A Riverine World By Cristín Leach
- in Essays
- posted March 20, 2023
This city where I live was built on a once-natural riverine landscape. Eight channels or more of the River Lee winding to the sea, now hidden under streets. Riverine is a good word in the mouth. It rushes its sharp, tight opening before winding to a sweeter, more expansive close. Riverine. It’s there and gone almost before you’ve noticed you’ve said it. But it makes you want to go back and try it again. Riverine. There is movement and stillness in this word, like the see-saw and song of a series of violin-notes, perhaps. It mimics the action of water too, like the paintings of Bernadette Kiely.
The city of Cork lies on this once-natural riverine landscape, occupied and modified by humans over centuries to encompass warehouses, transport routes, workshops, businesses, homes. This marshy city owes its centre to land reclamation, a splay of water winding its way to the coast slowly buried and tamed below. The centre of Cork City is an island, although few people notice that these days.
Bernadette Kiely paints a riverine world. She has carried an affinity with water as part of her internal and external landscape of home since the moment she opened her eyes. Her mother said the first image baby Bernadette saw was the River Suir in flood, from the top window of their quayside home in Clonmel. The artist remembers this image from when she was about one, and pooled there too among her earliest memories is an image she never forgot, of her father pulling the body of a three-year-old neighbour drowned in the rising waters outside their home. Kiely paints particular rivers and the notion and emotion of rivers in general, with the potential for life and death in their grip. She paints a riverine world potent with both incredible, vicious power and cool, calming serenity.
We are all on an island here of course, in Ireland. We are all living on a landmass surrounded by water, although it’s easy to forget that too. And in Ireland, none of us is ever too far from a river.
Kiely has painted the River Nore in Thomastown, County Kilkenny where her studio and home have been for thirty years, just paces from the water’s ebb. She has painted the River Suir in Clonmel, County Tipperary where she was born, the same river she lived beside as a child in Carrick-on-Suir, a town past Clonmel on the way to the coastal city of Waterford as the river flows to the sea. She lived for a year once in Cork city too, in Montenotte far above the central island, where her home overlooked the River Lee. Water has flowed outside Kiely’s windows and doors for as long as she has known the world.
At the Lavit Gallery, with its windows looking onto Wandesford Quay near Clarke’s Bridge in the port city of Cork, Kiely has gathered small and largescale paintings, drawings, and moving image work, inspired by the local and the global riverine world. The images in A New Landscape come sometimes from photographs she has taken, sometimes from media or other sources. She uses solvent to allow the pigment to travel, sprays water on charcoal, rubs school-yard chalk onto canvas, pours diluted paint from tin-cans and tilts the plane of a painting’s surface as it leaks and dries under gravity’s flow. Her work shimmers with a very physical awareness of the interplay between river and land, watery colour and human hand, unstoppable forward motion and the potential for destruction.
She has painted the Shannon River in flood, seen from the Galway train in 2016. She has painted riverine landscapes in Australia, Pakistan, flooding in other places world-wide. It is easy now to see this art in the context of climate change, to read it as a response to extreme weather events – which it is, but this is also work about something more intimate: location, place, connection, home, local knowledge, geographical memory.
Kiely reminds us that Cork City was once called the Venice of Ireland, some called it a Venice of North-West Europe. When I walk onto South Mall and look at the doorways still opening only at the top of tall steps I think of the streets that were once water channels. I think of the way the River Lee splits now to spread itself around South Mall, Oliver Plunkett Street, and the grand stretch of Patrick’s Street, with its broad curve that very particular shape because it traces the path of a once-open waterway.
Visitors to Cork are often confused because the river appears to be two rivers. Just because you have crossed it once, does not mean you won’t have to cross it again. Cork is not like Dublin, although we have a northside and a southside. We also have in the heart of the city that island, threatened frequently now by water.
There are bridges everywhere in the city, and it feels as though the river is all around. It is not a question of one bank or another in Cork. Directions cannot simply be to cross the River Lee or not. You must criss-cross the water multiple times to walk this city, even with a short errands list.
Kiely paints Is that Sharman Crawford Street? and I am reminded of the time last year when I waited to collect my daughter in a car close to the quays there, a short walk from the Lavit Galley, where this show is being hung. I realised I would have to restart the engine and move, fast, because the water was quick rising before my eyes and would soon be past the hubcaps. I walk usually, but my son returned too that day with jeans soaked to his knees, caught on a flooded pavement with no way around. The River Lee is conducted by the tides in Cork. It answers the fall and rise of the ocean, even here in the urban centre.
This unstoppable surge, an insistent volume, creeps forward to embrace and soak all that it encounters, only to stop, turn and recede again. It is part of the rhythm of the city. And it alters everything with its action in slight increments every time, some damage done in the wash and lap and then the evaporation as the streets and buildings sigh and dry before the next advance.
Cork is a marsh. Cork is an island. My grandad used to joke when we moved here first for a short stay when I was six, something about high tides and how Cork would always be ok because after all cork floats. But the city does not.
In November 2019, The Irish Examiner, founded in Cork 1841, reported that 85% of Venice was under water due to a rising tide that began to tail off at three feet above normal sea level. The opposite is happening now. Next to images of Kiely’s new paintings, a headline arrives in my inbox: Venice canals run dry as Italy could be facing another drought. In February 2023, Italy’s River Po has 61% less water than would usually be expected. Something is wrong, and that is part of what Kiely’s work points out. The photo with the news story shows gondolas mired in bottom sedge, tied to wooden mooring poles with their dark, moisture-logged bases exposed. Water comes and water goes, here and elsewhere. The shape of the world is shifting as Kiely captures it.
The titles of her previous solo shows reveal repeat concerns: Memory Needs a Landscape at the Taylor Galleries in 2017, A problem with no solution at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in 2018, How Much Land (does a man need) at The Source Arts Centre in Thurles in 2019, from a short story by Tolstoy. Works made years apart make new sense in each other’s company: The Blackwater fisheries (2023), drawings based on a 1922 map called Areas liable to flooding [Kings River] (2014), Save what you need (2017). She paints transitions, impermanence, change, but also the perseverance of place and the ways in which landscape carries a record and memory of that.
Cork never really looked like Venice, but proximity to the water was its original wealth: a harbour that carried more than 40% of the exports from this island at one time, a trading point with Sweden, France, Turkey, Barbados, Montreal, New York, Jamaica. By 1800, Cork was recorded as the most important transatlantic port. But our greatest strength is often also a likely harbinger of our potential downfall.
Kiely has painted smoke and fires too, the incineration flipside of those climate-change floods. She is interested in the elements and in the different forms that water takes: fog, mist, ice, snow. She is curious about how water changes, both itself and its environment, and the wider environment, in response to the changes human actions have brought about.
She paints the futility of a No Parking sign on a street no car can traverse. The titles of her paintings sing her own questions to herself: A Savage Flood (what use (is) geography now)? She paints water rising, flowing, expanding to fill the space it needs, moving and sitting still. She paints branches drowning, animals stranded, buildings islanded, shorelines shifting.
Her titles sometimes function like a warning system: ‘the writing is on the wall’. She shows us water tumbling into domestic spaces, a river hurrying deftly through a pedestrian gate. Where is nature as salve, escape and nurture when it can rise up like this? She sometimes distresses the surfaces of her work with textures like scribbled intimations of mould, damp, the long-term impacts of exposure to elements and subsequent decay. She paints remnants, aftermath and resilience, because she also paints the persistence of this riverine land.
I grew up next to a river too, in County Kilkenny, a seven-hour walk, a thirty minute drive, a two hour cycle, or about thirty kilometres from where Kiely calls home. As anyone who has lived near a river knows, it is never the same river twice, and it is not a passive presence, however tamed or occasionally calm. A river makes and shapes the land it flows through significantly more than the land it flows through forms the river’s border lines.
The rise of the water insists that we change too to accommodate it if it cannot be held or pushed back. Kiely’s art indicates that adaptation may be necessary if we want to stay close to it. She paints humans wading, kayaking to the shops. In 2014, a viral video showed a man swimming up Oliver Plunkett Street. When Kiely paints Careysville fisheries on the flooded River Blackwater near Fermoy and hangs it near an image of a dark Cork city street she is acknowledging that both places, and places much further apart, are interconnected in this riverine world.
The river is always passing, and never staying put. A changing river can make maps, which chart place partly by distinguishing land from water, lose purpose and become obsolete. The full title of this show, A New Landscape – Cork or Venice, Who Cares, Who Can Tell, refers to lines in Irish singing legend Christy Moore’s 1978 song Lisdoonvarna: “This is heaven, this is hell, who cares, who can tell”. The phrase in this context invites a potentially apocalyptic, orchestra-on-the-deck-of-the-sinking-Titanic-style reading of the follow-up line “Anyone for the last few Choc Ices now?”
When the River Lee washed images from the surfaces of drawings stored in the basement of The Glucksman Gallery in Cork in 2009, it was as though the water rose up to reclaim space and leave its watery mark. The same is true of Kiely’s work: a liquid reminder of the riverine landscape still here beneath our feet.