Wednesday, May 20, 2015

VENETIAN PALINA & BRICOLE – A Photographic Navigation

The hardwood stakes or palina, originally of oak but now mainly South American hardwoods, are a feature of Venice navigation. From the plain mooring poles to the candy-striped Palo Palazzo Veneziane outside the waterside palaces to the grouped Bricole Veneziane that are the main navigational markers in the lagoon. First formally regulated by Venetian Senate decree of the 8th December 1439 under the control of the Judges of the Pioveghi their maintenance was subsequently taken over by the Magistrate all Acque in 1501.

A simple mooring-post for Gondolas.

A squeraroli working in a squeri gondola shipyard


A group of three or more stakes from a word meaning 'catapult' but often
called 'Dolphins' or "Duc d'Albe' in international nautical use.
They are the main navigational markers in the Venetian Lagoon.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

RIHLA (Journey 50): VENICE – THE 56th BIENNALE – A giro d’ombra and umbrage

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This is a rihla about the Biennale in Venice, Italy.

The last time I was at a Venice Biennale was in October 2004 for the 9th International Architecture Exhibition (Mostra di Archittura di Venezia), curated by Kurt W. Foster, to see in particular Ireland’s “Scary House” exhibit; architects John Twomey and Sheila O’Donnell’s interpretation of their work in transforming Letterfrack Industrial School in Renvyle, Connemara from being an institution of death, terror and despair to Ireland’s (and perhaps Europe’s?) premier institution of furniture design and craftsmanship. (Blog Sunday May 31 2009)

I was anxious to revisit the city (I am always anxious to revisit Venice constantly amazed by the fact that it even exists!) to experience the artistic and original Biennale (La Biennale di Venizia), which has been going since 1895. In 1922 the Biennale had its first exhibition of works by African artists and this year (the 56th) had it has its first African-born artistic director (curator) of the entire festival, Okwui Enwezor.

Enwezor a Nigerian has lived in New York since 1982 but has curated international shows all over the world. In addition however he also has a very strong track record of activism on the human rights stage and was the co-author with Yadh Ben Achour of Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice and the Processes of Truth and Reconciliation in 2003 arising out of a symposium held in New Delhi in 2001 which incorporated human rights lawyers, artists, curators, historians and anthropologists.

In its optimal manifestation Transitional Justice, complemented by human rights and humanitarian policy and law, looks to post-conflict resolution by incorporating non-punitive amnesty-driven “Truth” commissions in an effort to understand the origins and thus reduce the possibilities of recurring patterns of effect in any society devastated by conflict. In our Western consciousness however the increasingly restrictive and punitive post-9/11 “War on Terror” agenda has marginalised somewhat the Transitional Justice notion of “Truth” as being informative to being suspect and it is in this context in 2015 that I was interested to see where Enwezor’s interpretation of “Truth” in artistic transitional terms was going to take me.

The title chosen by Enwezor for this years Biennale was All The World’s Futures. (see: He conceived the exhibition to ‘delve into the contemporary global reality as one of constant realignment, adjustment, recalibration, motility, shape-shifting’ but decided to represent that reality with a ‘relentlessly incomplete’ fractal, fractious and to my mind, not so much a clarion-call but a hammer-blow to any notion of  future development of transitional justice mechanisms.

I found the exhibitions in the Arsenale section in particular unsettling, not so much in their depiction of despair or dysfunction in “relentlessly incomplete” artistic terms, but for a cynicism that bordered on lunacy.

I live on the sea’s edge, and in my journey through the exhibition, it was if I was on a beach-combing exercise in the main wading through the detritus of an artistic storm. A chaotic, fuzzy and very miasmic reality presented no real sense of a “future” apart from the reality that modern communication means that artists increasingly depend on video-display interpretations of their work in caverned, curtained-off spaces where all light is conceived rather than perceived.

Edward Lorenz explained Chaos Theory as “When the present determines the future, the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.” Enwezor’s approximation of the “present” is proof of this.

In that approximation, in the Arsenale section particularly, there are some incredibly diverse interpretations of the present juxtaposed. From the bleakness of a Mexican partition wall to the sublime ceramics of the Argentinian Juan Carlos Distéfano; from a Swedish series of pools with intended sunken causeways to represent global warming (but their meaning and function entirely abandoned for the exhibition because of health and safety concerns) to an interpretive artist walking oh-so-solemnly diagonally across a defined space to release a model glider only to pick it up and release it again, depending on an occasional peripheral gust of wind to render chaos in the process and thus his interpretation.

I know now, where truth and art is concerned, that I am of a generation where a solidity of structure, of transforming space, even in its most translucent application, allows the opportunity of examining that space and interpreting its effect, its truth, its determination. I am also however of a generation who despite understanding the artistic interpretation of Lorenz’s explanation of the butterfly-effect of Chaos theory also love the notion that the colour of a butterfly’s wing is not the consequence of pigment but of structure, and that the “Truth” of that colour is one of refraction and diffraction of light caused by that structure. This is my concept of the future. We must continue to fight for the reality of truth, search for its structure within and use that to undermine the increasing latitude of approximation.

In a restaurant called Hostaria All’Ombra (the Shadow) on the Via Garibaldi, close to the Arsenale I wondered on its name. In English usage the umbra is the darkest part of a shadow, where the fuzzy twilight edge is excluded from the darkness. I asked the owner the reason for the name. Some Venetians, he explained, call their wine Ombra, from the term “giro di ombra” (journey of shadows) after the reality of when itinerant wine sellers in St Mark’s square had to keep moving their bottles on display into the cooler shades of the transit shadow cast by the Bell Tower.

My own journey through the shadows of the 56th Biennale, where truth has become redundant somewhat, left me with a feeling of umbrage rather than Ombra.  



Thursday, March 26, 2015


Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This is the second rihla ( see: Rihla 47) about the quays of the Connemara Islands (na hOileáin); this time exploring those of Gorumna Island.

“Actually I never understand the why of anything – 
my own obscure but insistent motivations least of all.”

William Seabrook
Adventures in Arabia

I came across Seabrook’s book recently quite by accident and never having heard of one of America’s 'Lost Generation' explorists (I use explorist rather than explorer because Seabrook’s curiosity led him beyond geography to occultism and cannibalism amongst other travels!) I was quite astounded by the descriptive detail and sheer enjoyment of social and geographic exploration in this, one of his earliest books. It also somehow sums up my own failure to adequately explain my reason’s for wanting to go somewhere... or anywhere!

In Gorumna Island’s case, there was the logical explanation of it being the second part of my exploration of the quays and slipways of the Connemara islands, but allied to this, knowing at the back of my mind, was a recurring curiosity about the origin of the name. I just did not understand the why?

Books to Topograph with!

I recently got a present of Robert Macfarlane’s book, Landmarks an etymological exploration and glossary of the ever-evolving language of landscape, conceived as a ‘counter-desecration’ and counter-eradication phrasebook. Impressive as his scholarly effort is it pales into almost opaqueness by the efforts of another scholar living in Qatar, and generously highlighted by Macfarlane at the end of his book, a Simon Fitzwilliam-Hall who starting with Arabic, Persian, Turkish has analysed 140 living and dead languages and geographies in a ‘vast’ work in progress which is called Language in the Landscape: A Multilingual Glossary of Topographical Terms and Place-Name elements in the Afro-Eurasian Lands (The Topoglossary for short). Macfarlane records that the “B” section alone, beginning with ba the Akkadian for water, of the Topoglossary comes to 343 pages. With this in mind my efforts to understand the etymology of Gorumna is almost embarrassing.

The Irish for Gorumna is Garmna and Irish dictionaries point to this as being a variant spelling of garma, which means a cross-beam such as that on a gallows or cross, or topographically a long protective sandbar or peninsula. Tim Robinson in his gazetteer of Connemara advocates another derivation of the name from gar meaning near and omhna an oak tree. Gorumna has not gallows, peninsulas, sandbars or much in the way of oak and I suspect the origin of the name goes back much more to its value as a piece of ground to the original inhabitants of the area.

A pictorial from The Graphic magazine in May 1880 showing
a famine relief visit from the Duke of Edinburgh to Gorumna.

John Millington Synge wrote as he passed through Gorumna in the company of Jack Butler Yeats in the summer of 1905 that, The remainder of the road to the lower western end of Gorumna led through hilly districts that became more and more white with stone, though here and there a few brown masses of bog or an oblong lake with many islands and rocks. Gorumna has always had, I suspect, a denuded topography and that what turf producing bogs were present were cleared early in the Bronze Age. Being resource-poor for turf I suggest that origin of the island’s name is more likely to be from garrmóna meaning soft or worthless turf, the word itself derived from garr which is the effluent of washed-off nutrients of a landscape caused by winter rains and móna which is turf.

Map and Locations

1. Céibh an Mháimín
Quay of the Small Pass

This quay was designed by Alexander Nimmo in 1822

Potting for lobster (gliomach), crab (portán rua) and shrimp (ribe róibéis) is a well  established activity although shrimp potting is declining as the economic returns are poor for the effort extended. Velvet Swimming Crab (luaineachán), scallop (muirín), oyster (oisre), razor clams (scian mhara), crayfish (gabhal mara) are also harvested on a defined seasonal basis.

2. Céibhe na Speice 
Quay of the Glance (glint of light)

The main rock formations on the northern part of the island are granite (Errisbeg GaEb-Type) whereas those on the southern shores are volcanic and sedimentary. The harvested seaweed is Knotted Wrack (femainn bhuí).

3. Céibh Ghlais na nUan
Quay of the Stream of the Lambs

4. Céibh an Doirin Darach
Quay of the Small Oakwood

5. Céibh an Trá Bháin
Quay of the White Beach

The Song of the Drowning

Pilgrim's (Oilitherach) Church overlooking Trá Bháin

6. Céibh an tAircín
Quay of the Creek

7. Céibh an tSáilín
Quay of the Little Heel (Inlet) of the Sea

8. Céibh Sheanachamheas
Quay of the Gathering (to Compare)

The island in the background is Oileán an Anama, Island of the Spirit. There is a Connemara seafaring tradition that if you dropped anything overboard you should not retrieve it as if the sea is denied it will come looking for a soul next time. 

The access road to this quay is blocked by a rickety gate that keeps the cattle in. Interesting name and this designation is very much my own. I suspect the Gathering referred to was perhaps an annual event to compare some specific commercial sea-harvest. In the 16th & 17th centuries, ambergris the undigested cartilage of squids spewed out by whales and gathered on the shoreline, and a substance used in perfumes with a value greater than rare metals, was an O'Flaherty monopoly, and was traded with Spain. It might make a comeback as a commercial resource if the reputed numbers of whales off our coasts continue to rise.

9. Céibh Poll Uí Mhuirin
Quay of O'Murrin's Hollow

10. No-Name Medieval Monastery and Churchyard
Southern edge of  Ballynakill Lough

The Rock of Doom!

Gort an Mhaoil or Field of the Delay, named after a local man
who was held up for three days by fairies (or something else entirely!)

11. Céibh Baile na Cille
Quay of the Village of the Church

12. Céibh na Fionnoige
Quay of the Crowberry

13. An Caladh Beag
The Small Harbour

14. Bóthar na nOileáin
The intertidal causeway that links Inis Bearcháin to Gorumna

1872 OS Map showing Causeway

The tidal ranges in this area are about 4m at spring and 2m at neap tides. The remaining 200m or so of causeway is about 1.2m high and 6m wide. The earliest causeways to the islands predate the 1830s onwards famine-relief constructions and probably have existed since the Bronze Age.

15. Céibhe Ghleann Trasna
Quay of the Crosswise Glen

16. Céibhe an Roisín
Quay of the Small Headland