The Benaki Museum presents the exhibition “Hic sunt dracones (Here Lay Dragons)*. Mapping the Unknown: A project by Rick Lowe” in the context of establishing dialogues between contemporary artists and the Museum’s historical collections.

Social sculpture

The American artist Rick Lowe became known in Greece from Victoria Square Project (VSP), a “social sculpture” installed in 2016 at Victoria Square, Athens, in collaboration with Maria Papadimitirou, as part of the international institution documenta 14. It has been the only work which remained active after the end of documenta 14, functioning, by its diverse and constant programming, as a hub for cross-cultural exchanges and dialogue. During these seven years, VSP has evolved into a unique example of socially engaged contemporary art, contributing in sustaining and developing synergies between artists, refugees, immigrants, and local communities. Through this project, Rick Lowe systematically proposed various practices of creativity, focusing on its engagement with everyday life and on political claims that deal with inclusion, human rights, equality, justice, homelessness, xenophobia, as well as racial and police violence.

Mapping and abstract painting

These VSP projects led Rick Lowe to explore and further expand his political and social concerns, including aesthetic and subjective terms. The artist – who studied painting at Columbus College in Georgia – turned his attention to the iconographic and allegorical tools of mapping and cartography, bringing (back) to the center fundamental human experiences, such as traces of dwelling and appropriation of the space in destabilized metropolitan areas and/or zones of conflict. The formation and the transformation of the urban, social, and communal environment is still a “collective work of art” that the artist is called upon to take care of.

Rick Lowe’s micrographic patterns and mappings constantly negotiate the “unknown”, the “unseen”, and the “unmapped” by mixing forms of social, imaginary, and psychical mapping, which do not, however, exclude “socially symbolic acts” which the literary theorist Fredric Jameson has called “political unconscious”. Rick Lowe clarifies: “I’ve started to think about how painting could be a way of me archiving some of the community-based projects that I’ve been working on over time, because that’s one of the challenges of social practice work—it is ephemeral.”

Rick Lowe’s paintings represent spatial trajectories and territorial formations in conjunction with his socially engaged artistic practice. His painted compositions lay on a map-like structure with layers and signs that are abstract but also seem to be indexing areas, relations, and movements in space. Lowe’s paintings not only represent what could be itineraries, settlements, and borders but also indicate power structures, identity formations, and other consequences of a deterritorialized, mobile culture.

The exhibition

This body of work has been the starting point of the collaborative exhibition “Hic sunt dracones (Here Lay Dragons). Mapping the Unknown: A project by Rick Lowe”, an exhibition focusing on historical and social context and the aesthetics of mapping. Lowe’s paintings have served as a guiding thread for a contemporary reflection on the ways in which data is translated into painted forms through the use of visual elements, patterns, and signs. This critical standpoint is also related to current geopolitical problems, like the global refugee crisis, massive, forced migrations, and environmental catastrophes.

Maps and atlases are mostly world-making instruments, which play a role in depicting spatial relations, movements of people and things, historical changes, travels and migrations, national identities. In addition, using shapes, lines, and colour, they index notions of topicality or universality, as well as “cosmographic” and geopolitical claims. Field observations but also notes stemming from the cartographer’s or the artist’s imaginary are inherent to these visual instruments which transform the invisible into visibility, the absent into present, the historically remote into contemporary. But how much truth is there in those depictions? How did artists represent the unknown and the unfamiliar and how can this serve contemporary art’s urgent claims for social impact? To this end, Rick Lowe and curators Yorgos Tzirtzilakis and Polina Kosmadaki, in collaboration with the Benaki Museum academic team, have selected historical items from the vast Benaki Museum collection, in order to explore different interpretations of mapping and of works of popular handicraft, interpretations which focus on strategies of narrating and symbolizing the world – especially its more obscure aspects – and/or imagining new cosmologies and pathways.

The exhibition puts forth these depictions of the unknown, which are crucial to Rick Lowe’s work. Considering the contemporary condition, in which everything is continuously registered, controlled, and represented, mapping can highlight a way to rethink where we stand and what can art and contemporary culture do – questions very much at the heart of Lowe’s practice.

Curated by: Polina Kosmadaki and Yorgos Tzirtzilakis

Duration: 2 June – 30 July 2023

Venue: Benaki Museum / Pireos 138

*The title of the exhibition refers to the way cartographers during the Middle Ages used dragons, monsters, and fictional creatures to represent unknown territories, for instance lands or waters considered dangerous or unfamiliar. Such creatures adorned maps on spaces that were usually left blank or in spots where the geography of the world was still unknown.