During the political upheaval of 1989, the cartographer and journalist Philippe Rekacewicz recalled how cartography can manipulate our view of the world. East Germany, which had ‘been the subject of many projections’, appeared to him as terra incognita, since only outdated topographic maps of the GDR had been known. ‘White spots’ were ‘not uncommon’ on Soviet and other Eastern European maps too. ‘The official maps were fictitious: the West looked like an untouched region, there were no military bases on its territory, and important cities were tens of kilometres out of place.’ Rekacewicz concludes that ‘every map lies by hiding things. It produces a flattened version of what exists in the vastness of space, it distorts reality, because one can never reproduce everything that exists.’
The background of Olaf Osten’s drawing Area 006 (p. 65) is a map that allegedly represents the economy of Europe. As in most of his works comprising cartographic material, Osten does not take in the map as it is but turns it upside down in a critical gesture. Here the so called ‘map of economy’ dating from the post-war period displays the positions of mineral resources in a graphical fashion typical of this time. Maps like this one became means of education; the different symbols stand for iron and oil, others for vineyards and forests. Europe seems like an infinite resource ready to be exploited by its population, a picture from another time when climate protection and global sustainability were not considered political issues. The mindset conveyed in this map had an ‘open end’, as the artist puts it. When Rekacewicz reflected on how maps influenced his view of Eastern Europe, school maps such as the one used here shaped the generation of political and economic decision makers that are now in power. ‘Those who got to know the world studying these maps in the 1960s are now taking decisions’, Osten states.Maps like this one produce a ‘form of knowledge’ whose purpose is hegemony. The philosopher Christine Buci-Glucksmann writes: ‘From the unknown areas of maritime and solar distance, from the dangerous journey unconstrained by the laws of nature, nothing remains from these sources but symbolised knowledge, images permitting every form of intervention. It can be read and interpreted at will, divided into atlantes and reassembled as planisphere. Maps can never be more than an ideal substitute for world domination, a projected world, an imago mundi.’
The ‘projected world’ in Osten’s map opts for a narrower view: ‘economy’ is only considered with regard to natural resources. Today this perspective itself is put into perspective. Resources are no longer considered infinite, the long-lasting ideal of steady economic growth is under attack. For that reason, the artist draws a counter image on the map, a symbol of sustainability: the olive tree, a plant that ‘outlasts a person’s life and exists for generations’.Osten opposes the concept of growth with sustainable management. ‘Each map offers multiple points of view. However, these viewpoints are not open perspectives but envisioned targets’, says Buci-Glucksmann.An ‘economic map’ displays mineral resources, other maps show us political borders or topographical conditions but each and every one must be reductive in its depiction of the world. Otherwise it would be a one-to-one representation, as imagined by Jorge Luis Borges6) and others. Of course, almost every map has political or social implications, and so do other works by Osten.
Area 016, for instance, is based on a ‘political map’ of Europe (p. 27) scaled at 1 to 60 million, which Osten found in one of his pocket calendars. He drew four signposts on it pointing in different directions: one to Russia, one to Iceland, one to the middle of the sea, and one back to the observer. Where to go? ‘The arrows point beyond the system of the map to various political solutions’, says the artist. ‘It’s like confused shouting. One stands in front of it incapable of forming an opinion.’ The arrows are fixed to a post that ‘someday somebody set in stone’.Does the post stand for the European Union? Do the signs refer to institutions, parties, lobbyists and stakeholders that drive the electorate in different directions? The openness of Osten’s art allows for multiple interpretations.
Both the signpost and the map have something in common: a connection with movement. Movement and cartography relate to one another. Christine Buci-Glucksmann elaborates on this relation: ‘Etymology teaches us that in Latin the word map refers to a written or painted itinerarium, like the famous Roman map, the Peutinger Tables, on which all paths of the empire converge in a centre, in Rome.’
This moment of movement is countered by a number of trees that occur frequently in Osten’s works. For the artist, trees are places of lingering and musing. A cedar stretches its branches over a map of the Middle East, cypresses pullulate over Germany, a ginko tree rises on an inverted calendar page. These trees often form intriguing connections with the ground. In Area 006, the red grapes, which denote wine areas, actually dangle on the tree, elsewhere the dots, which stand for cities, can be seen as cherries. Rivers and roads resemble branches. The symbols of idleness are thus combined with the signs of movement.
The dichotomy between movement and idleness, between dynamics and statics, runs through this catalogue. It also becomes apparent in Osten’s drawings of train or subway interiors, where people are moved yet remain seated. These seemingly paradoxical situations find another form in Osten’s short films: water washes around a bottle without moving it. A cable car glides over a mountain range but the shadow remains firm as the camera is part of the object casting its silhouette. Overall, these works by Olaf Osten reverse the concept of the ‘rushing standstill’, a term coined by Paul Virilio in a cultural-critical sense. Osten’s works analyse a standing motion: You are on your way, but you are still stuck. Like an intriguing map, Osten’s works send their viewers on a journey, never leaving their armchair.
Nina Schedlmayer, 2019