Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Entropy and the Totally Buried Home in Jane Urquhart's A Map of Glass

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Entropy and the Totally Buried Home in Jane Urquhart's A Map of Glass

Article excerpt

IN THE FICTION OF JANE URQUHART, ANY SUBSTANCE OR LOCATION that is involved in how and what we are able to view is invariably significant, given that the ekphrastic attention directed at the activity of transposing imaged realities into pictorial form is a distinguishing feature of her work. In the case of A Map of Glass, the title of the book indicates a starting point for the consideration of Urquhart's handling of visuality in the novel, for it directly references the acclaimed Map of Broken Glass (1969) by Robert Smithson, the American earthwork and other media artist, which work is referred to more directly several times during the novel as well. While, for Smithson, his assemblage of shards of broken glass served as a hypothetical model of the lost continent of Atlantis, Urquhart's land artist Jerome is first led to recall Smithson' s piece through the forms of the breaking ice on the edge of the island he has gone to in order to take up an artistic residency. In both models, the planes and edges act as reflectors rather than as a substance to see through. Nevertheless, Jerome tells us that, while Smithson had been working initially with mirrors, he had decided against them for Map of Broken Glass. In using ordinary pieces of clear glass, this allowed the transient light conditions to dictate whether the "map" would glint and sparkle in reflective mode or whether it would allow the spectator standing next to it to see through any of its pieces, admitting the possibility of the "transparency of water,"1 in Jerome's summation. In whatever mode, perception of pattern over time or repeatability of perception are denied, countering, among other things, the symbolic contract provided by a map, the other key word in Urquhart's title. In addition, what Jerome sees in Smithson' s piece is "the brilliance and the feeling of danger in the piece: the shattering of experience and the sense that one cannot play with life without being cut, injured" (18). Here, yet another quality of glass is activated: its dangerous sharpness. Glass is something wc need to be careful with, for we can easily break it and it can easily wound us, even kill us, referencing both its fragility and our permeability at the same time.

Being both permeable and physically dangerous seems to reverse the lines of force in settler societies implied by maps, generally taken in contemporary cultural and literary studies to indicate the action of imposing cultural and gendered priorities and conceptualizations on the land.2 In this widely influential reading, maps serve the aggressive instrumentalization of the land by those who wish to gain power over it. Maps bear the signs of our sectioning and ownership of what we have classified and assigned. For a map to be a danger to those who draw it up and consult it is in some way to reverse the control of power and to loosen its claim on what it thinks it knows through this highly conventionalized form of representation. Smithson's Map of Broken Glass, however, is not only unconventional as a work of art (for its time), but only exists as a map because of its title, given that it is highly unlikely that without the title anyone would perceive it as a map of any sort. In Gilles Tiberghien's examination of the extensive referencing of maps in land art, a map "does not indicate a reality, rattier it causes meanings to circulate, becoming each artist's medium for these meanings."3 This parallels the naming activity of maps, in which features are given labels and classifications that, without the map, might not be perceived, the most flagrant being such things as the boundaries between nations, provinces, counties, and thus concerned with ownership, and the division of the landscape into graded entities such as knoll, outcrop, rise, hill, butte, mesa, mountain, and related terms.

Smithson's map, moreover, is a map of a legendary place that cannot be compared in any way with what it is representing, erasing any possibility of its specific referentiality, of being any sort of mirror held up to nature, in other words. …

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