Archive Image
Archive Image

Gabriel Gee (Tetigroup - Franklin University, CH)

Once the bounding banks of rivers were made, woods emerged, valleys and mountains, plains on which to cultivate the soil. (Ovid 1.20-48). Beyond the land roamed an ocean which for a long time remained an impassable frontier: no mariner would sail into the wild watery West where the sun sets in the sea. It was best to keep an eye on the coast. Portolan charts featuring meticulous profile drawings of the coastlines guided navigators from harbour to harbour (Deluz, 29-38). On the North Sea and the Atlantic coasts, this often meant sailing from river to river, as human urban settlements could benefit from a strategic location, sheltered from the open waters while connected to the hinterland. Ever bigger and larger vessels in the modern age made these arrangements unpractical. Industrial developments in the nineteenth century demanded considerable physiologic transformations of river sites. With the adoption of the standardised container in maritime transportation in the 1960s, a complete mutation has come into effect. Container terminals are found outside the harbour cities, upstream; sophisticated infrastructures they are, operating for the city in a similar way that micro-computer systems do for humans in the digital age. Peneus, the river god, Anna Livia, have become hybrids, cyborgs whose former organic clarity has been replaced by an artificial complexity, complete with probing lenses, carnal prosthesis and ever uncertain desires.

The eyes of the lighthouse

It’s a breezy day in Howth; up the hill the white tent flaps, a hat lies precariously on a lush green field, at the feet of a young woman who bends slightly to our left to counter the force of the wind; her white dress, her yellow jacket and her blonde hair are swept towards an open seascape. There we see an animated sky, the Wicklow mountains on the horizon, the Dublin Bay below. If, standing at the summit of the Howth Peninsula, we were to turn our eyes to the right hand side of William Orpen’s 1909 painting, we would see the lighter shades of grass of the Howth golf club, underneath a panoramic view over the mouth of the river Liffey, signalled by the red silhouette of the Poolbeg lighthouse at the end of the long Great South Wall. The bay offered a protection from the wind for ships; yet it was always a dangerous place to sail through, due to its naturally formed sandbars. A southern wall was progressively built in the eighteenth century to facilitate the entry into the Dublin Harbour; a northern wall, also known as the Bull Wall was designed in 1819 after a recommendation from admiral William Bligh (Dickson, 289-90). The lighthouse crowns the river’s embellished head, peering into the Irish sea and the world beyond.

The candle light, then the oil, then the automated lenses, at the top of the vertical structure behind the glass panels, though, look both outward and inward. Derek Mahon, in a series of poetic notes on Edward Hopper’s depiction of a lighthouse in Maine, The Lighthouse at Two Lights (1929), pointed to the dual nature of these towers: both shedding light, and hoarding light (Mahon, 299). In its performative capacity, the lighthouse looks out into the night, in order to guide the ships sailing onto the deep waters in their coastal navigation, to guide their crew to a safe haven. But harbour cities have pronounced dual identities: the Europeans sent ships to distant seas and lands, the northern shores of the Hansa where Lübeck glowed, the Mediterranean trading posts of Venice and Genova, the global outreach of the Eastern India Companies of London and Amsterdam. From the leap into the unknown, gold and wealth was expected: the ship is meant to come back. The lighthouse in that respect functions as an archetypal Janus figure, a guardian of thresholds, of entering and exiting, of war and peace. In her exploration of the Poolbeg Lighthouse as part of the port | river | city project, Cliona Harmey goes back to the technological shifts which occurred in the early nineteenth century, when French engineer Augustin Fresnel developed a brighter lens capable of radically enhancing the light power of lighthouses. Theresa Levitt, in a study on the impact of the invention, points to its contribution to the murky field “of money, knowledge and sea power, that bedevilled nations everywhere” (Levitt, 19). There is a dark side to the lighthouse. In Dublin, the knots are particularly slippery, where the port blossomed in the early modern age under the auspices of the expanding British empire, but within the terms and interests of its powerful neighbour, England. In this vein, Harmey assembled some ‘radarsculptures’ in 2016, whose models were radar reflectors serving as visibility aid for buoys and small crafts. Harmey’s modified reflectors though, comprised blackened panels that impaired the objects’ initial function. Not all floating vessels want to be acknowledged by the light of the lighthouse, whose eyes rotate into a darkness where safe passage can mean both to be seen and unseen.

The blood of the river

Behind the lighthouse, the river extends her flows inward. There the activities and resources of men abound. Along the shores of the Hudson, Peter Hutton unfolds slowly and silently a series of chimneys and factories, warehouses, rail convoys moving surreally in the distance, boats loading or unloading, gas towers, and bridges, to cross the river from one bank to the other (Time and Tide, 2000). This sublime gloom of industry is superposed with dark historical textures in William Raban’s investigation of the Thames in the 1980s (Thames Film, 1986). There is metal and wood, fog and rain, blurs on the crest of the river flow, dereliction, and the scent of a murderous past. We see the banks of the river from a rowing boat in which William Hogarth’s idle apprentice is ‘turned away and sent to sea’ (1747); a ship awaits in the distance, as a figure holds a ‘cat of nine tails’ whip on the apprentice’s back, foreshadowing the order and punishments of life at sea, while another points to a gibbet on the execution docks where pirates and mutineers were sentenced to death. Following Thomas Pennant’s 1787 journey from London to Dover, Raban searches for the ambiguous signs of industry and commerce, built by an empire that sent ships all over the world ‘to bring back wealth and prosperity to Great Britain.’ The river is spilled with blood, rhythmed by the Triumph of Death, when the film flips to Peter Brueghel’s 1562 painting, in which a serenading couple in the bottom right hand corner are the only figures still oblivious to the army of skeletons putting to the sword all living creatures on earth.

The last sequence in Thames Film brings us back to its beginning at the heart of the city, on a bridge where busy battalions of office workers make their way into the great machinery of the British capital. With modern urban planning, the vagaries of tidal flows can be superbly ignored. In Dublin, following the collapse of a portion of the Essex bridge in 1751, a new bridge was originally designed by George Semple together with a wider street leading to it, Parliament Street, inspired by the readings of a Leon Battista Alberti manual (Finnian O Cionnaith, 188-89). Above the waters immersed in their urban lives, city dwellers and visitors can forget the toil of the river pulse that shaped the city from the inside out. Nick Crowe, Ian Rawlinson and Graham Parker aimed to render such invisible layers visible in their Project for River Medlock – River Medlock Bridge (1998), in which they replaced a slate of the Medlock bridge on Oxford Road in Manchester with a glass panel, so that the disused river could be seen as well as heard through an acoustic installation by passers-by. The textures of industrial transformation and the crucial historical role played by rivers in the expansion of global commerce was similarly the object of photographer John Davies’s depiction of the Mersey river (1986), where abandoned warehouses linger along shopping malls and a re-landscaping instilled by the creative industries. Underneath the bridges, five centuries of trading momentum have equipped rivers with a futuristic apparatus. In Bristol, the city nicely tucked inland, the tides proved so cumbersome to the circulation of ships that locks were built to create a floating harbour. In Dublin, arti cial limbs were added to the Liffey in the form of the Grand Canal, while Bindon Blood Stoney’s diving bell helped reinforce the skin of the river in the nineteenth century. In Belfast or Rotterdam, the heads of the Lagan and the Nieuwe Maas have been so much surgically transformed that they bear little resemblance to their former selves. Industrial activities have inevitably pumped evil liquids in the artery of European rivers, which contemporary beautification processes strive to eradicate. Former mayor of Paris Jacques Chirac famously promised in the 1980s to the Parisians they would soon be able to swim again in the Seine, which the opening of ‘Paris Plage’ in 2007, and more recently of swimming ponds at La Villette seem to finally materialize. With Vanessa Daws the idle urban dweller can get a rush of aquatic adrenaline, as the swimming artist dives into the Liffey, from where we see the city not so much atop than from within the waters: a fragment of a neo-classical building, of a late twentieth century complex, of human silhouettes on the quays, all glimpsed from a rejuvenated river-bed.

A golden stomach and some secret dreams

Intricate bracelets, sleeve and dress fasteners, gorgets and earrings, rings and spiralling spherical necklaces, discs hammered with dots, crosses and triangles, all in gold, found in hoards, made from imports, perhaps, and alluvial deposits, certainly, produced in large quantities throughout the bronze age period. When the Norsemen appeared on the shores of Ireland in the eighth century, gold they hoped to find too, up the Liffey, at the dark pool, Dubh Linn, where a monastery is deemed to have been, and where they eventually erected longhports to protect their boats, prompting the birth of the city of Dublin (Dickson 3-6). And lo and behold more Nordic invaders, the Normans: Henry II crossing the Irish sea and making haste towards Dublin in 1171, to make sure the military successes of Richard de Clare were not to spiral out of control. The custom house as we know it, though, was built in the 1780s after a design by James Gandon. The dedicating cartouche in surveyor John Roques’ 1756 Exact Survey of Dublin captures the spirit of time nicely: at the centre a shell arch towers over the Liffey, identified by the three castles of Dublin’s coat of arms; on the left hand side, an innocent nymph, Hibernia, lies on the river shore in the nude, while on the upper hand side Britannia in full armour sits regally, a large shield adorned with a twelve-stringed harp under the arm (Cionnaith 119-20). But in the twentieth century, the golden hues of the river have also morphed. The custom house burnt for five days during the 1921-22 civil war. The majestic docklands now too small to cater for monster cargoes declined in the 1970s; and then revived in the 1990s, as they did in Canary Wharf in London and the Albert docks in Liverpool, in Beaulieu in Nantes or the Hafencity in Hamburg. The shout of the Celtic tiger!

Whose particular roar remain equivocal to many ears… The ambiance is assuredly different these days by the former docks near the offices of Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Credit Suisse, stopping by to partake in the consumption of Swedish meatballs, an oven-baked pizza or perhaps some sushi, washed down with a glass of white wine or a at white. The ‘rhythms of the port’, to refer to Moira Sweeney’s documentary investigation, are to be found further away; with two digital signal panels installed on an old Sherzer bridge in the former docklands, Cliona Harmey reminded for a while the thousands of Dubliners commuting by car of the ongoing presence of ships, whose names appeared on the boards as they arrived and departed from the harbour (Dublin Ships, 2015). Money and trade are still pounding at the heart of port cities, as they were in the times of old when the rivers carried cattle and grain, linen and fish in and out of the island. But with the development of electronics, virtual fluxes, accompanied by influential neo-liberal currents in the late Twentieth century, river-cities have added beeping devices, wave length radars and satellite extensions to their already mutant anatomy. Yet their hybrid elongated personalities are not solely governed by material considerations; there is still an arbitrariness possible in the location of the guiding stars, suggests Dan Shipsides; there are also interstitial spaces in the mutant body of our rivers, not least where the unconscious unfolds its magical realm, where the dreams of river-cities might escape from the brightness of advertising neon lights.

  1. Christiane Deluz, “La mer infranchissable?”, in La mer. Terreur et fascination, Alain Corbin & Hélène Richard, Paris: bibliothèque nationale de France, 2004
  2. David Dickson, Dublin. The Making of a Capital City, London: Profile books, 2014.
  3. Theresa Levitt, A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse, New-York, London: Norton, 2013
  4. Derek Mahon, A Lighthouse in Maine, in New Collected Poems, Loughcrew: the Gallery Press, 2011
  5. Finnian O Cionnaith, Mapping, Measurements and Metropolis. How Land Surveyors Shaped Eighteenth-Century Dublin, Dublin: Four Court Press, 2012

Gabriel N. Gee: is Associate Professor in Art History at Franklin University, Switzerland. Recent publications include “Art in the North of England. 1979-2008” (Routledge – an Ashgate book 2017). His current research interests include 20th century British and Irish art, the changing representations and imaginaries of port cities in the second half of the 20th century, as well as interconnected global histories, with a particular interest in urban and architectural representation. With Alison Vogelaar, he is currently finalizing a co-edited survey on the “Changing representation of nature and cities: the 1960s and 1970s and their legacies” (Routledge, 2018). He is a co-founder of the TETI group, for Textures and Experiences of Trans-Industriality (www.tetigroup.org).