Geographical Poetics 3: Triangulating with Tim Robinson

unfolding irish landscapes

This was a talk hosted by the Moore Institute and the Centre for Irish Studies, National University of Ireland Galway, to launch the book: Derek Gladwin and Christine Cusick (eds), Unfolding Irish Landscapes: Tim Robinson, Culture and Environment (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016). I am very grateful to Derek Gladwin and Christine Cusick for the honour of the invitation and to Nessa Cronin of the Centre for Irish Studies, and Dan Carey and John Morrissey of the Moore Institute for the hospitality and collegial academic engagement. The interdisciplinary conversations convened by places like the Moore Institute are vital for my academic morale and intellectual health at a time when the bottom line deflates ambition and thereby imperils scholarship. For myself, the Centre for Irish Studies at Galway, with its academic study of dance and music, and its scholarship in the Irish language, has been a vital and convivial portal into the world of Irish Studies. It is wonderful that Tim Robinson chose NUI Galway as the home for his papers. It was through Nessa Cronin and the Centre for Irish Studies that I met Tim Robinson and I well remember the walk out from Roundstone and after that the tea and chat with himself and Mairéad. So, it was lovely to have the chance to speak about Tim, his work, and the tribute paid to it by Unfolding Irish Landscapes.

Gerry Kearns launching “Unfolding Irish Landscapes”, Galway 12 April 2016; photograph courtesy of Dan Carey

Triangulating with Tim Robinson

I take an unworthy pride in accepting Derek Gladwin and Christine Cusick’s gift in the Introduction to Unfolding Irish Landscapes: Tim Robinson, Culture and Environment, where they identify ‘the main focus of [Robinson’s] concerns: Irish historical geography.’[1] I am also chuffed by the compliment to my tribe when Eamonn Wall notes in his essay that: ‘In Irish Studies, Geography, more than any of the other disciplines epitomizes the interdisciplinary approach that is supposed to underline scholarship in the field.’[2] Let me take the offering while it is there and use this excellent book to think a little more about Tim Robinson, the geographer.

There are three foci of geographical attentiveness: space, place, and environment. Tim Robinson attends to all three. When we invest a location with meaning, and then share those meanings with neighbours, we make what George Mead called a social object, and in this case the Cartesian location becomes a meaningful Place.[3] If Place is somewhat vertical, then, Space is essentially horizontal, embracing the relations between locations, or rather, for much of human geography, between the making of things and other meanings that happens at various places. Geographers also recognize, and indeed at times have over-emphasised, the ways our activity on Earth has an essentially material basis. Humans must always change the face of the earth the better to meet their inescapable need for food and shelter. Might I venture that humans transform, incompletely and incompetently, indifferent nature into a more or less domesticated environment. From this trinity, we may readily elaborate further concepts such as scale from space, landscape from place, and finitude from environment.

light cone
Figure 1. The Light Cone, Robinson, The View from the Horizon, 15

Unfolding Irish Landscapes is generous with its geographical gifts and invites a celebration of Tim Robinson in terms of space, place, and environment, and also of scale, landscape and finitude. Perhaps we should begin by accepting Tim Robinson’s claim that the ruling obsession of his work is Space. In the Preface to the essays collected as Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara and Other Writings, Robinson asks that his work be ‘read in the light of Space”.’[4] I think that space might be not only Robinson’s primary scientific object, but it may secrete his principal methodology. When Robinson described Space as his central obsession, it was its scalar character that he relished: ‘[Space] is, among everything else, the interlocking of all our mental and physical trajectories, good or ill, though all the subspaces of experience up to the cosmic.’[5] Robinson’s discussion of the light cone (see Figure 1) illustrates the way scales can be part of one’s intellectual ambition.[6] Looking back from a moment, or location, one can comprehend the most cosmic of forces as converging on oneself. Thus, Robinson talks about the spatial structure of Aran as determined by a rectangular geological grain that was given by the transversal forces that ripped open a space for the Atlantic between the rocks that are now Ireland and Newfoundland respectively. This is where John Elder places himself in his piece on ‘Catchments’, when he hears geological echoes reinforcing musical continuities: ‘Right up through such Celtic offspring as bluegrass, there’s a keening quality in the music, as melodies break across ancient droning shores.’[7] But, now we are moving too quickly from space to environment, and, indeed, a little beyond my own comfort zone.

Robinson draws upon space for many of his intriguing metaphors. Several of the essays in Unfolding Irish Landscapes, discuss Robinson’s making and use of maps. Paddy Duffy talks about the slow landscapes that require to be learned bodily, rather than from the cool postmodern glance at the rearview mirror, once celebrated with too little irony by Jean Baudrillard.[8] Duffy remarks that: ‘On bike and foot [Robinson] could engage with the landscape at a pace and in a way which matched the time-space reality of its original makers and shapers, revealing layers of knowledge and imagination laid down in a pedestrian world which have limped on in local memory to the present.’[9] When Robinson himself writes of this perambulation he reaches for another spatial metaphor, and another one from his training in Mathematics. He has described the Peano Curve (see Figure 2) as a sort of algorithm that would ensure if it were followed rigorously that no single point would be traversed more than once, and that every conceivable point could be reached if the curve were indefinitely refined.[10]

peano curve
Figure 2. A Peano Curve, Robinson, Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara, 87.

In his essay John Elder insists that Robinson ‘both perpetuates and enlivens a tradition of Romantic revolt against centralized, mechanized and hierarchical views of humanity and the land.’[11] Nessa Cronin finds in Robinson’s early conceptual art, the visual metaphors but also the roots of what we might call the cultural politics of his Irish works. In wanting to move beyond the gallery, Robinson, or Drever as he called himself at the time, challenged the commodification of art but also its elitist seclusion above the routines of the everyday life. He also made art that solicited the spectator to help complete it (see Figure 3).[12] Or, perhaps revise rather than complete it, since a rejection of positivist science was encouraged and sustained by the realization that final knowledge, or finished art was a hopeless ambition. Introducing his second work on Aran, Robinson gave the clue that the ‘unsummable totality of human perspectives […] is my real subject.’[13]

Figure 3. Timothy Drever, Four Colour Theorem, Kenwood House, 1969 (photograph courtesy of Tim Robinson)

The plenitude of the cone of light and the density of the Peano Curve invites an ambition akin to madness. But something a little short of hubris might have its virtues. The wash and backwash of discovery and assimilation even across a small island can never assimilate all that could be known and, as Cronin points out, ‘any account could only ever be an interim report.’[14] In an essay on the adequacy of incompleteness, Kelly Sullivan remarks upon the void as the necessary complement to the sign (see Figure 4). We project ourselves into the empty space. We read a presence against an absence. We think for ourselves in the pause between the packets of data. Sullivan concludes that: ‘Not knowing allows for possibility and imaginative dwelling; we must end in ignorance because in order to continually press on as scholars and as readers, we need the presence of immensity before us.’[15] Nevertheless, alongside the humility of acknowledging the limits of knowledge, the effort of trying to learn a lot registers a protest against the too little we need to know for our own mining and despoiling of the earth. In his essay on the Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement, Jerry White has Robinson as a 68-er après la letter. This seems plausible to me and when White reminds us that at the time Robinson was moving to Aran, John Berger was moving into the Haute Savoie, then, we can see a sort of attention to subsistence that castigates both capitalism and the ecological trash-heap it piles up in its invasive destruction. Taking up the perspective of the environment, we must indict ourselves for the too little we care to learn about the too much we choose to ruin. The anti-capitalist and anti-positivist stance of Timothy Drever the conceptual artist found a new imperative in the West of Ireland so that the chaotic ambition of learning as much as possible about one place might serve almost as ‘apology […] to the surface of the Earth for the paucity of all our attentions to it.’[16] And so, before even the language work, there can be a time of botanizing, reporting the finds of unusual species and establishing the ecumene of the more common, and of bird spotting; slowing down and finding reasons to look. This patient inspection accepts what Robert MacFarlane writes of as the ‘democracy of astonishment,’ and enjoys walking as an experience that, as Derek Gladwin remarks, ‘commends every accident.’[17]

extract from TR Aran map
Figure 4. Extract from Tim Robinson, A Map of the Aran Islands (Roundstone: Folding Landscapes, 1996)

This is a practice of attentiveness, as if such were a responsibility of any who wish to live a good, an ethical, life. In her essay, Christine Cusick writes of this as the challenge of right living and concludes that it resolves as a challenge to use a place properly. Moya Cannon makes much of this in her essay where she reviews Robinson’s maps and writings the better to note the ‘quality of attention manifest there–by the combination of precision and resonance, the access to an obvious delight in a wide variety of academic disciplines and yet the ability to draw these disciplines together within a wonderfully poetic and frequently playful discourse.’[18] This is the fulcrum between environment and place. Dún Aonghasa is certainly sublime (Figure 5) and, while, some interpret it as the last desperate stand of a marginalized people, that is not Robinson’s suggestion: ‘That it is so huge is evidence of the self-confidence and stability of the community that built it, not of their fear of imminent overthrow.’[19] In many ways, this awesome structure troubles him, perhaps because it must have required a great degree of centralization to execute such a work. However, in a choice between imperial orders, the more recent Christian and English versions receives less forgiveness that an earlier Pagan kingdom. But, note here the emphasis upon self-confidence for this indicates a necessary work of repair.

Figure 5. Cheval de frise on the West Side of Dún Aonghasa, photography by Tuoermin, Wikimedia Creative Commons License

Robinson is ever listening after the stutter of the colonized tongue, and Catherine Marshall describes some of the anticolonial memory recovered in Robinson’s work: ‘cultural views ignored if not totally destroyed under the colonial regimes of the past.’[20] Gerry Smyth develops an insight from Heidegger about listening as a way of being open to the presence alongside us of other people we respect and suggests that such a perspective is ‘highly amenable to the kind of project undertaken by Tim Robinson in relation to the landscapes of the Aran Islands, the Burren and Connemara.’[21] At least from the Elizabethan conquest, much of west of Ireland was under the capitalistic system of landlordism. As rent, all but bare subsistence was extorted from small farmers. The Aran volumes are replete with stories of landlord’s agents and the petty monopolies that tyrannized the people and neutered local initiative. As Karen Babine suggests, Robinson implies that right-living on the land might well require that we foreswear property and hold land as a common trust. Babine unfurls from Robinson’s work ‘the idea that the harder one tries to claim a piece of land the more elusive that ownership becomes.’[22] If, as Babine summarises Robinson’s view, a place can serve ‘as a repository for stories and ideas,’ then, there is a contradiction between the continuity of meaning and the short-term utilitarianism of the profit calculus. Robinson’s attention to the heroic struggle of the Land League and the respite from landlordism that came from the Congested Districts Board draws out one of those many filaments that can be knotted with another thread within the cone of distant causes, for, here again the political context set out by Jerry White is useful, this time with respect to the Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement and how it helped people think differently about the worth of the society and culture of the West of Ireland. Language is crucial here.

These small fields, ‘farming on the tiny scale permitted by Aran’s vexatious topography,’ are one way of living with a land that has been denuded of any woods it once had, and of the soil that might once have anchored those woods.[23] With small fields, the cows can be systematically and intensively grazed upon the very fine grass that springs from the soil made in the clints and grykes of the limestone rocks. And new soil can be made with sand and seaweed on the land once cleared of the stones that then can be piled up in walls to shelter crops or animals. Short of wood, farmers are even inclined to pull down parts of walls to let animals through, reassembling the wall after the passage of beasts. The lacework of small fields is also a trace of ‘the fossilized land-hunger of the “Congested Districts”, of the Land War, of the Great Famine and above all of the century of population growth that preceded it.’[24] But amid this difficulty, in these fields, and from these cliffs people developed a way of living that was rich in poetry, story, and a way of being on Earth, in the company of other animals, birds and fish that might yet have much to teach us. After all, our own way of being on the Earth has brought us into an Anthropocene we are incapable of mastering. Perhaps we could learn a little more respect.

So much is already gone. The second of Robinson’s Aran books, strikes an elegiac tone:

As with the fields and paths, so with the language; there are ominous signs of disuse and decay. Irish, the irreplaceable distillate of over two thousand years’ experience of this country, which has been poured down the drain in the rest of Ireland but which was carried unspilt even thru the famine century in those four little cups, the western Gaeltachtaí of Aran, Connemara and parts of Donegal and Kerry, is now evaporating even here.[25]

And this is why it was back to the fields and the cliffs and the rocks and the paths (see Figure 6). Equipped with what at the time was only a very limited command of the Irish language, Robinson started to collect placenames. He took up what he was best able to do and so began what Robert MacFarlane in his Foreword calls a ‘reformation of values.’[26] As Duffy shows in his essay, the restoration of hundreds of placenames would in itself be a significant contribution to the people of the West of Ireland. One of Robinson’s informants on Aran told him that he was doing ‘good work, […] something well worth doing for the island.’[27] But Robinson does so much more. The story that is lured with the placename, the genealogical and documentary research that comes when people open their closets for their respectful and curious visitor, and the critical review of expert knowledges solicited by letter or filtered out of his personal library, these are all further gifts from the pen and the practice of Tim Robinson.

Figure 6. The Landscape of Inis Meáin, photograph by Towel401, Wikimedia Creative Commons License

If an environmental ethic draws him to placelore, the realization that placelore is itself a resource for right-living, makes urgent the work of four decades. In one extended reflection upon a place named in conjunction with a folktale about cow that dies of shame when its endless gift is mocked by the trickery of a disrespectful person, Robinson asks us to reflect upon the earth-wisdom in such a story: ‘an image of the nurturing Earth itself, in its vulnerability to abuse and insult.’[28] Without the placename, the story would surely have been lost. Robinson holds out the earthly wonders of Aran, the Burren and Connemara for our approval and he throws down this Jeremiad: ‘[I]f we cannot save such a place as the Burren from spoilation, there is nowhere safe on the surface of the earth.’[29]

And so, with Unfolding Irish Landscapes: Tim Robinson, Culture and Environment, we have at last a walk around almost the full measure of this remarkable artist. This collection will surely bring further critical and academic attention to the work of Tim Robinson. Many more people will get the chance to learn a new attentiveness to the earthly wonders of the West of Ireland. But the book does not close itself off and to illustrate this let me finish with one last geographical trope.

Figure 7. Triangulation from a 16th century work of Levin Hulsius, Wikimedia Creative Commons License.

Triangulation is an important spatial metaphor for Tim Robinson (Figure 7). In Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the narrator can locate himself in his childhood landscape by reference to two different church towers, which in turn place Proust with respect to two different afternoon walks. The landscape is invested with meaning by the associations of the churches with elements of the historical sociology of France. The two different walks have significance for the likelihood of the evening ending with sufficient time for Marcel’s mother to come to his room and kiss him goodnight. In later life so many things are mapped onto the difference between utilitarian efficiency and romantic difficulty and the contrast serves as a structural matrix for Proust:

Since my father used always to speak of the ‘Méséglise way’ as comprising the finest view of a plain that he knew anywhere, and of the ‘Guermantes way’ as typical of river scenery, I had invested each of them, by conceiving them in this way as two distinct entities, with that cohesion, that unity which belong only to the figments of the mind; the smallest detail of either of them seemed to me a precious thing exemplifying the special excellence of the whole […]. I set between them […] the distance that there was between the two parts of my brain in which used to think of them, one of the distances of the mind which not only keep things apart, but cut them off from one another and put them on different planes.[30]

In various places, Tim Robinson enjoys the emotional triangulation of Proust’s novel but he suggests he might make a shift from triangulating around Time past, towards a triangulation of Space present.[31] He uses something like this image to talk about the relations between Synge, the islanders and the island (‘a painful contradiction between the necessity and the impossibility of each of three identifications constituting wholeness, between the visitor, the islanders and the island itself’); between himself, the map, and the mapped landscape ([i]n the basic geographic act of mapping I find three conjunctions: that of the place mapped with the one who maps it; that of the mapper with the map itself; and finally that of the map with the mapped’).[32] In each case, there is one term that is less securely known and it is from the base points that it is espied. In these two cases, the islanders for Synge and the landscape for Robinson are the terms that are reached after, or taken sight of.

Figure 8. Richard Long, Stone Circle on the Burren. Photograph, Moore College of Art and Design, 2010

But now, Unfolding Irish Landscapes offers the prospect of new appreciations of Robinson’s work from the various different perspectives elaborated in the essays. This sort of intellectual triangulation is explicit in many of the essays. When Gerry Smyth stands with Heidegger to look at Robinson he can then triangulate towards the new knowledge of the theme of listening in Robinson’s work. When Moynagh Sullivan sets down Bracha Ettinger as another base point alongside a reading of Tim Robinson, then, we can think about something new, a third point. In this case, we can note the tension in Robinson’s work between the organic and the inorganic. Robinson says that, by virtue of its rectangular geology, Aran naturally gives itself to us in geometry (Figure 8). At certain points he suggests that organic circles put upon the landscape are ‘egocentric stances.’[33] He seemed delighted to find that one such circle ‘did not withstand the criticism of the autumn storms, […] every bit of it had been tidied back into the storm beach again.’[34] Robinson himself notes the tension between geometry and ecology in his work: ‘it is rather peculiar that my contribution to those environmental exhibitions was very geometrical, very mathematical.’[35] Sullivan’s essay gives us an opportunity to rethink the organic in Robinson’s work and to think a bit more about the singularity that is felt as a dependency; a connection to the earth that is both a matter of finitude but also a matter of vital possibility. Ettinger distinguished a matrixial gaze, which acknowledges our essential and pre-subjective ties to our mother, from a phallic principle that is about autonomy and separation.[36] Sullivan concludes that ‘Robinson’s writing, artwork and walking practice […] brings into the symbolic the lines of consciousness that striate the matrixial stratum as elaborated by Ettinger.’[37] And so it will be, this wonderful collection will project new sightings of important themes and we will establish our base points with Gladwin and Cusick, to unfold new prospects for our studies of Tim Robinson and the societies of the West of Ireland for whom he has cultivated such respect.

Gerry Kearns, 12 April 2016

[1] Derek Gladwin and Christine Cusick, ‘Introduction: Ireland’s “ABC of earth wonders,”’ in Gladwin and Cusick (eds), Unfolding Irish Landscapes: Tim Robinson, Culture and Environment (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016) 1-18, 13.

[2] Eamonn Wall, ‘“But his study is out of doors’: Tim Robinson’s place in Irish Studies,’ in Gladwin and Cusick, Unfolding Irish Landscapes,147-157, 150.

[3] George Herbert Mead, ‘What Social Objects Must Psychology Presuppose?,’ Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 7 (1910) 174-180.

[4] Tim Robinson, Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara and Other Writings (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1996) vi.

[5] Robinson, Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara, vi.

[6] Robinson, The view from the horizon (Roundstone: Coracle, 1997) 15

[7] John Elder, ‘Catchments,’ in Gladwin and Cusick, Unfolding Irish Landscapes, 41-52, 50.

[8] Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1988 [1986]) 1.

[9] Patrick Duffy, ‘Genius loci: the geographical imagination of Tim Robinson,’ in Gladwin and Cusick, Unfolding Irish Landscapes, 21-40, 37.

[10] Robinson, Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara, 87.

[11] Elder, ‘Catchments,’ 42.

[12] Jos Smith, ‘Anticipating Deep Mapping: tracing the spatial practice of Tim Robinson,’ Humanities 4 :3 (2015) 283-303.

[13] Robinson, Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990 [1986]) 3.

[14] Nessa Cronin, ‘“The fineness of things”: the deep mapping projects of Tim Robinson’s art and writings, 1969-72,’ in Gladwin and Cusick, Unfolding Irish Landscapes, 53-72, 65.

[15] Kelly Sullivan, ‘Not knowing as aesthetic imperative in Tim Robinson’s “Stones of Aran,”’ in Gladwin and Cusick, Unfolding Irish Landscapes, 103-118, 116.

[16] Robinson, Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara, 91.

[17] Robert Macfarlane, ‘Foreword: Tim Robinson,’ in Gladwin and Cusick, Unfolding Irish Landscapes, xvi-xxi, xx.

[18] Moya Cannon, ‘Thirteen ways of looking at a landscape: the poetic in the work of Tim Robinson,’ in Gladwin and Cusick, Unfolding Irish Landscapes, 119-126, 119; Derek Gladwin, ‘Documentary map-making and film-making in Pat Collins’s “Tim Robinson: Connemara,”’ in Gladwin and Cusick, Unfolding Irish Landscapes, 73-86, 81.

[19] Robinson, Pilgrimage, 81.

[20] Catherine Marshall, ‘“Another half-humanized boulder lying on unprofitable ground”: the visual art of Tim Robinson/Timothy Drever,’ in Gladwin and Cusick, Unfolding Irish Landscapes, 190-201, 192.

[21] Gerry Smyth, ‘“About nothing, about everything”: listening in/to Tim Robinson,’ in Gladwin and Cusick, Unfolding Irish Landscapes, 173-189, 176.

[22] Karen Babine, ‘Tim Robinson and Chris Arthur: in defence of the Irish essay,’ in Gladwin and Cusick, Unfolding Irish Landscapes, 127-143, 133.

[23] Robinson, Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara, 110.

[24] Robinson, Labyrinth, 15.

[25] Robinson, Pilgrimage, 7.

[26] Macfarlane, ‘Foreword,’ xix.

[27] Robinson, Pilgrimage, 303.

[28] Robinson, Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara, 161.

[29] Robinson, Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara, 52.

[30] Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time. I. Swann’s Way, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright (London: Chatto and Windus, 1992 [1913]) 161.

[31] Robinson, Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara, 104.

[32] Robinson, Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara, 143, 15.

[33] Tim Robinson, Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1990 [Lilliput 1986]) 61.

[34] Robinson, Pilgrimage, 32.

[35] Jos Smith, ‘A Step Towards the Earth: Interview with Tim Robinson,’ Politics of Place 1 (2013) 4-11, 4

[36] Bracha Ettinger, The Matrixial Borderspace (Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

[37] Moynagh Sullivan, ‘“An ear to the earth’: matrixial gazing in Tim Robinson’s walk-art-text practice,’ in Gladwin and Cusick, Unfolding Irish Landscapes, 202-217, 203.