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Cubist cartography

Sohei Nishino’s city maps composed of thousands of photographs reveal an exciting technique, writes Marko Jobst

The Diorama Map is showing at the Michael Hoppen Gallery until 2 April 2011

A bird’s-eye view of an empty street. A minaret that holds on to a fragment of the sky. A lone pigeon, still in one image, taking flight in the next. These are some of the scenes you encounter when your face is two inches away from Sohei Nishino’s Diorama Map of Istanbul, exhibited currently at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London. If you step back, the fragments come together and it becomes clear that you are looking at a map.

Nishino started the Diorama project during his studies at Osaka University and has produced 10 maps of existing cities to date (and two imaginary ones) – including London, where Nishino spent a month last summer taking 10,000 photographs of the city. He then whittled them down to 4,000, and collaged them into a map dominated by the river. ‘Every city has a personality,’ Nishino said at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation talk held in advance of the exhibition opening. ‘What is London like?’ someone asked. ‘Mad.’ Cue approving giggle from the audience.

Nishino’s method is a joyous mixture of cartography and photography, inspired in part by the 18th-century Japanese cartographer Ino Tadataka. Nishino sees his own work as a question of recreating memories: the labour-intensive discipline of experiencing the city on foot is mirrored in the process of making the collages, which are composed of hand-developed photographs painstakingly glued together. The finished product, which takes months to complete, is then photographed to become the ‘diorama’ map.

The result is dizzying: from a distance the maps have a balanced formal quality, enriched by complex visual textures. From up close, the multiple viewpoints, conflicting scales and highly dynamic conjunctions of space hint at a realm of experience impossible to capture by the orthographic projection of ordinary maps. While this can easily be understood in the context of psychogeography, a more telling key lies in Pablo Picasso who Nishino reluctantly mentions as an early influence. The reference to Cubism is particularly clear in older maps: more angular and austere, focused almost exclusively on architecture and made of larger photographic pieces, these collages are a wonderful mixture of pre-Modern cartographic traditions and Modernist conceptions of space.

Ultimately though, while the map wants to draw the viewer in, it also repels them, due to a small yet significant blurriness. It is a photograph of another photograph and as such won’t yield its secrets fully. It is a record of the journey made by the artist rather than a transparent account of the built environment. In this way, Nishino’s aim – to construct maps as sites of memory – is accomplished. Once you face them at close range, what they convey most is the vertiginous possibility of an urban elsewhere.  

Marko Jobst is a senior lecturer in architecture at Greenwich University

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