On being fooled

While we were in Liverpool last Saturday we called into the Tate to have another look at the Turner, Monet, Twombley exhibition and also to see the new Thresholds exhibition that is being shown as part of the Tates’ contribution to the Liverpool Biennial.

In the first room I spotted a map of Britain hung on the wall at the other end of the room. My first thought is why is the gallery displaying a rooad map? Is that meant to be art?

It was actually in two parts – a map of England and another of Scotland, the outlines and shape of both clearly recognisable. Or were they?

Layla Curtis, ‘United Kingdom’ 1999

Looking closer something didn’t seem quite right. It then became apparent that there was something odd about the coastlines, in fact in some places they were quite a bit out of kilter. Then I noticed that England seemed to be a little light on towns and cities, whereas Scotland, which is predominantly rural and wilderness other than the “central belt”, seemed to be packed with towns and cities. Looking closely it became clear that the maps weren’t of the real England and Scotland, but were a collage made from road maps cut up and rearranged to create a good approximation of the shape of the two countries but with everything in the wrong place. “Scotland” containing the English conurbations and road system and “England” with Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish towns, cities and roads. It had been very cleverly done so that the roads linked up into a proper network.

This work was United Kingdom by Layla Curtis. 

“a large collage consisting of an altered version of the road map of the United Kingdom. It is made up of small squares, cut from commercially produced road atlases, and stuck onto two abutting rectangular panels.”

The artist specialises in creating these “rearranged maps” and other works based on geography.

I guess that United Kingdom has a number of messages about place and identity. But my initial thoughts were about how our brain is so easily fooled. We look at the overall shape and gain an initial impression and fool ourselves that we are looking at something we recognise. The map of Britain is so ingrained into our consciousness that we don’t look at the work properly. We see the overall shape; it looks familiar, so in our mind it becomes what we think it is rather than what it is. The work has been so skilfully created that we are easily fooled.