs, with no sealed borders, relate to the place where each viewer originates? Although City Drawings does not materially gesture out into space, this artwork is entirely spatial in theme and content. Prendergast’s reordering of the world is, strictly speaking, a realignment of geographical space as we physically and factually believe it to be. Order and the hierarchy of power, based on centre-periphery relations, is upended through her renegotiation of space. The viewer steps into a room with a ring of web-like drawings hung around it. Instead of looking at the world whole, in the form of a perfectly round globe, the urban heart of each nation swirls around the viewer. This disorientation is a challenge to the comfortable placing of the body in relation to the world and thus a challenge to the viewer’s sense of a whole and stable subjectivity, engaging City Drawings in an effective “spatial logic of disgust”.
In 1929, the Surrealist publication Variétés, included a map of the world where “Paris is located in Germany, Alaska is enormous, the United States is nonexistent, and New Guinea dwarfs the continent of Africa.” The Surrealists distrusted rationality and order. Their transformation of the world reflects a possibility that Western Europe’s mapping and knowledge of the world, confident in its science of measuring and cartography, is only one form of knowledge system. This 1929 map historically demonstrates an anxiety about the events of WWI. Likewise, City Drawings within the contemporary context demonstrates the postmodern reconfiguration of globalism, where boundaries, at least for capital, are non-existent.
But more so it articulates a particularly postmodern sense of self, in which the whole, stable subject (like the round, sealed globe of the world) is no longer definite or intact, but spread out without clear identification and lightly drawn in pencil that could be erased and redrawn at anytime. “The smooth skin of the world bursts and the inside, whose existence we suspected all along but repressed all the more vehemently, gushes forth.” The pencil marks could actually be drawings of hair, fallen from the body in map-like formations, until a draft moves them, perhaps a door opens, and the hair blows away only to fall again in a different map-like form. Subjectivity, the work tells us, is likewise drawn in pencil and an ongoing work in progress affected by the many cultural and political changes that occur around the self.
The viewer is stuck in what Diderot classifies as an ugly world in which nature is out of place, taken to the extreme in City Drawings into a constant state of “out-of-placeness”. The entire project of City Drawings is to articulate a sense of displacement. Even as the eyes wander over the streets that one knows and identifies with as one’s own, the lines signifying the streets are too removed from the familiar. This alignment with the familiar creates the most successful art of the grotesque, because the viewer feels drawn in by the comfort of the familiar, only to become disoriented, confused and ultimately repelled by the constant feeling of “out-of-placeness”.
Inside the gallery, surrounded only by the City Drawings, a sense of nausea occurs as the excess of the miniscule criss-crossing and swerving streets, page after page, cause each place to become almost indistinguishable, to the point of becoming placeless. The work, as a result, creates for the viewer the feeling of eternal displacement, when one is uprooted from the place one has always known to a new and unfamiliar place with which one cannot easily identify or feel a sense of belonging. Due to the anonymity of the piece, the artist cannot be located or placed within the piece, no more so than viewers can place themselves.
The work then operates in the mode of disgust as it impinges spatially on the viewer’s sense of self and subjectivity. “The disgusting unfolds its affective power in the context of the aesthetic.” Boundaries are endlessly open and fluid in the work of Prendergast, allowing the flow between locales in City Drawings, but also between nature, science and art. Thus the skin of the world is re-ordered and the new spatial re-organization ensures that hierarchy is disregarded.
 Taoiseach (pronounced tee shuch), is Irish for Prime Minister.
 Kirsten A. Hoving, “Convulsive Bodies: The Grotesque Anatomies of Surrealist Photography,” Modern Art and the Grotesque, ed., Frances Connelly (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003) p. 238.
 Michel Chaouli, “Van Gogh’s Ear: Toward a Theory of Disgust,” Modern Art and the Grotesque, ed., Frances Connelly (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003) p. 48.
 Hoving, p 238.
 Chaouli, op. cit., p. 58.
 Ibid., 60.
1.-4. City Drawings. 1992 – present. Kathy Prendergast. Irish Museum of Modern Art.