Ireland, Ackermann and the Erasure of Toponymy by Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith
‘Placenames are the interlock of landscape and language.’ Tim Robinson
In Space and the Irish Cultural Imagination Gerry Smyth notes the inextricable link between mapping and naming in Irish cultural history, quoting with approval J. Hillis Miller’s general contention that ‘topographical considerations, the contours of places, cannot be separated from toponymical considerations, the naming of places’ One of the richest seams in early Irish literature is that of dinnseanchas, a Gaelic term that may be glossed as ‘the traditional, legendary lore of notable places’. Onomastic lore, or traditions concerning individual placenames, and aetiological legends, or stories purporting to explain the origins of places or peoples, abound in medieval Gaelic literature. Sometimes they stand alone as self-contained tales. They are often, however, woven into the fabric of longer stories in such quantity that they obscure the primary narrative almost entirely. Medieval Irish scholars employed several means to explain placenames. As Charles Bowen has noted, ‘when the sense of the name suggested a story, such as Ard Lemnechta (‘New-milk Height’) or Loch Cenn (‘The Lake of Heads’), a story could be discovered, adapted or invented. When this technique was impracticable, an eponym could be borrowed or coined.’ Insert footnote no. The authors of dinnseanchas texts are as likely to provide the ‘wrong’ eponym as the right one, and they display considerable ingenuity in the invention of entirely spurious ‘legendary personages’. For example, the placename Slige Midluachair would have been readily understood by most Gaelic speakers as something like ‘Mid-Marsh Road’. Yet it is instead explained by the authors of the dinnseanchas texts as the road discovered by a fictitious Midluachair mac Damairne. A third method for explaining obscure placenames is lexical fission, the division of complex words into more easily explicable constituent elements, a technique probably derived from the Etymologies of Isidore, the early seventh-century Bishop of Seville. As Rolf Baumgarten has commented, ‘Early Irish scholars married paranomasia (i.e. punning) and folk etymology, with medieval scientific etymology and developed it into a fine art.’ Insert Footnote no. The result was the capacity to produce a number of equally improbable and mutually contradictory etymologies for the same placename.
Both common sense and modern Celtic scholarship hold that much of the dinnseanchas tradition is pure invention. All of the techniques used to elucidate placenames may be used implausibly and, as Bowen remarks, they ‘usually are’.
Even when error is not demonstrable, we have scant ground for supposing that the onomastic information they offer is accurate. Toponymic legends belong to the tradition of aetiology not historiography, and the essence of aetiology is the attempt to confront a past which is unknown and reduce it to knowability.
Contemporary Irish literature amply attests to the enduring power of the placename. ‘The least Irish placename can net a world with its associations’, according to the poet John Montague. Montague’s acclaimed long poem The Rough Field is an attempt to reclaim the landscape of County Tyrone for Irish poetry in the English language by deciphering and translating into poetic form ‘that manuscript we had lost the power to read’. In poem collections such as The Irish for No and Belfast Confetti, Ciarán Carson has devoted considerable energy to his own bewildered attempts to come to terms with the changing map of his native Belfast. Brian Friel’s play Translations is arguably modern Irish writing’s most celebrated investigation of the complex relationship between toponymic tradition and political power. The play is set in 1833 in the fictional Donegal village of Baile Beag (or Ballybeg, literally ‘small town(land)’) during the course of the first Ordnance Survey, a systematic survey of the entire island of Ireland undertaken between 1825 and 1849 at the expense of the British Exchequer. The play explores the relationship between several members of a visiting Ordnance Survey team and the master and pupils in a local hedge-school. Insert Footnote No. This is presented as a confrontation between (Gaelic) tradition and (British) modernity at a crucial moment in Ireland’s colonial history, thereby exposing the ostensibly objective science of cartography as an instrument of imperialist subjugation. Gaelic society, as Kevin Whelan has pointed out, ‘never evolved a cartographic tradition – it knew the country by heart in its enduring dinnshenchus [al. dinnseanchas]’. Yet the island of Ireland has been repeatedly mapped ever since Claudius Ptolemy produced the earliest known map of the country in second-century Alexandria. Just as the majority of early modern British accounts of Ireland were basically hostile and implicated in the desire for military conquest, so too was the practice of map-making down through the ages. As Smyth concludes, ‘[the] mastery of space implied in official maps/names is one of the principal means through which hegemony is both asserted and contested.’
The art of Franz Ackermann springs from a very different time and place. It is also founded on a very different conception of the relationship between time and space from that which has typified Irish culture, medieval and modern. Like numerous other artists from disparate cultural backgrounds, Ackermann has, since the early 1990s, lived and worked in Berlin, a sprawling European city steeped in history, whose topography has been utterly transformed in recent times. Like most successful contemporary artists, he is an inveterate traveller in an age when travel has, in any case, been said to occupy up to forty per cent of ordinary people’s leisure time. At the heart of his practice is a highly personal notion of cartography that is based , not on the methodical, time-consuming charting of objectively observed terrain, but rather on the free-wheeling, rapidly rendered visual expression of subjectively experienced, often bewilderingly exotic locations. In 1991, in a cramped room in Hong Kong, Ackermann produced the first of his Mental Maps, an ongoing series of small watercolours on paper that attempt to register the artist’s unformed impressions of the visual delirium of unfamiliar cities, especially those far removed in culture, as well as geography, from his native place. As Marcella Boccaria has observed, the Mental Maps ‘are sometimes similar to depictions of nerve cells, where a complex system of conductors are organized around a nucleus, whereas others resemble convulsive representations of particular urban sites, including parking lots, stadiums and railroad stations.’ Ackermann’s other signature body of work, the large oil paintings, are harsher and brasher in tone than the watercolours, a difference only partly explained by the contrast in medium and scale. Both the oil paintings and the even larger wall-paintings favour intense, almost psychedelic colours, and a more sprawling, less centripetal form of composition than that of the Mental Maps.
One of the signal aspects of Ackermann’s map-making is its resolute disarticulation of topography from toponymy, mapping from naming. His work largely abjures narrative and drives a wedge between word and image, between the verbal and the visual sign. Words, when they are accommodated at all within Ackermann’s pictorial world, tend to be presented as confusing, misleading or downright destructive. An early work, Wörterbuch der Tätigkeiten (‘Dictionary of Activities’, 1994) contains a list of activities in which one might engage within a city environment. Yet they are presented in an associative and apparently arbitrary sequence that is entirely at variance with the kind of systematic arrangement we might expect of such a text. The installation Das Haus am Strand (‘The House on the Beach’) includes a photograph of the artist standing on Copacabana beach and staring out to sea. This latter-day Romantic wanderer is wearing a pair of Nike sneakers, Levi jeans, and a military flak jacket on which the word ‘TOURIST’ is incongruously emblazoned in a typeface associated with the UN. The words ‘MITCH’ and ‘MELISSA’ were key components in Ackermann’s 1999 exhibition at the Kasseler Kunstverein, which included a large wall-painting as well as a variety of sculptural elements and a musical soundtrack. These proper names, which were written in large black letters on the gallery wall and printed in giant black letters over several pages of the accompanying catalogue, referred, respectively, to widely-reported ‘natural’ and ‘virtual’ disasters. ‘MITCH’ was the name given to a hurricane that devastated parts of South America in 1998, whereas ‘MELISSA’ was the name of a powerful computer virus that swept the globe at around the same time.
The suspicion, even stigmatization of language in the aforementioned works is also a characteristic of the cartographic imagery. The world as mapped by Ackermann is one that appears to have been systematically voided of language. Even the most dazed tourist in a foreign city cannot help but notice the torrent of signage with which she or he is constantly bombarded, no matter how opaque these signs may be. The most unapologetically exoticist response in contemporary European writing to the absolute otherness of the Far East, Roland Barthes’s account of a Japan of his imagination is, after all, entitled Empire of Signs. Within a culture such as Ireland’s, which has for long tended to prize its literary heritage at the expense of its visual culture, Ackermann’s devaluation of the linguistic sign is especially noteworthy. Whereas Irish eyes tend to perceive landscapes native and foreign, rural and urban, as rich palimpsests of sedimented signs, Ackermann’s cityscapes read as dizzying convulsions of pure surface effect. Irish culture’s historically motivated preference for the diachronically inflected rural landscape over the synchronic cityscape is best exemplified by the emblematic landscape of the nineteenth-century Gaelic revival. This is a landscape in which, as Brian Graham has noted, certain artefacts such as ‘Celtic’ monasteries, Iron Age hill forts and megalithic tombs acquired mnemonic status because they ‘fulfilled the need for a retroactive continuity of culture to a distant [i.e. precolonial] age… There was no place for towns, archetypal symbols of the Other and dismissed as an alien (and particularly English) innovation.’ The emblematic landscape persists today in the symbolically charged and semiotically replete urban landscape of contemporary Northern Ireland with its proliferating signifiers of sectarian difference: the competing flags and murals, painted kerbstones and scrawled graffiti. In contrast, the architecture in Ackermann’s mental megalopolises are short on specifics and shorn of history. This is, after all, an artist who has rendered the globe as part wrecking-ball, part disco-ball in sculptural works such as Faceland II (You better keep the light on) (2002) and [INSERT TITLE OF IMMA ‘HANGING GLOBE WORK’]. One might usefully contrast Ackermann’s wordless Mental Maps and other related works with the linguistically over-determined landscapes produced by some of Ackermann’s Irish contemporaries: for example, the early photo-text works of Willie Doherty representing the contested terrain of Northern Ireland, the caption-freighted faux-documentary photographs of Gerard Byrne, and many, though not all, of Kathy Prendergast’s various ‘map-works’. It has been observed that, whereas modernism was time-oriented, postmodernism is space-oriented. The aetiological thrust that continues to characterize much Irish culture, verbal and visual, and the ambition ‘to confront a past which is unknown and reduce it to knowability’ seem alien to Ackermann, even in his more politically pointed works. With Franz Ackermann we are no longer dealing with ‘anthropological place’ – that is, as Marc Augé has defined it, a concrete, symbolic construction of space conceived as relational, historical and concerned with identity. Rather, we are dealing with an ambitious attempt to articulate in visual form one man’s journeys through the non-anthropological, non-places of what Augé has called supermodernity.
Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, March 2005
Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith is a critic, occasional curator, and lecturer in Gaelic Literature at University College.
First published in Franz Ackermann, Exhibition Catalogue, IMMA Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 2005