Ian Boyden > Essays > Chasing Shadows, Becoming Atlas

Chasing Shadows, Becoming Atlas

Ian Boyden

I begin to contemplate cosmography as though in the lofty mirror of the mind . . .
                — Gerardus Mercator, Preface to his Atlas (1595)[1]

To open one of Timothy C. Ely's books is to open a world of gathered mystery. There, enigmatic scripts and equations, curious diagrams and geometries, and peculiar topologies and projections combine to form remarkable maps. At once familiar and alien, Ely's maps are vehicles for incubating dreams, for gathering and plotting the trajectories of ideas, for inscribing our symbolic mind in Earth and sky. They simultaneously dislocate, disorient, and hypnotize. Distinctly “off the map,” these graphic images demonstrate a virtuosic array of marks and beautiful compositions. Gathered as books, they extend atlas-like invitations to cradle potential worlds.

Typically, maps chart various aspects of our world—the relative positions of cities, the topographical contours of a coastline, the speed and direction of currents within the ocean, or the stellar punctuation of the constellations. Each map diagrams fixed locations and relative positions of a given set of information and so allows us to navigate the external world. If we compare Ely's cartographic projects with paradigmatic maps, we can begin to understand what is unique about his vision.

As a young man, Ely pored over the maps in the Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington. It was there, one afternoon, that he had an epiphany. Remarking on the event, Ely states, “Until that day, my view of the universe was that it was fixed and stable. I was looking at this old map when suddenly I realized everything is in constant change. The immutability of the map was an illusion, each one was simply a projection of what had been.” With that, Ely's work changed. Instead of trying to create microcosms of the external world, he began to view maps as means for diagramming the potential of what could be.

All maps chase shadows—shadows cast by the birth and death of cities and states, the inexorable erosion of mountains and river valleys, the slow shift and drift of languages. What Ely discovered was that these shadows could, just as easily, be positioned within his mind. Ely posited that “If maps are already abstractions of what once was, why not take that one step further and make maps that are abstractions of maps themselves?” Using historical techniques of cartography, he began to chart the world of dreams and the imagination. Within the imagination, the world becomes as limitless as the shadows cast by the firing of billions of neurons.

Maps invite us to wander the world, and in their presence we avail ourselves of the exploration of the unknown. As Ely jubilantly declares, “The nice thing about maps is that they allow you to travel without actually going to the place! They are quintessentially metaphysical objects—even hyper-dimensional objects.” When we lose ourselves in a map, we exist in more than one place at a time.

In engaging one of Ely's images, we enter a palimpsest-like world in which we are suspended amid traces of some ancient and yet vaguely familiar gnosis. The result is an exhilarating sense of disorientation in which we are left to fend for ourselves. This is the chaos from within which a new order might be found. In the wake of such ontological upset we search for meaning. There is a heightened receptivity to structure, to line and color, to patterns. We begin to see the structure more as an idea than as a place, which is a generative mnemonic that shakes loose ideas and memories in our own minds.

In his short vignette, “On Exactitude in Science,” Jorge Luis Borges describes a country ruled by mapmakers. Their obsession with accuracy causes the maps to become larger and larger, until the map and the country are exactly the same size, and the citizens no longer know if they are living in the country or the map itself. Eventually, the map is abandoned to the forces of nature and it falls into oblivion. Borges's story points to that delightful juncture of consciousness where the thing and its name become at once unified and wholly separate. For a moment, the map becomes the world, and yet in that very instant stops being a map. Maps, it seems, must maintain their microcosmic stance regardless of whether they are a map of the world or a map of the mind.

A similar metaphorical delight can be found in the word “atlas,” which refers to a bound collection of maps. Gerardus Mercator (Flemish, 1512–1594) was the first person to use the word “atlas” to describe a book of maps in his Atlas sive Cosmographicæ Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et Fabricati Figura. In his preface, Mercator states that the name is in honor of the Greek Titan Atlas, condemned by Zeus to carry the celestial sphere upon his shoulders. His choice of names is strangely unnerving. The title “atlas” thus becomes less a title, and more an incantation to the reader—in a sense presaging a pending transformation. The moment we pick up an atlas, we ourselves become Atlas, shouldering a yet-to-be-opened world. That this was Mercator's intention is buttressed by the frontispiece he created for his 1595 edition of his Atlas, wherein he depicts Atlas holding the Earth in his hands, as if he were holding a book and turning its pages.

In this context, Ely's books of maps are most appropriately understood as atlases. In some of his more elaborate productions, the covers of his books are actually covered with amazingly elemental skins made from the Earth itself. Embedded into the leather are an array of soils, stones, and metals. Appearing ancient and eroded, these covers invite touch, so we may physically encounter the surface of Earth with our own hands. When we pick up one of Ely's books, we are simultaneously picking up a world—a world that is hyper-dimensional, metaphysical, and filled with diagrams of potentiality. Turning the pages, we are at once ourselves and Atlas and travelers chasing shadows through the lands of Ely's imagination.




Written for the exhibition "Timothy C. Ely: Line of Sight" at the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture, Spokane, Wasington



[1] Translated by David Sullivan, from the digital edition of Mercator's Atlas (Oakland, CA: Octavo Editions), p. 24.