22nd March 2007 — 9th December 2007
is an exhibition in need of explanation. The rhumb line first appeared
on early modern European navigation charts in the late 13th century.
These ‘Portolan charts’ made it easier for sailors to set an accurate
course across the oceans. On a flat surface a straight line is the
shortest distance between two points but rhumb lines are curved to take
in the curvature of the earth’s surface and therefore provide the most
practical route for a ship maintaining a fixed compass direction.
In the 16th century, Gerald Mercator devised revolutionary mathematical flat projection maps and charts and the rhumb line came into its own. Its use was stimulated by the 16th century trade in spices as European nations sought to expand their maritime trade and empire.
So much for the science though, I went to the National Maritime Museum on a peculiarly hot Easter Monday. Greenwich was mobbed, the park was overflowing with people, and the Maritime Museum itself was bustling with slow moving tourists; slowly wondering around, slowly winding me up. Inherent in the Rhumb Line, then, should have come as a welcome respite as the galleries were practically empty, quiet and still. However its quiet coolness reeked of sobriety; and had an altogether austere and staid atmosphere.
Since the 1960’s, Weiner’s work has looked at the ideas which structure our understanding of the world and which, in general, we consider to be subjective. Since the late 1960’s, Weiner has used text as his primary vehicle and medium; indeed a verbal description can be the work itself. Here, using text and mathematical drawings, he attempts to discect the meaning of this concept of nautical navigation. Appropriating maritime maps and adding his own text, Weiner questions how we understand the world through maps which are necessarily political tools. However, the pale drawings are removed, their language (“a tangent at what appears to be infinity”, “distorted by the assumption of a direction”) is impenetrable, alienating. The premise of the exhibition is certainly addressed but somehow not towards me. Instead it reflects back to itself, cleverly and reflexively picking itself apart but leaving me none the wiser as to why.
According to Weiner’s conception, the work is confirmed and completed by the viewer, who is produced by its engagement with the uncertainties that the work produces. As if to prove this point, at the centre of the exhibition, is a traditional sailing song; designed to be sung rather than read. Herein though, lies the problem of the exhibition; while the words may come alive if they’re sung; on the wall the lie flat and silent.
National Maritime Museum
London SE10 9N