Spatial chronologies : territorial traces of time

María Gómez López, Art Historian

In « Periodising Contemporary Art », Alexander Alberro quoted Meyer Schapiro as follows : « As historical classification [periodizing] is an instrument ordering the historical objects as a continuous system in time and space […] it also permits correlation […] and thereby contributes to explanation. » (Alberro 2008 : 66)

Periodizing is described as an instrument that spatio-temporally orders historical objects, but which formulation is unavoidably questionable and subjective (what events, what objects, what history, in whose/which time and space ?). It is objective to the extent that it is agreed, assimilated and naturalized by the social context within which it is created, but subjective in the sense that it is agreed on a convenient self-serving basis and circumstances. As time and space themselves (Harvey 1990 : 418-419).

The concept of « periodization » is often immediately associated with time rather than with space, a time articulated around certain remarkable events that become transitional points between periods. However, in her presentation at Arvimm workshops, Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel emphasized the inextricable connection of time and space, stating that the ruptures that mark the transition from one period to another, are spatial, geopolitical, and aesthetic before becoming temporal. These changes are often echoed, and thus traceable, in the artworks.

In Artl@s, the research program Joyeux-Prunel leads, the team advocates for a spatial and transnational history of the arts and humanities, one that leans on a spatial, digital and cartographic methodological approach that encompasses the locations and circulation of the studied artists and artworks in larger time spans and geographical extensions (Joyeux-Prunel 2012 : 9-25). Mapping is conceived, as stated, as a visual translation of complex notions in the framework of this project (Joyeux-Prunel 2012 : 14).

Even though the cartographic approach in this project is mainly conceived as a methodological and analytical tool, there is also an interest in further examining the artworks that, since the mid to late 20th century, often incorporate maps as well as cartographic and spatial outputs. As stated, « the map index incites us to take seriously and to read in a more socio- and geo-political way how some artists’ approached the realities of the time with spatial and cartographic representations […] Less specifically, we want to also study space in the works, and to confront this with our own maps » (Joyeux-Prunel 2012 : 21).

In my dissertation, I examine the proliferation of artistic reflections on the inhabited, travelled and lived space in contemporary art from the Arab world. In my thesis, I aim at identifying the reasons behind the incorporation and subversive manipulation of conventional political maps by artists and the simultaneous development of alternative means of spatial representation, often rooted in and articulated around the personal experience of the depicted territories, broadly understood as alternative, subjective or intimate cartographies.

This emphasis on the time-space connection was an indication that I not only needed to trace a possible chronological framework for the research, the works hitherto merely referred to as « contemporary » but also to identify them as a possible spatio-temporal, cartographic, and/or artistic reflections of a certain context.

Map, art and the MENA region

In « Off the map : contemporary art from the Middle East », Kaelen Wilson-Goldie writes about the growing presence of maps in contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa. Among the artworks that are mentioned in the article there were those by Oraib Tukan, Moataz Nasr, Marwan Rechmaoui and Mona Hatoum (Wilson-Goldie 2010 : 60-67). Throughout the text, the author reflects on the reasons behind such a cartographic proliferation, one that corresponds with the parallel exploration of alternative means of spatial representation.

In many of these works, maps are subversively manipulated in order to reveal their lacks and inconsistencies. In others, the aim is to represent territories from the personal experience of place rather than searching for a global, bird’s eye view that flattens the unfolding daily realities of these very same places. With this purpose, the artworks often take as a point of departure and articulate overlooked and unmapped aspects. This way, the more traditional and recognizable cartographic lexicon is not always completely disregarded, but is frequently overwritten in the search for alternative and more adequate means of spatial expression. In these terms, the theories of geographical imagination developed since the 1960s onwards are of particular interest, especially when it comes to the exploration of the role of imagination and memory. The particular context and vital trajectory may well play into the representation of space.

To briefly mention some well-known examples that could illustrate this phenomenon, Yto Barrada visually maps Tangier taking as a central point the lurking travels across the Strait of Gibraltar in A Life Full of Holes. In her comics, Zeina Abirached often charts Beirut in conflict through recalled « choreographies », the metamorphosized urban space imposed to survive its crossing. Jumana Abboud unfolds a poetic political cartography of the latent, fragmentary landscape of supernatural Palestine by identifying its once revered ? and now largely forgotten ? haunted places in some of her drawings, performances or video-installations. Bouchra Khalili provides an alternative account of space via latent counter-cartographies of different parts of the Mediterranean basin stemming from the experiences of clandestine migrants recounted in her Mapping Journey Project and Constellations.

Ranging from autobiographical reference to collections of testimonies , from restoration and re-mapping to the intimate account of unmapped and vanishing landscapes, from the cartographical format to more flexible expressions of the territory, these works disclose a latent concern with conveying the inhabited, lived and traversed spaces in an individual practice, time and story. In them, memory and imagination, orality and storytelling, transit and stagnation, viewers’ interaction and re-enactment converge, defying the supposedly « objectivity » of maps to dive into more subjective, interactive, fragmentary and procedural territorial insights which, nevertheless, betray a cartographic approach.

Cartobiographies and chronotopes : (hi)stories of the self, the land, the time

« Les artistes sont parcours. »
Catherine David (Arvimm Doctoral Workshop 2018)

In A map of good memories, Stéphanie Saadé carved out a subjective map of Lebanon made of itineraries followed at different times to places where she lived good memories. She initially drew these routes over a map of the country that she later isolated from the cartographic background and rearranged to constitute a new map. The silhouette is exhibited on the floor and covered with gold, making it passable to visitors who, by walking over the cartography of her memory, blur and disseminate it, as if reproducing the process of memory and oblivion, as well as the interactive transformation of place.

This piece highlights at least three elements that are often present in many of these « cartographic » artworks. First, movement, transit, displacement, and itineraries serve as points of departure and articulators of the work and its narrative(s). Second, different times and places converge and overlap, breaking chronological linearity and explicit, identifiable localization. Third, the (auto)biographical nature of many of these works is a vital account articulated around different levels of movement, self/being (in) space and time.

Following these reflections, I have suggested to read these representations as what Palacios Ortiz called cartobiographies, « cartographic inventions for experiential representations », accounts of space and time from the personal perception, narratives of the self from the spatialized and temporalized being (Palacios Ortiz 2014 : 269-276). In these accounts, localized memory, subjective spatial representation, particular vital trajectories or temporal archaeology intersectionally converge, revealing not only the multifaceted nature of these narratives but also the ever-expanding versions of space-time : as many as people are.

It may be the case that the notion of the chronotope applied to the arts field could serve as a prism through which to approach these different, though interconnected, notions of space-time-self-context that these cartobiographies engender. Bakhtin defined the chronotope as an « intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed » (Bakhtin 1987 : 84). In his analysis, the author unveils the plural forms the chronotope may acquire, what in turn, account for the multifaceted nature of ‘cronos’, ‘topos’ and the subjective and plural readings and articulations they may raise in the artistic (or literary, in the case of Bakhtin) production.

Could the notion of chronotope, poetic as it may be, serve as a guiding thread to explore the multiple spatio-temporal narratives disclosed in these pieces ? Could it guide the observer, the writer, or the historian to elaborate on a chronology or periodization that stems from a particular view of the spatio-temporal, geopolitical reality an artwork conveys, the one within which it was originated and may be echoing ?

Artistic geo-graphy : (re)writing space… and time ?

Even though this subject is neither exclusive not extensive to all the artistic production in today’s so-called MENA region, it seems to be recurrent. The origins and standpoints of these particular reflections vary from country to country and even from individual to individual. Together, they seem to constitute a constellation of spatial representations rooted in the day-to-day dynamics of inhabitation and particular vital trajectories that are difficult to analyze from all-embracing perspectives.

The myriad of proposals somehow traverses such a contested region in terms of geography and territorial definitions, constituting a fluid and expanding geographical imaginary that challenges and transcends the very geographical denomination of the region as Middle East and North Africa, drawn by and in the climax of European imperialist fantasies from the end of the 19th and the early 20th century and progressively naturalized (Culcasi 2010 : 583-584, 587).

This implicit (occasionally explicit) challenge of more conventional geopolitical formations is often contained in the pieces themselves. For instance, in her New(er) Middle East, Oraib Tukan invites visitors to reconfigure the Middle East by moving pieces of the puzzle she has broken the region into. The playful and interactive piece contains a sarcastic and diachronic reflection on the reiterated re-enactment of the « game » that, for instance, Alfred Thayer Mahan or Sykes-Picot played in the early 20th century, unbelievably still on-going (Peters 2006 and others).

In a way, it could also be interesting to think of this set of artistic cartographies as geo-graphies in the most literal sense : a form of writing the land based on individual poetics of inhabitation and spatio-temporal interaction. May they be challenging, together with more conventional territorial representations, the imposed and often dissonant imported periodizations and chronologies to coin new ones that stem from particular vital rhythms as inserted in collectively assumed temporal frameworks ? That is, could they also be read as chrono(bio)graphies ?

Polyphonic mapping : the convergence of art and cartography beyond MENA

It is worth mentioning that this phenomenon is not endemic to the MENA region. Appearing as early as the beginning of the 20th century and with a great expansion later, internationally there is a plethora of map art, that is, art that either incorporates maps or reconsiders or reinvents the exercise of mapping. Authors like Denis Cosgrove, Denis Wood, J.B. Harley or Ruth Watson have explored the proliferation of this phenomenon.

In this context, how should the proliferation or map art in the context of the Middle East and North Africa not fall into the « regionalization of the region » and be considered within a broader context ? What does this cartographical presence in the arts respond to ? Does this phenomenon have any particular characteristic that differentiates it regionally ? Is it possible to read these works as a locally unfolding reaction to a global phenomenon ?

It is interesting to think that by establishing connections between different « cartographic creations » in varied parts of the world, it might be possible to identify an array of diverging local and individual readings on space (and time) that somehow constitute a transversal art historical narrative, one that articulates broader experiences of place, time and self over time and that, in itself, may be « mappeable » and « periodizable. »

A possible mapping of spatialized chronologies in the art ?

In the course of my research, I have mainly focused on the period that spans from the 2000s until today, when these artistic manifestations of space seem to increase. However, in the MENA region, the earliest works can be seen as early as the 1990s, a moment often considered, for varied reasons, as the transitional point from modern to contemporary art for, but also a moment when the crumbling of the pan-Arab dream became progressively more tangible and spatialized, especially following successive events that shaped the region geographically as we know it today and to which many artists reacted unanimously (Al Qasemi 2015 : 15).

Would it be possible to elaborate a chronological framework by actually reading these artistic responses in spatio-temporal and socio-geo-political terms ? Could these artistic cartobiographies and their underlying reflections be read as a turning point in the 90s, accompanying the proposal of this date as the beginning of contemporary art in the region, especially considering the transition from more figurative landscape paintings in oil that dominated throughout the 20th century to more intimate, more political works in new media, often featuring spatial reflections of a personal experience ?

It might be interesting to broach at this point Hamid Keshmirshekan’s proposals for the term « contemporary, » as they set an interesting framework from where to read the artworks analyzed here. Beyond a mere chronological category, the contemporary signifies, Keshmirshekan claims, a new world relationship, one that permanently questions the ontology of present time and critically reviews the representations of the past, often drawing on subversive narratives and local traditions. In addition, he also states, this understanding of the contemporary would enable the assumption of divergent approaches to the contemporary as local responses to a global phenomenon (Keshmirshekan 2017 : 144-146). These reflections go hand in hand with the proposals I aim to raise in my own research.

Understanding the contemporary as an attitude somehow breaks the rigidity of an imposed chronology with an unwavering starting and closing date. Instead, it opens up the possibility of analyzing the emergence of the contemporary within specific contexts and (looking) at/from different times, avoiding the all-encompassing key-date/key-event formula.

In addition, and following Keshmirshekan’s observations, the contemporary is forged and artistically crystallized progressively, contextually and heterogeneously. In this sense, the contemporary acquires plural forms born from specificity, but is still part of a bigger context and not at all isolated. The reconstruction and assembly of a periodization of such a response/attitude/approach to, in, and from the arts, would imply a retrospective analysis of individual responses articulated, again, to, in, and from the artworks. From here one may jump into the analysis of its wider contexts of creation, circulation, and exhibition.

Closing reflections

In her Terra Infirma analysis of geography’s visual culture, Irit Rogoff suggests that geography as we have traditionally known it might today be a language in crisis, unable to convey recent changes in terms of lifestyle, space, inhabitation and belonging (Rogoff 2000 : introduction). In response, she argues that alternative strategies to review our relationship with inhabited space had only recently emerged. In this sense, she explains, artistic production has become a central means to delve into and record new modes of spatial belonging and interaction.

It is possible to understand these alternative accounts of the land in art as strategies that reveal the roots and routes underlying the multiple interlocking times that define the physically inhabited space, by means of Rogoff’s input. However, I would like to specify that the here mentioned artistic proposals, rather than discarding geography or the map, unveil other aspects and potentialities the map has, ones that may serve to explore it more intimately, paradoxically teasing out more organic and accurate narratives of space and time.

Used as a point of departure and altered in the artistic process, the map emerges as a process, permanent re-written, with as many overlapping versions as people are. The map then becomes a subjective and potentially reinvented account, an encounter with memory, imagination, and (hi)stories (Gregory 1994). Finally, the map reveals itself as fragment, partial and moving glimpses to be arranged in infinite possibilities.

May this reflect the space and time, the chronotope, of our time ? Does periodization today, as well process, accounts, overlapping and fragmentary discourse, need to be re-assembled in infinite ways ? In that case, would it be more useful, rather than searching for over-arching and global periodization systems again, to establish the periodization that best adapts to specific research, depending on the places, times, artworks, and contexts one is looking at ?

This idea would connect well with the reflections on time, history and art developed by scholars like Georges Didi-Huberman and his understanding of (art) history as an enduring exercise of anachronism (Didi-Huberman 2011 : 31-78) or Mieke Bal’s explorations of the ana/dia/heterochronic temporal narratives the artwork and its analysis engender (Bal 2016 : 63-66). These two challenging reflections may be good starting points to, in first place, think of other ways of articulating particular chronologies and periodization that more organically play on, rather than disregard, the contextual nuances of the research, the researcher and the researched. Secondly, these ways may lead to embrace time’s spatial manifestation and, with it, the polyrhythmic and subjective nature of (art) history and the retrospective essence of the (art) historian’s performance.

« After the era of great narratives, maybe this is all that there is. » (Keshmirshekan 2017 : 144)

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María Gómez López


María Gómez López, « Spatial chronologies : territorial traces of time », in : Perin Emel Yavuz, Alain Messaoudi, Silvia Naef, Fanny Gillet et Claudia Polledri (dir.), Dossier « Moderne et contemporain : usages historiographiques / Modern and contemporary: historiographical issues. Ateliers doctoraux 2018 », Carnet Hypothèses de l’ARVIMM [en ligne], Paris, ARVIMM, 2021. URL :