Mira Dayal: In that Empire at Spencer Brownstone Gallery

In Dialogue with Mira Dayal


Mira Dayal, installation view (wall text), “…In That Empire…” at Spencer Brownstone Gallery, 2021, photo courtesy of the artist.

In her inaugural solo exhibition with Spencer Brownstone Gallery, Brooklyn-based artist Mira Dayal has rubbed by hand the entire gallery floor in graphite, resulting in a map of the space’s topography – all lines and no borders. Drawing on Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science”, the show explores notions of scale, control, ethics, materiality, and simulation. The show runs through April 4th, 2021.

Let’s start with the title of your exhibition-…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province…- taken from Jorge Luis Borges’ short story On Exactitude in Science. This Borgesian entry point is evocative and wide open to interpretation. What were your ideas behind this exhibition?

This story felt like a rich starting point for an exhibition because it crystallizes a few of the central concerns and materials in my work. My practice is grounded in drawing and photography as much as sculpture, and I am interested in working at the intersections of those media. Reading Borges, I was thinking about the earliest known maps, which were essentially abstract drawings engraved by humans in stone, and how that led to contemporary mapping practices, which tend to involve high-resolution photographs created by an apparatus with no physical connection to the ground, or to Earth at all. The short story also reminds a reader of the sculptural—by which I mean, physical and tangible—aspects of cartography. Not only is Borges’s increasingly precise map described as something that takes up physical space and eventually becomes tattered scraps, but it is also suggested to be something that negatively impacts the land. By the end of the story, that land is supposedly inhabited only by animals and beggars. So there is an underlying set of ethical questions in the story. It is both literal and allegorical, highly specific even as it poses larger critiques.

That balance of specificity and expansiveness, material intrigue and critical rigor, is something I try to achieve across my work. I am invested in making work that feels ambitious or inventive on a formal or material level, that considers materials’ historical uses, potential futures, and entanglements in a larger net of questions and vocabularies. I use materials to explore, in a nuanced way, larger critiques—here, of Empire, of colonialism, of institutions, of human relations to the land, of photography. With this show, as with past installations, I was interested in the excessive use of materials that were still subtly integrated with the space’s architecture. The work can be physically perceived and cognitively interpreted on multiple levels.

Tell me about your work process – how did the ideas and visuals interrelate and materialize?

Alongside the Borges story, I was thinking about the various meanings of the word “draw.” It can signify extraction, in the sense of drawing water from a well (and this particular meaning feels close to the concept of mapping, as mapping can also be a practice of extracting value from land). In the art sense, drawing is a basic mode of description that feels close to, and uses the same tool as, writing. “Draw” can also convey an act of summarization or evaluation, as in “draw a conclusion.” Most of the word’s other meanings have to do with moving, applying force, or accumulating something. I tasked myself with creating a project about drawing that would explore a few of these alternate meanings; when I thought about pairing that idea with the Borges story, I felt I’d found a lens for thinking about the relationships among drawing, mapping, extraction, and representation.

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Mira Dayal, Map (40°43’15.0″N 73°59’05.51″W), 2021, graphite, 40 x 20 feet (480 x 240 inches), photo courtesy of the artist.

Graphite was a really interesting material to think about on this scale—I envisioned that it would be polished over time due to foot traffic, and that some parts of the floor might look more powdery and dirt-like than others. The fact that the work could change over time felt fitting for a story about the evolution of cartography and the fate of the “perfect” map. And the idea of spending many hours rubbing graphite sticks into a concrete floor felt like the right kind of labor for a project that was in some ways about what it means to achieve the highest level of representation. I would have to attend to every inch of the floor because that process would be so tedious. At the same time, the change in the floor (from the original mottled gray-brown color to this dark gray sheen) would be somewhat imperceptible, or convincing as a real floor to someone unfamiliar to the space. The invisibility and absurdity of that labor, of the artist’s hand, interested me, and was in keeping with my past installations.

The last aspect of the show to come together was the set of twelve fans, which represent the Twelve Winds on older maps—that idea emerged from my research on the histories of cartography. The fans cinched the show in the sense that they complete the system; they bracket your body in the space, so that you are focused on both the ground below and the atmosphere above. Both elements are working to create this 1:1 system: The map is on and of the ground, and the fans recreate the wind patterns outside since they’re controlled by a weathervane in the courtyard.

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Mira Dayal, Map (40°43’15.0″N 73°59’05.51″W) (detail), 2021, graphite, 40 x 20 feet (480 x 240 inches), photo courtesy of the artist.

In his review on the show, Louis Bury writes in Hyperallergic that “for all its Borgesian layers of meaning, …In that Empire affirms the importance of the physical gallery experience.” What does the visitor see and may experience in the space?

Yes, this is an important question! One of the first things people comment on is the texture of the floor—it is slippery; graphite is also sold as a lubricant for machines (particularly farm equipment) or keyholes. If you rub your shoe into the ground, it will become even more polished. If you reach down to swipe it with your finger, it will feel a little soft and oily. I recently described the smell to someone as “between chemical and earthy.” Because the gallery has skylights, fluorescent lights, and a full wall of windows looking out onto the courtyard, the light is also quite dynamic in the space, depending on the weather and time of day, and this changes how the graphite looks, in both color and perceived texture. The fans produce white noise that you might not notice at first, and if you move close to the fan that is on, you will feel a light breeze on your face. To view the show, you have to either look up or look down. That continues in the courtyard, where there is “nothing to see” except the weathervane, more than ten feet above you, which draws your attention to the surrounding built architecture and to the sky. Inside and outside, the spaces feel somewhat like voids, where your senses have to adjust to locate the work.

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Mira Dayal, installation view from courtyard, “…In That Empire…” at Spencer Brownstone Gallery, 2021, photo courtesy of the artist.

Wind and perhaps the fans that produce them as well, seem to play a central role in your show – as concept and experience. How does it relate to the notion of cartography in the gallery context?

Right, wind is another expansive concept which is interesting to consider linguistically and historically. Figuratively, we speak of wind as an agent of change. Physically, winds can shape or destroy terrain. Wind is also essential to sailing, and therefore to the long history of people traveling to, or being forcibly transported to, distant places. Cartography and colonization are linked; oceanic voyages were often planned with the intention of controlling the people and land that the travelers found across the waters, or mapping that which they had no understanding of. And art historically, I was thinking about how wind is evoked in that often-quoted passage from Walter Benjamin’s essay “On the Concept of History,” where he describes the “angel of history” who would like to “make whole” the wreckage of the past—“But a storm is blowing from Paradise… The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned… This storm is what we call progress.” I don’t think this allusion is legible within the show, but it did heighten my interest in thinking about the wind as a material with social, political implications.

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Mira Dayal, Twelve Winds (clockwise from north: Aparctias, Meses, Caecias, Apeliotes, Eurus, Phoenicias, Notos, No Wind, Lips, Zephyrus, Argestes, Thrascias) (detail), 2021, 12 wall mounted fans and hardware,each 12 inches in diameter, photo courtesy of the artist.

But to answer this question more in relation to your last, in terms of what you will “see” that relates the winds to the idea of cartography—the fans all have a logo on them that says “Global Industrial” on top of a schematic drawing of a world map. The weathervane’s design comes from one of the many cartoonish heads signifying the Twelve Winds on maps, and this one represents the southwest wind (which was called Lips in Greek, a homonym of the English word, which is great). That specific head is from a popular map from the 1400s, which in turn was based on hundreds of coordinates that Ptolemy recorded of the Roman Empire, and was therefore considered a very precise map for its time, but it retains this more abstract, figurative way of understanding meteorology… Ptolemy was credited with the idea of creating map projections, where sites could be rendered according to their relative distances rather than relative “importance.” This is the only figurative element in the show, but it is another way of anchoring the show in embodied experience and in a fraught history (and ongoing reconfigurations) of Empire.

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Mira Dayal, Lips, 2021, steel, copper, and hardware, 48 x 30 inches, courtesy of the artist.

Mira Dayal: …In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Discipline of Geography. – Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658 continues at Spencer Brownstone Gallery (170-A Suffolk Street) online

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Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: artspielblog@gmail.com