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So Much Water (so) Close to Home

On this day in 1745, Edmund Burke was engaged in writing a letter, marooned in his Arran Quay home by the rising Liffey floodwaters that inundated the floors below.1 He commented in his missive on the “melancholy gloom” of the day, and the ominous sounds of the wind and the surging river. He described the quay wall outside, built to contain the river, but now all but disappeared beneath the worst flood of Burke’s experience.

His letter conveys a range of emotions: the anxiety of besiegement, unable to undertake the necessities of daily life and, fearing for his safety, distraught that his home might collapse against the onslaught of the river. “I can’t Stir” he wrote “without apparent Danger to my life.” His description is compelling not least because the same responses are evoked today in similar situations. Given all the scientific advances in the meantime, what is so remarkable is that people remain more vulnerable than ever to deluge.2 The issue of climate change and its consequences was of course outside Burke’s experience, but the concerns he expressed in words are nonetheless reflected in the searching visual expression of the artists in this exhibition.

Bernadette Kiely has been painting water in its various forms for decades: ice, snow, fog, mist, moisture, and the floods she has experienced and witnessed over the years. The title of her collection here, SO MUCH WATER (so) CLOSE TO HOME, infers alarming quantity and proximity, and the looming threat to the very centre of one’s life. Kiely’s strategy has tended towards the experience itself rather than the fundamental causes. However, just as her work is increasingly metaphoric, her aesthetic is correspondingly more elusive, even fragile, reflecting human vulnerability in the face of volatile nature. While not specifically referencing climate change as the culprit, it is subtly acknowledged in the anxiety inherent in how she depicts the transformation of the environment, the disappearance of the familiar beneath the inundation. Without overtly politicizing, Kiely is nonetheless sensitive to consequences whatever the catalyst, and the images speak for themselves.

A melancholy mood emerges in muted textures suggesting the ephemerality of memory. The flat surfaces of floodwater seep and spread inexorably across the landscape, in slow inevitability rather than sudden catastrophic surge. The measured pace of her imagery is commensurate with her recollections of childhood visits to relatives, to nuns cloistered in convents where the subdued quality of light and atmosphere, the steady measure of life, impressed itself on her. She comments also that her upbringing in a modest country town, where there were few distractions and excitements, induced her attraction to the understated, to the textures and forms of the overlooked – like mud and track marks – residues and imprints laden with their own significance.3

The works hover between narrative and metaphor; collectively they articulate a poignant story of human experience. Half-submerged lines of trees and shrubs signify a field boundary; the rural landscape is cultivated, not untamed wilderness. The challenges to once-secure familiarity are inferred and allegorized: water lapping the sill of an evacuated home; playground swings reflected in the seepage; great institutions diminished and isolated, but still erect. Whatever the cause, the consequences of flooding are fundamentally personal and emotive: a marooned figure shadowing a window, a pair of horses huddling, terrified, on a shrinking ribbon of land; flood-victims held aloft by adults, wading waist-high in murky flows; the smudge of a lonely boat pulling through the bird-speckled mist.

Over time Kiely’s techniques have become increasingly spare; she washes the painted surfaces with white spirit or water, diluting her paint with catalyzing fluids, until the controlled unpredictability of her methods, her ability to create from the unexpected, emulates her subject.

– Dr. Yvonne Scott, Luan Gallery, Athlone, January 25th, 2018.

Dr. Yvonne Scott, is an Art Historian and lecturer at Trinity College Irish Art Research Centre (TRIARC).