by Zohra KhanJun 29, 2023
A ghostly mountain-like form made of black coloured wool takes up a large area of the floor space where Ireland’s representation at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023 is showcased. Peppered around it is an expansive tapestry hung on a wall, a study illustrated by drawings and maps underneath it, and a series of limestone slabs and soft seating elsewhere. The composition, titled In Search of Hy-Brasil, is the island nation’s attempt to 'imagine the future while trying to recover the past.' The installation references the mythical island of Hy-Brasil that appeared on maps off the west coast of Ireland in the North Atlantic Ocean from 1325 to 1800s. Located within the Arsenale, the immersive display is put together by a team of five Irish architects: Peter Carroll, Peter Cody, Elizabeth Hatz, Mary Laheen, and Joseph Mackey.
In Search of Hy-Brasil constitutes fieldwork from three remote islands from Ireland—Sceilg Mhichíl, Inis Meáin, Cliara—through drawings, models, film, sound, mapping, and survey. The idea has been to dig deep into the varying cultures, communities and experiences of the three island landscapes. A particular focus of the showcase, responding to the biennale’s convergence on decarbonisation and decolonisation, is a dedicated study of the islanders’ practices in balancing the fragile natural equilibrium between culture and nature. During a recent visit to the biennale, STIR met Mary Laheen who walked us through the driving thought behind the showcase. “We are interested in the idea that you can understand the whole by looking carefully at the details,” she says. “Atlantic is a very vast, beautiful, and ferocious ocean. It affects our climate. If something happens out in the ocean, the weather changes here. The islands of our study are all in quite extreme places and they have lived with climate adversity for thousands of years. We have looked into their folklore, the landscape and the cultural practices.”
The eerie-looking model spread close to the gallery’s entrance is an abstraction of the UNESCO World Heritage site, Sceilg Mhichíl. It is made of Galway wool—a mill-woven yarn, considered a rare heritage wool in the Irish culture. The experience of the model’s overpowering form is further heightened by natural illumination of the space that creates necessary pockets of darkness. "Part of our difficulty as human beings at this time,” Laheen explains, “is that we have lost connection with nature. We never experienced darkness. We can't see the dark sky and we can't see the sun because of all the lights in the city. Our work with this installation is a comment on that.” Upon closer inspection as one moves about the riveting wool mountain, one discovers a fortified complex perched atop it. As per Laheen, the ceramic structure encapsulates monastic ruins of an early Christian site built in the 18th century, which the curators have designed as the only artificially-lit centrepiece of the display.
A linen tapestry hung on a wall forms the backdrop of the ancient site, marked by a black and white geographic illustration. As per the curators, the artefact represents mapping of the extraordinary complexity and rich topography of Ireland’s maritime zone and beyond. Beneath it is a long panel putting a spotlight on the Cliara Island survey. It carries a biological scientific study of microorganisms endangered by the climate crisis. The display shows images of flora and fauna, and various maps, in addition to Irish folklore and stories of children. The information is written in Italian and Irish. Avoiding the use of English, as per Laheen, has to do with decolonisation. “English,” she observes, “is the default language now throughout the world and it's the easiest way to communicate for all of us. But every time we use the default language, we lose a little of our ancient languages and of our own language.”
“We carry a lot of baggage of our native language. We are making a point to encourage people to carry their language with them, and not abandon it. In some ways what we are doing at the biennale is imagining the future while trying to recover the past,” adds the Dublin-based architect.
A 15-minute film and soundscape in Irish language on Inis Meáin further elevates the experiential nature of the installation. Running on a loop, the film features an Irish-speaking monolingual man, chronicling his journey as one of the few monolinguals in Ireland. The exhibition also includes repurposed yarn used into creating seating sacks. Placed in a row for visitors to take a moment of rest, the furniture is woven from two km of discarded fishers’ rope gathered from the harbours of Ireland and filled with yarn waste. Elsewhere, a graphite rendering of prehistoric subcontinent Pangaea is pasted high on a wall. As per the design team, the drawing is a reminder of our shared landmass in geological time. A tangible artefact, tying the three islands together, is a series of large slabs of local limestone taken off the island landscapes. Displayed in a corner, the slabs feature a tactile textural surface that mimics the natural contours of the offshore islands.
Straddling ideas between the global and the local, the territorial and the intimate, the installation creates a sensorial landscape, tying the land and the sea. The mysterious model of the Sceilg Mhichíl evokes the conceptual visual idea of Hy-Brasil, the phantom island whose fabled existence has intrigued mankind for centuries, resulting in several expeditions searching for it. It is believed that Hy-Brasil’s disappearance from the face of the earth could be because of heavy mist clouding it, except for one day in seven years when it becomes visible, but still could not be reached. Laheen shares that the island was mapped by the Venetians in the 13th century, but it’s no longer on the maps because people realise it doesn't exist. “But in a way it does exist,” she tells STIR, “because we have got to admit myth into our lives. In Search of Hy-Brasil is just about that. We are in search of a future where we can be together on this earth with all the other creatures, and not just us.” The clearing of mist, giving way to the appearance of the ‘promised land of saints’, as perhaps seen from a distance, relates to the black coloured wool model of the showcase. It seems a future is beckoning in the lost tales of the past, only if we are observant enough to listen closely.