Deb Mansfield’s 2013 series The Armchair Traveller is a metaphoric travelogue and an exercise in speculative cartography. While no actual maps feature in these photographs and photo-tapestries, Mansfield’s work is charged with the same transportive agency as the map. It unlocks projective travel space.
Re-upholstered with a photo-tapestry, Mansfield’s Louis XV loveseat is a sculptural pun. Here, the brocade and the Baroque have been replaced with a disheveled wilderness. Untouched by the horticulturalist’s shears, this tangle of twigs is the perverse counterpart to the decorative topiary found in Versailles. Cocooned within a foreign landscape, the armchair becomes itinerant. It migrates, transcending the confines of its domestic context. An armchair traveller in the strictest sense.
The image that appears on the chair’s upholstery is not simply printed on the surface of the fabric but woven into it. A digital loom was used to translate the original photograph into a textile. The photograph — a photograph printed with thread — was taken in the Tamar Wetlands near Launceston. This strip of land encircles Tamar Island and is often submerged in water, though when the photograph was taken the ground was relatively dry. The landscape in the image is a bridge, a connective tissue joining two distinct yet adjacent spaces. It is a littoral zone — indeterminate and nebulous terrain that encircles a landmass. Not yet solid ground, not yet sea but somewhere in-between.
The other photographs and photo-tapestries in the series depict similar spaces. Collectively, this body of work deifies liminality and charts a typological survey of the peripheral and the fringe. In the shorelines of Tasmania and Newfoundland, Mansfield’s preoccupation with spatial thresholds reaches its apotheosis. These remote coastal regions are unassuming frontiers; boundary crossings and limit points camouflaged by the trope of romanticized landscape photography. Drawn to these island skirting boards, Mansfield navigates the topography of the interstice. This is interval training of an exclusively metaphoric nature.
The allure of the interstice has also brought Mansfield to the suburban backyard. Like the littoral foreshore, the backyard is also an in-between space. It straddles interiority and exteriority and mediates between the public and the private. Backyards have boundaries. They are enclosed and fortressed — micro-islands. When Mansfield photographs the backyard, she gravitates towards the fence. In The potential of planks on castors resting between two houses planks of wood lean on a wall that abuts two properties as if to eavesdrop on the neighbours. In The migration of an ocean (tapestry) into the space between a house and a fence a photo-tapestry, like those in the series that appear folded and stacked on plinths, is strung up on a washing line along a fence. These objects, the tapestry and the planks, are frontiersmen. They occupy the edge, their attention directed outwards into the foreign and unknown. The stripped back chaise longue in A chaise on the brink shares their agenda. Poised on a windowsill — that faithful interstitial motif — it plans its escape.
To be at the edge is to be between here and there, the familiar and the foreign, home and away.
In 1790 Xavier de Maistre, a French writer living in Turin, set off on an expedition. He had long been interested in aeronautics and the work of Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier who, along with his brother Joseph-Michel, invented the Montgolfière-style hot air balloon and launched the first flight carrying living beings (a sheep, a duck and a rooster) in front of a crowd at Versailles that included Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1783. The fight lasted approximately 8 minutes. Inspired by Montgolfier, de Maistre constructed a pair of wings out of paper and wire and attempted to fly to America. Unsuccessful in his first aeronautic endeavor, he eventually undertook a voyage in a hot air balloon over Chambéry in 1785. After only a few minutes the balloon crashed into a forest. With his 1790 expedition, however, de Maistre’s feet remained firmly on the ground. For the entire duration of the journey, de Maistre never left his room (even if he wanted to leave he couldn’t, having been placed under house arrest after a dueling incident). Pioneering a mode of domestic voyaging — or ‘room-travel’ — de Maistre compiled a (parodic) travelogue to chronicle his movements, publishing his accounts in two texts; A Journey around my Room (1790) and A Nocturnal Expedition around my Room (1798).[i] The voyage charted in A Journey around my Room lasted 42 days. As the narrator (de Maistre) navigates the detritus of his domestic setting — moving from a table to the window — he entertains the reader with tangential mediations that (quite often) stray into the deep waters of speculative metaphysics. He follows no itinerary. There is no concrete plan.
When I travel through my room, I rarely follow a straight line: I go from my table towards a picture hanging in a corner; from there I set out obliquely towards the door; but even though, when I begin, it really is my intention to go there, if I happen to meet my armchair en route, I don’t think twice about it, and settle down in it without further ado.[ii]
An armchair traveller indeed.
For all its hyperbolic digressions (including a dream encounter with Pericles and Plato[iii] and a treatise on respective merits of music and painting[iv]), the book stages a quiet revolution. It perverts our conceptualization of domestic space, collapsing the strictures of interiority. In de Maistre’s world, the familiar and the domestic are also the exotic and the foreign. Quotidian objects become tourist attractions. The home becomes a site of pure potential as its inhabitant is recast as an intrepid explorer. Speculative voyages unravel against the backdrop of the everyday.
Like de Maistre’s room, maps are sites of projective travel. They pull our attention into the unknown. According to architecture theorist Robert Harbison, maps are ‘our main means of aligning ourselves with something bigger than us.’[v] On a map, space is compressed and distances shrink. A sense of false intimacy between nearby towns emerges; ‘we imagine their proximity into a relationship, as if the eyes of these towns could meet, or they call to each other over a fence.’[vi] Reading the map, we feel that intimacy touch us too. We occupy multiple places — any and all places — at once. We imaginatively inhabit the topography teased out of the concentric contour lines and pinpricked by the compass point.
A map-reader’s exhilaration comes from the sensation of not being tied to Place, of having broken the bonds of the local.[vii]
And further, maps
give the special pleasure of different orders coexisting, of the mind conflating memories previously not in touch.[viii]
Chronology collapses. Places we have inhabited at different times and in different eras suddenly coexist. The childhood home and the summer holiday confront one another as we remember them, together.
Map-readers are peripatetic while remaining stationary. Performing a sort of virtual itinerancy, they are mobile and motionless at the same time. They travel along speculative routes without leaving the comfort of their home.
Cartography — map-making not map-reading – also animates speculative travel narratives. In general terms, map-making is a proto-colonial gesture. In mapping a place we assume some form of ownership over it. To map a place is to know it. When an area is mapped it is absorbed within the cache of known topography. It becomes conquered territory. But before the map is finished, before all the points find their (appropriately scaled) positions, there is conjecture and ambiguity. Imagination precedes fact.
The history of the map of Australia is the history of a gradual shift from fictional supposition to quantifiable fact. Here we are talking exclusively about a Eurocentric map of Australia — a map made by outsiders looking in. A map of otherness. Before being colonized (or even seen) by Europeans, the very concept of a southern continent belonged to myth and fable. From as early as the 11th Century, attempts were made to fill the void at the bottom of the map, to flesh out an image of the enigmatic Antipodes. In anticipation of known fact, this corner of the world was variously depicted as an inferno and a no-mans land, full of one-eyed monsters and sea dragons.[ix] As European explorers began to creep over the globe, a profile of the coastline began to slowly materialize on world maps. Geography was teased out of fiction and fantasy. As the plot points on the map coalesced, the island began to take shape. By the time Matthew Flinders, a navigator and cartographer and the first to circumnavigate Australia between 1801 and 1810, arrived on the scene chunks of coastline had already been mapped but gaps in knowledge remained. Those gaps (these interstices) were soon filled yet conjecture and supposition endured.
Flinders’ maps are heavily annotated. Text snakes along the edge of the contours. Much of it is purely descriptive. In ‘Chart of Terra Australis, South Coast, Sheet III’, Plate IV in Flinders’ (1802) from Flinders’ A Voyage to Terra Australis: Atlas, the shoreline of Spencer’s Gulf is accompanied by the rather dry descriptor; ‘Moderately high land of rather a barren appearance: It’s elevation diminishes to the Northward.’ Other notations on the same map function as temporal markers, referring to specific events rather than the (relative) fixity of geography. There is ‘Fire seen,’ ‘smoke’ and, on a small stretch of water near Port Lincoln, the accidentally poetic ‘Breaking at times.’
On this map, segments of the coast appear as perforated lines, its exact configuration still an unknown. Often, these punctured strips of coastline are partnered with evasive and ambiguous text; ‘low sandy shore, seen through the haze,’ ‘apparently stony.’ This is mapping from a distance, propelled by hearsay and detachment. Flinders has not been to these places, only seen them from afar (if at all). He is armchair travelling.
On his way home from mapping Australia, Flinders was captured by the French and imprisoned on Isle de France (now the island of Mauritius) for more than 6 years (a fun fact that resonates with de Maistre’s domestic incarceration). It was here, interned on an island, that he recorded the accounts of his voyages for subsequent publication. Again, we have travel narratives motivated by stasis.
In Species of Spaces, a playful essay that cross-examines the anatomy of urban and domestic space published in 1974, Georges Perec considers the way text and writing is implicated in the construction of space. To write is to define the space of the page;
Before, there was nothing, or almost nothing; afterwards, there isn’t much, a few signs, but which are enough for there to be a top and a bottom, a beginning and an end, a right and a left, a recto and a verso.[x]
For Perec, writing is a cartographic gesture. In writing, we do not simply navigate the space of the page, we conquer it.
This is how space begins, with words only, signs traced on the blank page. To describe space: to name it, to trace it, like those portolano-makers who saturated the coastlines with the names of harbours, the names of capes, the names of inlets, until in the end the land was only separated from the sea by a continuous ribbon of text.[xi]
A Portolan is a navigational map developed in the 13th Century and used by sailors. Based on compass points, these maps show coastal features and ports yet because they fail to take account of the curvature of the earth they could only be used for small stretches of water. Like the page, a Portolan imposes a flat, two-dimensionality on the world.
If writing is cartographic — if in producing a text we reenact voyages of discovery and conquer unknown (but not unoccupied) territory — then it too is a mode of speculative travel.
Perec himself anticipated such a conclusion;
I write: I inhabit my sheet of paper, I invest it, I travel across it.[xii]
The writer is an armchair traveller. Setting off into foreign territory while remaining tethered to their desk. And I suppose that’s true. You never know where you’re going when you set off. I certainly didn’t think I’d end up here.
The metaphor holds in spite of fact that the words I’m writing here aren’t destined for ink and paper — for the page — but for the computer screen. Their fate is coded.
Speculative travel narratives; the pure potential of the armchair voyage. Playing at the edge of the unknown and island hopping (island mapping) without a passport. In The Armchair Traveller Mansfield activates this cartographic gesture, forcing the viewer to perform a kind of virtual ambulation. She makes them to project and speculate.
The folded and stacked photo-tapestries placed on low-lying plinths feature littoral landscapes; shorelines and wetlands. They are portraits of distant, and often inaccessible, places. But folded and stacked like this, the image on each tapestry remains invisible. With the exception of a small segment at the top of the pile, we can’t see these landscapes or read the modulation of this terrain. All we can see is the edge and the fringe (quite literally).
These stacked tapestries are islands. They are self-contained landmasses bordered by an outer perimeter. To visit these islands — to engage with them as viewers — we must first imagine them. We must speculate from a distance, navigating their contours while blindfolded. This is our projective travel space. We are the armchair travellers.
[i] De Maistre, Xavier (trans. Andrew Brown). A Journey Around My Room. London: Hesperus Classics 2006
[ii] Ibid p. 7
[iii] Ibid pp. 62-3
[iv] Ibid p. 34
[v] Harbison, Robert. Eccentric Spaces. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press 2000 p.124
[vi] Ibid p. 126
[vii] Ibid p. 126
[viii] Ibid p. 125
[ix] Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia. Canberra: National Library of Australia 2013
[x] Perec, Georges. Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. London: Penguin Books 1997 p. 10
[xi] Ibid p. 13
[xii] Ibid p. 11
Originally published in Runway: Australian Experimental Art, Issue 24