The Map is Not the Territory

The “Moving Mountains” piece located in the Portland Art Museum. The exhibition expresses themes of fluidity, control, and boundaries.
Photo by Logan Case

The Map is Not the Territory is an exhibition hosted by the Portland Art Museum that showcases five artists native to the Pacific Northwest; from Oregon, Washington, through Vancouver B.C., and Alaska. The central theme that unites these artists is the idea that maps and boundaries are superimposed and inherently false. The context is climate change and the indigenous people that have occupied these territories sustainably for millennia.  Artists working in diverse disciplines converge in expressing far-reaching themes of fluidity, control, and boundaries.

To this point, Anchorage artist Jenny Irene Miller is originally from Nome, with her family ancestry rooted in the indigenous village of Kiŋigin, translated to Wales in English. She worked with the Alaskan LGBTQ group to produce a series of framed portraits of individuals who do not identify with the gender binary. The piece, titled “Continuous,” is inspired by the pre colonial indigenous attitudes toward gender fluidity, known as Two Spirit. This term is rooted in indigenous culture, used to mean someone who possesses both masculine and feminine characteristics. “With ‘Continuous’ I’m hoping to represent different cultures and really educate people on the diversity of indigenous people, that we don’t look a certain way, we don’t all think the same way and we have unique world views. It focuses on community and how we can celebrate and elevate the indigenous LGBTQ and Two Spirit community,” explains Irene Miller in an interview with Grace Kook-Anderson, the curator of The Map is Not the Territory.

The theme of fluidity ties pieces together from far-reaching disciplines. Seattle artist Rob Rhee explores many mediums in his work, including sculpting and poetry. Much of his work explores the theme of formlessness. Khee spoke on the Art museum podcast, “a vessel is a very fundamental creator of difference. Once you have a vessel you have, you have an inside and an outside, it affects the world. It doesn’t simply like hold a thing. It embodies a situation where you can have something sacred and something profane. You can have something contaminated in something pure. And I think a lot of my work revolves around these borders or kind of moments of encounter or sort of like edges. And the vessel for me seemed like a something that is so straightforward, and yet its effect is is really quite profound.” One of his pieces is titled “Uninhabited Space.” It features a gourd that has grown around a metal cage, enveloping the wire with plant flesh. Its described as a system that’s engaged but not controlled.

Control, or rather the illusion of it, that we have exerted on the natural world and over indigenous people is another strong component of these pieces. It’s a theme found in the work of Portland artist Fernanda D’Agostino. Her piece takes place in a fully immersive space, between two simultaneous projections. In one, the silhouette of a woman’s graceful dancing body is backdropped by a powerful fire. Her outline dissolves and she’s consumed into the flames. In another, the heat signatures of wandering bodies are small in the distance of a moving scope while a storm thunders around them. The participant feels a palpable vulnerability at the feet of mother nature. However, the confounding nature of our position in the world is that we’re the ones causing these catastrophes.

 The Map is Not the Territory is derived from a phrase used by philosopher Alfred Korzybski, expressing the fundamental distinction between how an object is represented versus the underlying reality. His intent was to show and improve how the language we use affects the way we interact with others and the environment. The Map is Not the Territory is a conversation among artists around a shared land and reviving indigenous values in efforts to decolonize. Climate change is the precedence for rethinking these systemic values. It provides the urgency we need to look to cultures that have lived here for far longer and more sustainably.

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