Understanding a place “without shortcuts”: exploring the Tim Robinson archive 

This Post Comes from The Hollywood Story : An Eco-Social Art Practice | Co. Carlow Ireland | Authored by Cathy Fitzgerald:

I’m staying near Bearna village, which is on the edge of the ecologically significant Moycullen bog area in the West of Ireland.

On such occasions the basic act of attention that creates a place out of a location would be renewed, enhanced by whatever systems of understanding we can muster, from the mathematical to the mythological, by the passion of poetry, or by simple enjoyment of the play of light on it. Here is a gateway to a land without shortcuts, where each place is bathed in the sunlight of our contemplation and all its particularities brought forth, like those mountainside potato plots gilded by midwinter sunset in the valley of the stone alignment.

Tim Robinson ‘A Land without Shortcuts’, The Dublin Review 46 (Spring 2012), p.43

2017 has seen me spending many months away from Hollywood forest. Now, I find myself exploring a remarkable archive, a body of work created over four decades by Tim Robinson, that celebrates some of the most iconic land and marine areas of the West of Ireland. I thank Dr. Nessa Cronin of the Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway, for inviting me to apply for a month-long Visiting Fellowship that is giving me access to Tim Robinson’s remarkable legacy. Also thanks to Dr Iain Biggs, my PhD supervisor, who encouraged me to take this opportunity.

Since 1972, Tim Robinson with the support of his partner Mairead, has created a nationally acclaimed body of work that celebrated and mapped the Aran Isles, the Burren and Connemara.

Initially, I was a bit unsure how my creative practice and research would connect with the archive. I was thinking how would I relate to the tree-less landscape that is the West of Ireland, but I was soon intrigued how Robinson developed an extraordinary ecology of creative practice.This practice, developed over these decades, embraced map-making, ecological and archaeological studies, local histories and folklore, and writing to deeply map and highlight overlooked values of these areas. Reflecting the significance of Tim’s work to the Irish nation, is that he is a member of Aosdana (an affiliation of artists who have made an outstanding contribution to the arts in Ireland) since 1996, and he  is a fellow of the Royal Irish Academy since 2011.

Robinson, drawing on his background in visual arts, mathematics and physics, and perhaps freshly enthusiastic about Ireland as he was as a visitor to this region (he was born in Yorkshire), created a practice that is far from a simple study of landscape.

An important recent book to understand Robinson’s many faceted practice is  Unfolding Irish Landscapes Tim Robinson, Culture and Environment (2016). A contribution from Irish art and architect researcher Catherine Marshall, indicates that Robinson’s wide-ranging creative practice is less appreciated in the art world than might be expected. She writes that Robinson’s work has been more often examined by literary critics, geographers, historians and other writers (Marshall, 2016, p.191).  Notably, she understands that Robinson’s mapping and collation of histories and place names inevitably led to his writing several acclaimed books, Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1986), Stones of Aran: Labyrinth (1995), Connemara: Listening to the Wind (2006), Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness (2008), Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom (2011) and yet, how his practice was informed ‘by an artist’s eye at all times’ (p.198) (a sense of Robinson’s work can be seen in the video below). She recognises that Robinson’s aim was to find a way to link the particular to the global and the mythic (p.197), and she briefly mentions how his work connects to other’s creative practices as established by Deirdre O’Mahony and Alan Counihan and Gypsy Ray who have created similar wide-ranging and comprehensive eco-social ‘mapping’ projects in Ireland (p.199). However, the final contribution in this book by ecocriticism researcher, Eoin Flannery in his ‘Essayist of Place: Post-Colonialism and Ecology in the Work of Tim Robinson’, signals how Robinson’s constellation of practices are now viewed as contributing significantly to the developing ecological (environmental) humanities discipline, of which ecological art practice is increasingly recognised as a vibrant field of enquiry.

Extract from the documentary film Tim Robinson: Connemara (Director, Pat Collins, Harvest Films, 2014), it ‘is a sixty minute film based on Robinson’s three Connemara books and a visual interpretation of his work as a map-maker and writer. An exploration of landscape, history and mythology – this film acts as an intersection between writing, film-making and the natural world.’ (Harvest Films)

To my mind, Robinson’s creative work is an exemplary example of a developed ecological practice.  Ecological art practices are perhaps better described as eco-social art practice (as they bear similarities to social art practices). Such practices involve organising activities and insights from lived (lifeworld) experience and diverse disciplinary knowledge, and are motivated by ethics, learning and action. Practitioners of such practices are not to the fore of such projects, rather they work transversally to encircle an emergent ecosophy, a philosophy of living well in a specific  location (originally described by French therapist, political activist and theorist, Felix Guattari). They foster a reflective, collaborative and comprehensive effort,  “without shortcuts”, as Robinson says, to understand our cultural values, or lack thereof, to our life-supporting environments.

Iain Biggs, who also undertook a Moore Institute visiting fellowship in 2014, has explored such ecosophical projects (looking at the creative practices of Deirdre O’Mahony, Pauline O’Connell and my own) in his research article ‘”Incorrigibly plural”? Rural Lifeworlds between Concept and Experience’ (2014). Biggs details how these creative practitioners develop and share  workings for their audiences as a result of them inhabiting ‘polyverses’: that these multi-constituent practices champion openness and plurality as they welcome and explore many different ways of appreciating often marginalised rural lifeworlds (Biggs, 2014, p.263).

And fostering sensitive, inclusive, region-specific creative practices is important for all our futures given the unprecedented eco-crises we all face (although in Ireland, understanding that culture is 4th pillar of sustainability is still little acknowledged, Fitzgerald, 2017). I can illustrate this further by considering two creative projects detailed in articles sent to me by colleagues this week, one from Ireland and one from Australia. The Irish article, in yesterday’s Irish Times, ‘Connemara village writes its own positive obituary’ (Siggins, 24 August 2017) reveals a local community that feels abandoned by the Irish Minister for Rural Development. However, this community, with the help of creative film-maker and television producer, Sean O Cualain, has set up a bilingual online interactive map and archive of this area’s place-names and rich heritage, that honors it’s ancestors’ livelihoods. Such efforts contrast what the Irish Times writer Siggins identifies as the official, “the land is worthless” narrative, that is often heard by those, like the villagers in Connemara, who are trying to maintain a sustainable relationship to their land. The Connemara village’s Loughaconeera Heritage website highlights Coiste Scoil Loch Con Aortha, their  voluntary organization and their efforts to secure funds to develop an old school as a community facility (you can make a donation here). It’s more than telling  that this article ends with a note that a Fine Gael Councillor resigned in April from the post of chairman of the Western Development Commission in protest over government inaction.

Likewise, Australian sociologist Laura Fisher in ‘Ecologies of Land and Sea and the Rural/Urban Divide in Australia: Sugar vs the Reef? and The Yeomans Project’ (2017) documents similar narrow-minded, city-based agendas that little reflect or consult with rural realities. She argues the potential for embedded eco-social art practices to offer valuable insights to seemingly intractable farming versus environmental debates. Her research reviews the live, ongoing multi-dimensional creative Sugar vs The Reef? Project (begun 2016), in which creative practitioners Ian Milliss, Lucas Ihlein and Kim Williams, listen and gather overlooked diverse local knowledge to map a regenerative farming appropriate for this specific environment, that borders the sensitive and declining Great Barrier Reef. Having followed Lucas Ihleins’ doctoral research (and I met with Lucas last December), I also admire their use of a blog  sugar-vs-the-reef.net to creatively collate and make this project open and  accessible to local and further afield audiences. Similarly, I recognise blogging as a creative audio-visual discursive practice that has an immediacy  perhaps more readily engaging than Robinson’s preference for detailed literary endeavors, although, of course, both have value (I wondered the other day in the reading room looking at the physical archive how will blogs be archived in the future). Overall, Fisher’s analysis concludes that these ‘projects show that generating compelling, localised, cultural meanings around land use has the potential to be as decisive as scientific intervention or environmental legislation’ (ibid).

Fisher’s research confirms others extensive studies, such a sociologist Sacha Kagan’s Art and Sustainability: Connecting Patterns for a Culture of Complexity (2011) which analyses that ecological art practices are a significant contribution towards developing relevant instances of sustainability. However, I concur with Marshall above, that such wide-ranging practices are less known than they should be. My recent doctoral research and practice has tackled why these practices pose challenges to contemporary art practice. Importantly, I see common aims and strategies in how these projects develop and are maintained. My research has helped to articulate these processes and I hope to apply my theory and methodology framework to understand Robinson’s and others practices more simply.

But first, I think I might go out and experience the bog outside my front door. And that’s the first step, gathering experiential knowledge of being in a place, and art has a key role to translate these experiences in new and engaging ways to audiences. I’ll post more on this in my next post from the bog 🙂

Biggs, Iain (2014)’”Incorrigibly plural”? Rural Lifeworlds between Concept and Experience. Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Special issue, “Text and Beyond Text: New Visual, Material, and Spatial Perspectives in Irish Studies”. Vol. 38, Nos. 1+2, 260-279.

Fisher, Laura (2017) ‘Ecologies of Land and Sea and the Rural/Urban Divide in Australia: Sugar vs the Reef? and The Yeomans Project’. Available at https://www.academia.edu/33371306/Ecologies_of_Land_and_Sea_and_the_Rural_Urban_
 [Accessed 23 August 2017]

Fitzgerald, Cathy (2017) ‘Creative Carlow Futures: Art and Sustainability for County Carlow’. A Carlow Arts Act Award study report. In press.

Kagan, Sacha (2011) Art and Sustainability: Connecting Patterns for a Culture of Complexity.

Siggins, Lorna (2017) ‘Connemara village writes its own positive obituary’ 24 August 2017 Irish Times. [Accessed 24 August 2017].

Thanks to digital archivist Aisling Keane and Prof Daniel Carey, Director, of the Moore Institute for welcoming me to the Robinson archive. Thanks to Mary Carty and Lucas Ihlein for sending me the above articles.

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