The Geographical Turn. A Research Project

This is an adventure in Art and in Geography. The talented, intelligent folk who have agreed to take a risk on this project will each have their own appreciation of these issues but here are some thoughts of my own.

When it comes to Geography, I’m a born-again Monkee, I’m a Believer. Yi-Fu Tuan once told me that a German geographer and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, had written that Geography was the study of the Earth as our home. I find that very suggestive. Yi-Fu was a colleague at Wisconsin-Madison; a subtle, genial imp of a man. He has, of course, spent quite some time in the borderlands of Art and Geography; as in Place, Art, and Self (University of Virginia Press, 2004) and in Passing Strange and Wonderful: Aesthetics, Nature, and Culture (Island Press, 1993). I am told that Yi-Fu is now rationing his travelling so that we can’t hope to have the joy of his company in discussing these topics; or at least not here in Ireland. Yi-Fu supervised Karen Till’s doctoral dissertation.

Geography is too important to have been left to geographers. Space, place, and environment touch upon every aspect of the way we make the earth our home. We might ask ourselves what sort of home we are currently making for ourselves, for our neighbours near and far, and for those who will live here after us. The industrial revolution plus the intense resource extraction allowed by colonialism are together warming our planet quite dangerously, while the very rich scream back at the waves of blowback, like Canute but with far less cop-on. In the land of lucre, we insist upon our right not only to buy everything in sight, but also to allow the most wealthy corporations to appeal to intellectual property rights so that they might extort money from those struggling in the wake of our greed. Globalisation is as much about the bully collecting rent as it is ever about the flow of physical goods. In all sorts of place, people are losing their indigenous distinctiveness, the better to prepare them for global, corporate taste-making; have a Coke and a smile; before your teeth drop out.

We are managing our environment under the pressure of global climate change. We are making meaningful places under the pressure of global corporate culture. We are establishing relations with distant strangers under the pressure of neoliberal capitalism and the trading relations its institutions impose. Artists no less than geographers are affected by these anxieties and some of them, like some geographers, reflect upon these anxieties in their work. This is sometimes explicit and the geographical topics of various artworks are evident. With others the issues are treated obliquely or are the background to the circumstances addressed or articulated in the art work.

One question for me, as a geographer, is to find ways to engage with art so that I might enrich my own reflections on geographical topics, and, having the obsessions that are my own, this also gives me an aesthetic and intellectual pleasure as I try to understand how an artist might be thinking geographically. I am afraid that I see Geography almost everywhere and of course this often means that I often make more of certain aspects of an artwork than its maker intended but art has a public life that goes beyond such intention.

Art is not only the product of a mind working in isolation. The artist has a vocabulary that is a historical and, yes, geographical construct. There is volition here, but there is also serendipity. Some contexts and resources are sought out (or avoided) by the artist and others are gifted (or withheld) by circumstance. The geographical formation of the artist can be an interesting and suggestive way to think about some aspects of their practice. It matters that William Butler Yeats sought out London as a place from which to write about Ireland, and that James Joyce sought out continental Europe to write about Dublin. Yeats’ comfort with English neighbours is as telling as is Joyce’s avoidance of the same. In his memoir, Green Suede Shoes: An Irish-American Odyssey (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005), Larry Kirwan writes of the 1970s, and of feeling the need to leave ‘The Land of de Valera,’ but of avoiding Britain because its policy towards Northern Ireland made it hard for him to imagine being comfortable there as an Irish person.

There was a Berlitz school in Trieste and in 1905 Joyce got a job there as a teacher of English, having previously found that a promised position in Zurich was unavailable and that the situation he had then accepted in Pola was only short-term. Yet, as John McCourt shows so brilliantly in The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste 1904-1920 (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2001), Trieste contributed much to his artistic evolution. A polyglot city on the margins of a waning Empire, it may even have served him as an imaginary future for Dublin; as a place where he might yet slip the nets of Church and Empire. There are gifts from new places that help you think differently about home in ways you did not anticipate. In his novel of Irish-American New York, Rockin’ the Bronx (Dingle: Brandon, 2010), and with his reworking of ‘Danny Boy’ (from Black 47, Home of the Brave, EMI Records 1994, Starry Plough Music/EMI Blackwell Music (BMI)), Kirwan reflected upon the lives of those gay and lesbian Irish folk who left home to find a freedom that McQuaid’s Ireland denied them. The diversity of Irish lives in New York was a standing rebuke to the closeted fearful lives of the many secret outlaws within Catholic Ireland. It is possible that it would have been more difficult to do this back home. Geographical formation can be an unanticipated trajectory towards cosmopolitan possibility.

Alongside topics and formation, geography can also serve as the basis of a sort of geographical poetics. Geography can be source of metaphors that structure and animate a work of art. We are very used to the idea of history as a structure that lends meaning to art. We are able to read the different narrative structures of tragedy, progress, cycles, or decline. We can appreciate parallel possibilities in paintings that allude to divergent temporalities, as in history painting, or dystopian landscapes, or religious works of apocalypse. In cinema, we understand flash-back, panning shots, intercutting, and back-story as narrative forms that are allowed by the particular technologies of film-making and movie-exhibition. In similar vein, Susan Sontag made much of the relations between photography and time:

All photographs are momento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt. (Sontag, On Photography (Harmondsworth UK: Penguin, 1979) 15)

Although we are perhaps less well trained in its disciplines, the central concepts of geography can and do carry metaphorical weight within some works of art; visual, performative and literary. Today, we celebrate the sesquicentennial of the birth of Yeats. He is known for very many striking images but one of his most oft-cited is explicitly geographical:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold (Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’ (1920) line 3)

Here we have a spatial image, that invites us to reflect upon the relations between centre and edge, and also invites us to think about the necessity for centripetal relations in our social and political order. Yeats understands that the alternative to strong centralised states was anarchy, and he hated the idea, but note that by implying the centre should hold he seems to use physics to make his political point. The poem continues:

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed […]

One of the implicit references here is to Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy,’ and in other posting I will try to explicate some of the geopolitical contrasts between Shelley and Yeats reading of anarchy.

Place has long been important in Irish culture. The defence of the local against the external threat is a recurring feature in the anti-colonial imaginary in Ireland and resonates strongly with current opposition to globalisation. But that understanding of the separation of the local from and against global can serve as a metaphor for other sorts of separation. In Pilgrim Hill (dir. Gerard Barrett, Ireland, 2013), for example, the muddy fields, the low dark sky, and the slapping wind show a side of rural Ireland that few would miss were they to get the chance to leave. The clarty pull of the land serves as metaphor for the way the central character is held away from the wider world by the needs of his disabled father, with whom he shares a lonely farmhouse.

Environments of different kinds can also carry significance. The forest to which Sweeney goes in the twelfth-century poem cycle, Buile Suibhne (The Madness of Sweeney), bears related mythological and political meaning. The forest as marginal and dangerous to settled society is a reflection of its earlier status as a refuge from the new Christian and feudal order. In this respect, the fact that Sweeney flees to the forest not only marks him as giving up his bearings within settled, arable society, but it also connects him with continuing strategies of resistance such that he is invoked and his tale retold with each iteration of the colonial project. The significance of the woodlands is clear from William Smyth’s description of the colonial project of clearance during the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries:

The cleared landscape meant that the local Irish could be identified, monitored and checked; and could not remain elusive and footloose behind a frontier of woods. For the English officials and colonisers, Irish woodlands had come to mean threat and danger; and the term ‘woodland Irish’ was a synonym for ‘wild Irish’, who were to be broken, tamed and enframed. (Smyth, Map-Making, Landscapes and Memory: A Geography of Colonial and Early Modern Ireland c.1530-1750 (Cork: Cork University Press, 2006) page 87)

When Seamus Heaney narrates his own Sweeney AstrayA Version from the Irish (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), he invests the exile of Sweeney with personal resonance, seeing Sweeney as someone who gave up kingship for the rather different authority of the fili, or poet-seer. In this case, to twist only slightly Heaney’s meaning, the woods are perhaps the place of ‘free creative imagination’ beyond ‘the constraints of religious, political, and domestic obligation’ (from Heaney’s introduction, page vi). The love of nature expressed in Sweeney’s poems is at once, also, a criticism of that other place where politics, religion and even family make unnatural and unbearable demands. Heaney wrote this poem-cycle during a decade when his stature as a cultural figurehead for Catholics in Northern Ireland brought with it incessant demands for condemnation or support of the violent struggle of some other members of his community.

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Gerry Kearns, 13 June 2015

One thought on “The Geographical Turn. A Research Project

  1. Pingback: The Geographical Turn: Dublin 6-7 November | Mapping Spectral Traces

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