‘Atlas’ Art Exhibit Maps Emotion

Exhibit explores the impact of the physical world on human thought

How does geography  influence myths and emotions? “Atlas: Map and Myth,” an exhibit on display until April 10 in Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS), explores this question. The art show, the second annual student-curated exhibit in this space, features the works of nine Harvard artists. In varying and creative ways, the works presented all explore the concept of physical space. Some focus on the objective act of mapping and others emphasize the subjective perceptions of the individual.

Originally intended to be an exhibit focused on globalization, the theme changed when the curators received the student art submissions. As Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) concentrator and exhibit co-curator Shannon E. Mulshine ’12 wrote in an email, the show’s theme “was inspired by the conversation we sensed between the pieces.”

These pieces, unified by a general theme of ‘location,’ vary widely in their interpretation of environment and space. “One underlying organizational principle,” Mulshine wrote, “was this procession from works that were interested in spatial mapping toward works that dealt with cultural myths of place.”

“Map Your Memories,” the far-reaching piece of New York City native Rebecca A. Cooper ’10, falls squarely into the spatial mapping category. Inspired by [Italian novelist] Italo Calvino’s book “Invisible Cities” and a summer job which had her make a map of public artwork in New York City, Cooper’s art explores the unavoidable bias of a mapmaker’s perspective. Two summers ago, she handed out 700 blank maps of Manhattan and asked New Yorkers to fill them with images and memories of their lives in the city. Cooper collected the ideas of as diverse a group as possible, eventually receiving 90 responses, including one from a 90-year-old, one from a 4-year-old, and even one from a homeless man.

A map is both a “portrait of a place and a self-portrait of the person who made it,” Cooper said, “A city is comprised of as many invisible cultures as there are people.” One person divided Manhattan into neighborhoods of relief and fear, while another pinpointed the location where he met his spouse. In the most beautiful piece, one subject filled the city map with images of bricks and the silhouette of a tree and birds.

Music concentrator Benjamin C. Cosgrove ’10, who grew up in Methuen, MA, also chose a subject close to home. “Commonwealth,” Cosgrove’s senior thesis, incorporates his original instrumental music, field recordings of sounds across Massachusetts, and interviews with state residents. This compelling and powerful testament to the Bay State moves geographically from the west to east as the subjects fluidly transition from the Berkshires to Boston. “I used the balance between the different types of sound to reflect patterns of development,” Cosgrove wrote in an email. “The instrumental parts basically represent the natural landscape, and the voices and other human sounds stand for developed or otherwise altered land, like cities and suburbs.”

“Massachusetts is three and a half hours wide and 45 minutes deep,” one resident observes in “Commonwealth,” his voice slowly replaced by chirping crickets, and, finally, expressive string instruments. Crunching leaves and the sound of farm machinery lend his recording a nostalgic quality. “I’m still in Massachusetts,” one woman wistfully recalls in this moving testament to Cosgrove’s home state.

In “Child Play,” a film narrated in both Russian and English, Lauren J. Ianni ’12 contrasts the playgrounds in Soviet Russia with those in the United States. The narrator explains that in American playgrounds, “the carefully-calculated design decides how the child will travel.” Yet in a Soviet playground, which is marked by less color and order, the children are not artificially protected and directed. Instead, they can explore the area in an uninhibited manner, free to use their imaginations as they move about the space.

The rough quality of the film, coupled with its frantic and dark atmosphere, presents an analysis of play space with a seriousness usually reserved for descriptions of foreign lands. With narration like “thoughts are made of plastic, metal, wood, rubber,” the audio element of this multimedia piece provides a unique perspective about the influence of structure on thought.

The senior thesis projects of Rachel D. Libeskind ’11 and Julia A. Rooney ’11 are also part of the exhibit, as are the works of two freshmen, Lutai Ju ’14 and Inanna L. Carter ’14. Photography by doctoral candidates Justin Hoke and Alexander S. Young completes the gallery.

“Atlas” unites memory, history, and geography in a distinctive exhibit that explores the impact of the physical world on thought. People, the exhibition posits, are shaped not only by ideas and interactions with others, but also by their relationship to the environment in which they live.