The 48th volume in the Re-imagining Ireland series, Visualizing Dublin, its editor tells us, aims to open up ‘the disciplinary scope of visual culture studies within the broader field of Irish studies’ and to ‘bring Irish studies together with a diverse range of disciplinary approaches to the study of Dublin, through an exploration of the city’s visual culture’.
This is an academic collection. Its contributors are accustomed to specific interpretations of phrases such as ‘geographical imagination’, ‘positivist representation’, even ‘Irish studies’ and ‘visual culture studies’, many of which it was felt unnecessary to define. With an introduction and twelve essays, it is an accumulation of many voices, many disciplines, and many points of view. Some of the contributions are more readable than others; there are occasional outbreaks of that wilful opacity characteristic of a certain style of academic writing, one which can produce statements so impenetrable as to be ultimately devoid of meaning. What are the un-initiated to make of: ‘Through the visual stimulus below the conscious threshold of retinal perception, the image of the past is secreted away in the material conditions of the city’s shaping of optical perceptions of itself’. There are also unhelpful typos, oddities of phrasing and simple mistakes – the Parliament of the United Kingdom is not ‘in Whitehall’ nor did the College of Science in Upper Merrion Street become the ‘seat of the Irish Free State parliament’ in 1922.
Some of the contributions are more readable than others; there are occasional outbreaks of that wilful opacity characteristic of a certain style of academic writing, one which can produce statements so impenetrable as to be ultimately devoid of meaning
The majority of the essays are worth reading and many are rewarding, revelatory and engaging: Gary Boyd, for instance, on ephemeral architectural projects – pleasure gardens, temporary monuments, unrealized city plans – each a momentary vision ‘unburdened by reality: a barometer of idealism’; Sean Mannion on that herald of Modernity, the electric light, and the stark coexistence in Dublin of progress with ‘human suffering and infrastructural regression’; Denis Condon on the blossoming of cinema in the second decade of the last century and its impact on the ‘geography of entertainment’ in the city.
Linked by their considerations of the visual, be it architecture, photography, cinema (both the buildings and the projected image) or graffiti, at the heart of each contribution is Dublin, grand, greasy, progressive, regressive, religious, secular, historic, contemporary. Whatever about ‘visual culture studies’ or ‘Irish Studies’, these essays cumulatively form a welcome addition to the corpus of Dublin studies.
Colum O’Riordan is General Manager of the Irish Architectural Archive.