Imaginary Cities review

‘Imaginary Cities, study (London)’ for British Library Labs residency (2016) © Michael Takeo Magruder Cartographers are cool. Give me a Gauguin and I’ll show you an Ordnance Survey map of the Peak District. Pass me a Picasso and I’ll flip open a waterproof pocket map of Manhattan’s grid system. Start rhapsodising about Leonardo and I’ll… okay, you get the idea. Maps: they’re lush.

And the British Library has lots of them. In 2013, it extracted maps from its newly digitised collection of nineteenth-century books and put the results on Flickr. Artist Michael Takeo Magruder has now used these 1 million historical images as the basis for four new artworks.

The varied display includes: a set of engraved wooden panels made using data from an old map of Chicago; three video screens showing an ever-changing black-and-white version of late-Georgian London; four golden monoprints using the Parisian street layout; and one virtual-reality work projecting an imaginary urban environment.

All of them use this and that super-clever bit of technology (described on accompanying plaques), but in practice, understanding what happened to what, when, how and why isn’t the most interesting part of this show. Instead, it’s nice just noticing how Magruder has used this already fascinating source material and added to its existing beauty.

Best of the works is the one using the prints where Paris has been morphed into gorgeous, symmetrical patterns that look like stained-glass windows or vintage Hermès scarves.

Worst, by far, is the VR piece that, after injecting you with a brief hit of vertigo, takes you on a sort of hovering trip around a skyscrapered city that’s considerably more boring than your average wander courtesy of Google Street View.

But, as Meat Loaf almost said, three out of four ain’t bad.


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