Theatrum Orbis Terrarum

2005 - 2015: Individual Research

The research project Theatrum Orbis Terrarum looked at forms of representation of the Earth. At the basis is an ever-expanding collection of photographs, assembled since 2005, that observe how people organize their living environments across the world.

The title of the research project references the first modern atlas – a fifty-three-page set of maps covering the known world, compiled in book format by Abraham Ortelius in 1570. Ortelius was less a scientist or cartographer than a collector, whose revolutionary achievement was that he brought together a vast body of existing geographical knowledge and unified it into a single, standardized format and logical system. For Ortelius, unlike his successors, cartography allowed the reader to envisage the stage upon which history occurred. The maps were accompanied by texts in which Ortelius provided the reader, ‘tired of traveling’ the globe, with a narrative description of the various regions, animating the abstract pictorial language of cartography with details about people, flora, fauna and produce, along with vivid stories about the fortunes and misfortunes people had endured in disparate places. The wealth of collected histories and myths was accounted for with another novelty: an extensive bibliography listing all the sources Ortelius had been able to bring together. His Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World) was thus the first truly encyclopedic description of the world. The claim that the atlas was so comprehensive that it could be considered a mirror of the world resonates in a prefatory ode accompanying its 1598 abridged French edition: “This book by itself is the entire world; the entire world is but this book.”

Dijkman’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum questions precisely this totalizing claim to knowledge of the Western cartographic tradition and the power over the world this knowledge implied. Her endeavor to assemble a collection of images of places is deliberately arbitrary and subjective. Though the photographs are taken around the world, they don’t claim to cover or represent the entire globe but are occasioned by what she encounters on her travels as she wanders around the places she is invited to. Like the counter-geography of the Situationists, the images, all taken at street level, do not suggest an omniscient, God-like perspective on the world but are located within it. The atlas introduced a particular and highly selective form of representation that helped set the stage for particular kinds of relations to the world – while simultaneously claiming to be mere descriptions.

The research project Theatrum Orbis Terrarum manifested itself in different public forms.

Publication: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum
Publishers: Ikon Gallery and Spike Island
Concept and Photography: Marjolijn Dijkman
Visual editing: Marjolijn Dijkman
Design: Julie Peeters and Joris Kritis
Introduction text: Anke Bangma

This publication is made possible with the support of The Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture Amsterdam, the Centre for Visual Arts Rotterdam, Arts Council England, Birmingham, and Bristol City Council.

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, published by IKON Gallery and Spike Island, UK (2011)