Text on the exhibition : River & Ridge

In my work as a historical geographer, I try to understand how places evolve through time, and how the landscape reflects multiple layers of human interaction with the physical environment. While collaborating with Susan, I was also putting together material on Drumcondra for the Royal Irish Academy's Irish Historic Towns Atlas suburbs series. Coming from our different perspectives, both of us have been trying to uncover the essential elements that give Drumcondra its unique character. We are interested in the idea of landscape as a palimpsest, and in the ways in which the different layers of space and time intersect.

The most enduring of all are physical elements which provide the title of the exhibition: River and Ridge. The ridge of Drumcondra, Droim Conrach, is the rising ground above the river Tolka which has given the area its name. This is where the earliest residents probably lived, and where some of the most significant buildings in the locality can be found, including the St John the Baptist church and graveyard, Drumcondra Castle (now Childvision), Drumcondra House (now All Hallow's Campus DCU), Belvedere House (now St Patrick's Campus DCU), Clonturk House. Many pages of Drumcondra's human story have been written along this ridge, looking south towards the mountains or eastwards toward the Irish Sea. The mercurial Tolka, generally a peaceful and modest river, occasionally producing devastating floods, is the other constant. It has served the human population in a variety of ways over the centuries and has, in turn, been reshaped by them.

Drumcondra may at first glance seem like a mundane place. As an inner suburb which largely evolved in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it is characterised by redbrick houses and by high walls enclosing the many institutions in the locality. Part of this collaboration is about revealing the hidden, forgotten or under-represented layers of Drumcondra's story. It is also about revelling in the unexpected beauty of everyday spaces, finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Ruth Mc Manus

Places of fiction, fictions of place

Cartographic records from the XIV century show that there was an island close to Ireland, called Hy-Brasil. This place -which disappeared or maybe even never existed, only in legend - connects to the idea of utopia, and is appropriated by Susan Leen as a poetic pretext for reflecting on frontiers. Be they symbolic, cultural or geographic.

Thinking of the creative process of the artist as a whole, and establishing a direct relationship with the work created in Largo do São Francisco, the cartographic frontier appears as an element which represents spoken places.

A square can be seen as an intervention in the geometric logic of urban structure. And also an intersection on the city map: here hawkers, a university, street dwellers, a church, executives, and a statue; become elements which complete the artwork.

Where are these frontiers? Sometimes in the physicality of the grilles that surround the buildings, sometimes in the social invisibility. Lines which, although tangled, don’t allow us to determine place.

Translated from Portugues, original version below.

Lugares de ficção, ficção sobre lugares.

Registros cartográficos do século XIV mostram que havia uma ilha, próxima à costa da Irlanda, chamada Hy-Brasil. Esse lugar - que desapareceu ou que talvez nunca tenha existido senão enquanto discurso - se relaciona com a ideia de utopia, e é apropriado por Susan Leen como um pretexto poético para problematizar fronteiras simbólicas, culturais e geográficas.

Pensando no processo criativo da artista como um todo, e estabelecendo uma relação direta com a intervenção realizada no largo de São Francisco, aqui no Rio de Janeiro, a fronteira cartográfica aparece como elemento que representa lugares de fala.

Um largo pode ser visto como um intervalo na lógica geométrica da constituição urbana. É também uma interseção no mapa da cidade: Livraria, camelôs, universidade, moradores de rua, igreja, executivos, estátua: elementos que integram a obra de arte.

Onde estão essas fronteiras? Às vezes na fisicalidade das grades que cercam os prédios, às vezes na invisibilidade social. Linhas que, embora emaranhadas, não deixam de determinar lugares.

Mariana Estellita

Curator Instituto Kreatori, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Hy-Brazil: yesterday's utopias to today's dystopias

Susan Leen's interest in cartography led the artist to study maps of Central Europe before embarking on her journey in the direction of the south, for a residency period in Rio de Janeiro. Tightening her focus on the Irish coast, even more specifically, on a small body present on the maps drawn during the late Middle Ages (around the 14th century), she discovered something that would connect her native Ireland to the distant tropical country that she chose as destination: the island Hy-Brazil, located at coordinates 52.0942532 N 13.131269 W on certain maps, opened a new ‘sui generis’ flanked by the research advanced by the artist.

Even though this island no longer figures on the world map, investigations concerning its nature surrounded in myths give the opportunity for a series of reflexions, which provide renewed interest for contemporary thinking. According to the legend, Hy-Brazil was a land of perpetual festivities and pleasure, never reached by mere mortals. The passage below, extracted from a medieval poem, shows its mystical aura:

"In the ocean, that sculpts the rocks where you live,

An enigmatic land appeared it is what they say;

Men consider it a region of light and leisure,

And they called her O'Brazil, the island of the Blessed.

Year after year, in the blue ocean shore,

The apparition line revealed itself wonderful and smooth;

Golden clouds covered the sea where they stood,

It seemed an Eden, far, far away. "

A quick and uncompromised search in Google, another world full of myths, legends, and lies, allows us to embark on a myriad of fantastic stories that feed the forgotten existence of that piece of insular never found land. Among the reports, some refer to a realm of wise and sophisticated people; others allude to the existence of giant black rabbits, while many report a world of abundance and happiness.

What catches the eye, imagination and criticism, however, is the fact that, even before Brazil's discovery, there was an aura of mystery surrounding its name, which signals in advance all the other myths, which followed and remain, until nowadays, haunting or appeasing, depending on the point of view, naturally, of the soul of the Brazilian people. Seven centuries later, this country now prospers and sometimes regresses, but is always invested with renewed hope and a romantic load, following frustrating expectations and aggrandizing speeches as demagogic as populists.

In the later twentieth century, Stefan Zweig would refer to Brazil as the "país do futuro" (1941), something that served both the rhetoric of the dictator Getúlio Vargas as the motto "50 anos em 5", used by Juscelino Kubitschek in his government, also responsible for the construction of another utopic space which populated the global imagination, the city of Brasília. More recently, despite this once again Brazil finds itself surrounded by a thick smoke curtain, just like that of the island never materialized on the coast of Ireland. The last ten years of apparent prosperity, which finally changed the country towards that dream condition of country of the future, this mystical land always willing to embrace supposed utopian thoughts, finishing by involving the name Brazil, once more, in a thick and deceptive smoke curtain: exactly that which enfolded the criticism concerning the government of President Lula and now also serves to envelop the impeachment process of President Dilma Rousseff.

Susan Leen could not, whether by intuition or mere accident, have discovered a better metaphor to describe how much fiction there is in the construction of History. More than just that, her research about Hy-Brazil, facing the present historical moment happening in Brazil, could not have been more opportune.

The installation presented at Despina|Largo das Artes, shows photographs and a film of an action which took place in Largo do São Francisco, which finishes by showing to what extent we live in a crisis of imagination. Far from the always rehashed utopia which boosts Brazil into the future, the people who circulated the square in the historic center of Rio de Janeiro, and who saw a white powder line drawing on the pavement representing the contours of Hy-Brazil, seemed to ignore completely the presence of a strange body in the geography of this square full of grills and bathed in history. Above it, they walked with no time or inclination to digressions. The current reality seems no longer to authorize our daydreams.

But, yes, there was a glimmer of hope; the only creature to recognize the existence of Hy-Brazil over the Portuguese bricks of that square was a street child, who spent time playing on the fading contours of that piece of utopia in the contemporary world.

Translated into English by Jeferson Carlos