Projections (Sarah Winfrey) Which Way Is Up?

Geoff Quilley Curator of Maritime Art at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

To start by stating the obvious: this set of allusive, polysemic, multifaceted reliefs by Sarah Winfrey is an exploration of map-making. Like Spear's work, they question the boundaries between art and science, and are grounded in the differential mathematics and geometry by which various cartographic projections are calculated; but Winfrey is more explicitly concerned with mapping also as part of the history of the European visual tradition, and its proximity to the techniques, iconographies and aesthetics of print-making. A copper ellipse, Old Map undulates like an exhausted, discarded and beaten etching plate blackened with repeated inking-up. Thus these works take as their subject the processes and visual means of producing maps of the world, but represent this through a poetics of mapping: the work's mode of representation is identical with the subject represented.

Conventionally in the history of cartography maps are the culturally produced result of physical exploration of the geographical environment, but these works explore the map itself. Polar Disorder offers a reversal of Cook's Chart of the Southern Hemisphere: how to conceive such a revision of history in the map, to imagine the heroic Pacific Islander exploring and navigating Europe and America as virgin territory: what process of naming and appropriation would ensue? This points to a central concern, that maps are not stable and impartial records but representations, points of view, political, ideological, military, personal. The line on the map both distinguishes nations from each other and inscribes the frontier over which they collide. So what does it mean to substitute map for terrain? What does it mean to take mapping as the subject of the map?

In semiotic terms it entails the slippage of the signifier into the referent, with a consequent self-referentiality in the work of art: these are works about themselves and how maps produce meaning. The mapping of the map comprises in this sense an exploration of self. This is a normal function of maps, which in the modern tradition are always self-centred. If cartography serves to situate the self in relation to the rest of the universe, a by-product of this is the initial reflex when confronted with a map to try to locate oneself in it, to find some familiar landmark that enables understanding of the whole. There is, however, a much more complex examination of self here: these are not just maps, but in the first place works of art, of striking skill and beauty, forged and moulded out of artistic sensibility, by which the map is openly made metaphor.

Thus continents curl back like lemon peel in a seventeenth-century Dutch still-life. Landmasses are partly cut away as though in preparation for careful placement in someone's private travel journal. Life out of Square is a crucifix, a medieval T-O map, and also a flattened out box, like a casket or reliquary or dismantled packing crate: the continents contained as precious but unspecified and unnamed memorials of odyssey, or as so much baggage to be shipped over the surfaces they represent. Heaven's Gateway is ultramarine: beyond the sea, the colour of the Virgin's robe, in the form of an arc or canopy, the form of the earth's curvature seen through the aircraft window.

Created in Australia for exhibition in England, these works comprise a mapping of artistic identity constructed literally across the planet. Their projections are also projections of self, the longitude and latitude of how one recognises where and who one is in the world. They offer a mirror of the world derived from experience. Uninscribed, unannotated, their beautiful and lovingly crafted surfaces invite contemplation of personal topologies, the exploration and discovery of one's self.

Geoff Quilley is Curator of Maritime Art at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich