“The Malahide road was quiet. It pleased Father Conmee, road and name. The joybells were ringing in gay Malahide… Those were old worldish days, loyal times in joyous townlands, old times in the barony.”
Ulysses, Episode 10, Wandering Rocks, James Joyce
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Aileen Lambert’s work, her interests in the local, places and their names, reminds me that I am a city person. And that, as such, I am programmed to be less affiliated with the nature of place. Nature, its invigorating restorative power, is for me, for my type, a mechanism which supports a binary; that of a life in interior spaces with nature as a place into which we are released for a little R&R over a holiday or a weekend.
Projections have suggested that by 2050, seventy-five percent of the world’s population will be city based. We urban folk over centuries of design and economic development have been engaging with the natural environment as recreational support for city living. City citizens need this disconnection to facilitate fluidity, support multiple cultures, identities, specialisms, and allegiances. And so we have, in cities, more freedom to choose what to ignore and what to remember.
To survive cities compete on a world stage and do this beyond a concern for country. The cities role in globalism is to develop a network of intimacies beyond and stronger than the local, and do this, somehow, in ways which will ultimately support the notion of nation. Discourses about urban life and the rapid growth of world cities, seemed to hold a far hotter-spot in critical discourse about ten years ago. Critics of the design of cities focus on the ecological, economic and social impacts of human clustering. Artists like Marjetica Potrč and Alfredo Jarr were documenting the potentials and failures in energy usage and infrastructural development of cities. Theorists like Mike Davis were ruffling feathers with tales of urban of disaster. Al Gore and director Davis Guggenheim brought this into the mainstream with An Inconvenient Truth. Dr Inge Kaul was challenging perceptions of the value of universal public goods such as water.
Over the last decade everything, it seemed, was in extreme expansion, necessitating an increase distancing from realities of the natural world. China was rumoured to be planning to build over two-hundred new cities for year 2020/30. Two and a half miles off the coast of Dubai plans to build World had started. A Galway man bought Ireland. Now, World, is a series of failed and eroding sand-heaps silting up the bay in Dubai. There are cities, not to mind estates, which are empty, or so it might seem, but nature ,we know, will always return.
As economies retract we are unsure if thinking large is an answer, we talk of specialism and alliances between places. Discourses about cities turn to another binary; of how they slowed down, or have been accelerated. Attention is with those world cites that have flared up as cultures grapple with how to preserve or change their cultures and how they articulate identities in globalised competition with each other. Many are crumbling and fissured by control and wars connected to greed, or developed so rapidly that the capacity to service them divides into ghettos of slums or clusters of middle class gated castles. Worldwide, desire to live in cities and their urban lands is projected to grow.
In small ways this too is the story of old Fingal, which as a County structure is relatively new; formed 1994 to support the civic management and administration of increasing population and spread of the greater Dublin area. The 2011 census shows that it is the second most populous county in Ireland. Aileen Lambert’s focus is with the town-lands of Fingal, with the places-names and boundaries, and explores the layers of land use and its users over generations. The work is about landscape and landmarks, she has indentified essential natural elements as signifiers of place-names. Lambert translates familiar urban names back to their origins, to their deep connection with the physicality of landscape. Reminding us that place names were descriptors of geographies and of the qualities of its terroiri. These translations are both verbal and visual, they are of familiar places, places on the way to the airport, off the motorway, of housing estate towns and shopping areas, of agri-businesses.
We describe places, but we also sense them beyond the factual naming them. Lambert shows us The Well Of The Eyes, Place Of The Briars, Hazel Land, Town Of The Streamlet, we read images of wells, trees, sky and sea, of berries. The real and the unreal swim together. Where is this Peninsula Of Yew Trees in Fingal? Here, in this area of Greater Dublin, most citizens are distant from the land in this sensing way.
Placenames, follows in Lamberts body of practice like Soft Edge and En Route which supports communities to exchange their knowing and experience of place. Her work is contextualised by the current practices of a cohort of Irish artists who have a deep connection to the value of places, their sub-cultures and how we live in the world. Projects like Commonage, Welcome to the Neighbourhood, Trade, and exhibitions like Dig Where You Stand, Tulca 2012, and Aughty along with artists like Anna MacLeod and Christine Mackey are deeply interested in and are addressing the contemporary characteristics of this subject and landscape.
Identification with the distinction of places is deep in the layers of our cultural practices in Ireland; ownership, the passing of the generations, gathering, migrations and translations, marks our interest in the concentration a life in a place over time. The commitment to place is in our art and literature, this is where we have traditionally addressed the boundaries of family, parish and religion. I started this piece with a quote from Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel which is intensely motivated by the physical reality of the city and urban life. The emotive resonance of the social crossing of the rural into the urban has changed. What Lamberts work might asks of us is to regard the hinterland, the nature of remembering, how we experience the nuances of place, but also to name where we are now.
i Terroir can be very loosely translated as “a sense of place,” which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities, the sum of the effects that the local environment.