The classical figure of Atlas—let’s take the Farnese Atlas as our oldest extant example—holds on his back the world in the shape of a celestial globe, a readable image of the heavens. If we were to circle this sculpture in three-dimensional space, we would count 41 constellations from ancient Greece: illustrations of star patterns whose forms have persevered to this day. Atlas’s spine is contorted and his muscles bulge; I witness his neck bowed and tug instinctually at my own shoulders, stiff in sympathetic reciprocity. It’s not that the sky is that heavy. Rather, Atlas only knows the sky as a burden handed down to him, and treats it with the weight that punishment projects into it. (And I have to admit that where others see Atlas’s strength, his exhaustion is what I want to see; this is the interpretation my mind magnetizes.)
As an emblem for our expanded notion of the atlas, I put forth visual artist Shary Boyle’s rendition of Atlas in her sculpture God’s Eye. Here, a boy-nymph appears to be carrying a black, mirrored ball—the titular organ—in his arms, enacting a postural reversal of the classical Atlas. In fact, the ball is sewn into his midsection, corporeally connecting boy to cosmos. Reflected and distorted by the rounded mirrors, the boy’s facial expression betrays nothing except perhaps bemusement. God’s Eye is not a map of the stars but an extinguished surface projecting back only what it reflects; it does not correspond to inherited visualizations of the “universe” but rather shows us ourselves when we get too close.
Our atlas is formless, unmapped, constantly leaking into our bodies.
My dad kept a road atlas in the car. Years of winter snow and mud sloshing around the floorpan had stained it brown, made the pages brittle and swollen. If someone, anyone, were to come up to my ear and whisper the word “atlas” to me, this is the image I would see. I don’t know if we ever made use of those maps, ruined maps with the ink running, Rimbey bleeding into Gull Lake, but they were there with us as we drove.
It would be years later before I knew that “atlas” could mean more than just a collection of maps. Or maybe what I learned was that a map could be more than a geographic representation of the external world.
The world is more than its space; it is also the objects arrayed therein, imprisoned. So in order not to be pinned and slain by their assumed meanings, we must lay the objects at wild angles with each other, offering them and ourselves the freedom to zigzag through the wildness of speculative meaning.
In 2018, French philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman published a book called Atlas, or the Anxious Gay Science. At the heart of this volume is an analysis of a rather unique atlas: Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas. Warburg’s Atlas is an “attempt to map the pathways that give art history and cosmography their pathos-laden meanings.”1 The work consists of a set of black panels, each containing an array of art-historical and cultural images. Crucially, Warburg and Didi-Huberman both think about the atlas beyond the conventional geographic or cartographic sense. The atlas here becomes something else: a way of placing objects together to discover and bring to light hitherto concealed relationships, resonances, and rhymes between the various ephemera that constitutes our material and representational world. A map doesn’t need to be a tool representing space and the various routes one can take to get from point A to point B. It can be much looser, conceptual, poetic. The routes and pathways between things might not be asphalt and gravel, but thought and fleeting sensations.
Didi-Huberman writes that the “essential dialectics of [Warburg’s] atlas” allows “things their anonymous sovereignty, their abundance, their irreducible particularity.”2 This “anonymous sovereignty” is the object standing in a throne the exact size of its kingdom: it belongs to itself, and its minimal status (it’s “just” a wad of sheep’s guts, “just” an old stone) contains a maximal infinity. Interpretation, the unforgiving art of hermeneutics, becomes an attitude of addition and multiplication rather than of substitution and signification: Warburg did not replace the thing with its meaning, but simply added more things, exponentially expanding the field of potential resonances without resolving them in discourse. For us, this was an ethics of letting-be, a model for putting aside our frantic, groping faculties of comprehension.
William T. Vollmann’s towering book The Atlas begins with this sentence:
“Scissoring legs and shadows scudding like clouds across the marble proved destiny in action, for the people who rushed through this concourse came from the rim of everywhere to be ejaculated everywhere, redistributing themselves without reference to each other.”
Redistributing themselves without reference to each other. Is that not the model, the modus operandi, for a freak atlas that—contrary to its classical purposes—breaks down networks of referentiality in order to reconstitute them?
Let’s give them a glimpse of our nascent atlas. But without too much commentary—just a sprinkling of italics as a frame around the thing—an embossed engraving that self-consciously points to itself and laughs nervously. Certainly we ought not explain what we anyway couldn’t put into words without betraying the intrinsic movement as the atlas spread outward, from generation to generation, grew ever more unwieldy as associations mutated and entangled. It was a free space from which to flower out: to leave agape the open sore of the ordinary. It lost momentum as the rest of life came rushing in. I miss our atlas and its wild angular growth.
I agree; we ought to conceal more than we show. I’m not sure what could be shown here anyways… the process is more about the self than the product. We moved through the atlas, and it moved us. I haven’t thought about missing it, but reflecting on it now I feel a certain kind of relief to be excused from the table, wandering my life separate from it, forgetting its intrigue, its power.
We can serve appetizers here, on little plates, just enough to tantalize, to incite.
How do you chart a path when you don’t know where to begin and have no sense of the destination? How do you map something that can only emerge in the very making of the map? A paradox, a possibility: maybe there is some way to think any thing in this world alongside any other thing. Creating a context for interaction between distinct entities invites a consideration of their relationships; the webs of the mind start spinning, bringing things together, hanging them side by side along a fine thread. A mouldering grape placed next to the Mona Lisa might become a social commentary. A mouldering grape placed next to an air conditioner might become a narrative on health and technology. A banana placed next to a pornographic magazine is a phallic symbol. The capacity of the imagination is vast. The inventory of the world equally vast. When orchestrated, these two notions can elicit incredible play, even prompt the creative machines of the mind into production. There is an offer of refreshment.
Warburg’s Atlas proceeds as “Tables,” designated spaces where different images and objects can be arranged, grouped together, framed. The world already contains all things together, in contact; it’s so overwhelming that its complexity, most of the time, has to be ignored, attenuated, whittled down to something small enough for us to grasp, simple enough to be functional.
Tables are spaces for gathering. There, eccentric relationships can be observed, scrutinized, appreciated. To take up the atlas as method, as creative process, one needs a table, some special place bracketed off from the world that designates that the objects therein are purposively included there together; that there is agency, a reason, that gathers them here. To confront the table as table means to recognize reason, to see that there is something joining these things together, some hidden logic that might be uncovered by the softest breath.
Didi-Huberman (at last): “It is a ‘table’ on which one decides to place certain disparate things with a view to establishing multiple “intimate and secret relations,” an area possessing its own rules of arrangement and of transformation for relinking certain things whose links are not at all obvious. And for making these links, once they are brought to light, the paradigm of a rereading of the world.”3
Our Atlas: History
When we created our atlas, we did so haphazardly. I don’t know if there is any other way to approach it. To embrace the dangerous fertility of objects and their capacity to mean profoundly different things in profoundly different places.
We didn’t make our atlas all at once. We did it generation by generation, including our responses and reactions as part of the atlas itself. Since the atlas is, at base, an experiment for one’s own thinking about things, it’s better to be honest and lay oneself down there on the table.
We decided to begin by each choosing three objects to place on the table. These could be images or text (but not exclusively one or the other).
[Digression: Choose your table carefully. We used Miro, an online multimedia platform that allowed us to upload and arrange content, as well as add notes. As time went on, as we built upon our table, I encountered its limitations: it could not house a smell, the feeling of a warm breeze moving over lake-damp skin. Sometimes we had to turn to language to house the sensations we wanted to include, as I am once again forced to here. Containers within containers…]
How to Build an Atlas
Prepare the table. This is a special space, a frame. The table encloses the things inside it as being-together, joined in some way.
Begin the gathering. Start constructing your atlas by populating it with objects. Maybe they are familiar things. Maybe they are things that you have been waiting to be surprised by. Put them on the table. These things shouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with one another at the outset. It is the goal of the process to reimagine these things via their recontextualization in this highly contrived table-space. Be prepared to let the network of associations that define this object go, or be transformed. Be aware: objects are unlikely to escape the atlas process unmarred. As you embed them over and over again with new objects, different things, what that object means in your mind will change; at the very least, the memory of it being included in your atlas will stick to it like an ornament that cannot be ignored.
- Once the objects are placed upon the table, observe them. Observe them together. What do these things mean here, all side-by-side? Are there resemblances? Tensions? Does their adjacency evoke a lost memory? Sit with the objects on the table and let them speak to you.
- Respond. React. Do your observations prompt you to create something to include, a new part and dimension of your atlas? Do they inspire you to involve other objects that might serve a productive contrast or complement? Add to your atlas, expand it, let it slowly bloom.
- Move between these states, careful observation, engagement, and addition. These are the generations of your atlas. It will be complete whenever you feel that you have produced a map, whatever that means.
A Parting Word
We debated whether or not to include our atlas in its totality, the one large table we crafted over several months and evolutions. Since this atlas was ours, we realized it could not tell our story to you. If you looked at it, all you would find would be the web of your own imagination, your own history and interests. God’s Eye glistens back. Creativity is a maddening, deafening wave. We thought it more prudent to explain our method here than subject you to the full product of our experiment. Our destinations cannot be the same; the paths we take will inevitably be our own. All we can offer is encouragement: try building an atlas yourself. Better yet, build it in collaboration with others, so as to feel the full swerve of another’s mind interfering with your designs, new constellations becoming visible by threading together pre-existing stars. (The other, as usual, is chaos.)
Chart a map that has never been attempted nor even conceived. Imagine all of those classical atlases, stained and useless, with their roads and paths already cut and worn. Let them burn away in the mind. At last, place the ash of the future upon the table.