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  • Where Land Meets Sea: Coastal Explorations of Landscape, Representation, and Spatial Experience by Anna Ryan
  • Karen Babine
Where Land Meets Sea: Coastal Explorations of Landscape, Representation, and Spatial Experience, by Anna Ryan, pp. 285. Farnham, Surrey, and Burlington VT: Ashgate. $119.95.

On New Year's Day 2014, a dramatic storm system sent hubcap-deep flood-waters into the streets of towns and cities along the west coast of Ireland. A series of images by the photographer and surfer George Karbus, taken on the [End Page 145] promenade at Lahinch, documented the waves and wind in a spectacular moment of frozen time. Karbus's images soon went viral on the internet.

The photographs remind us that the idea of active construction and deconstruction of the Irish coastline is a lived concept, and not merely an academic conceit. That lived experience is the subject and argument of Where Land Meets Sea: Coastal Explorations of Landscape, Representation, and Spatial Experience, Anna Ryan's interdisciplinary study of the construction, production, and representation of coastlines. Both the title and the price of this book are daunting, which is unfortunate: Ryan has written an inventive, groundbreaking book that offers a major contribution to contemporary place studies. Her project extends the notion that landscapes do not exist outside of the human scope; landscapes require bodily knowledge to become thoroughly represented.

Where Land Meets Sea considers multiple social constructions of the Irish coast, among them the coastline as political space and the coast as a philosophical exercise of mind and body. Ryan also looks at the economic construction of the coastline is, from the "use" and "value" of the coast for food, to leisure space, to a marketable property and commodity. In the Enlightenment era, the coast was a boundary, where the world was "fully caught up in observing, classifying, ranking, arranging, and imposing order. In this era, science could leave no gaps in its reasoning, so mapping and understanding the coast was a huge conceptual challenge to the ideological objectives of this period." But the urge toward the quantifiable gloried in the removal of any emotional reaction to the space itself; Ryan's work responds to that longstanding disconnect. She asked some sixty-four participants to photograph the South Wall in Dublin Bay and the Maharees Peninsula in County Kerry, with only instructions to "please use the camera to explore what is important to you in this area." The resulting photographs, many of which are reproduced here, offer multiple views of these two places. The views grow still more textured in the photographers' conversations with Ryan.

A fundamental premise of the book is that humans are essential to the work of place-making. Ryan emphasizes that we need a multifaceted approach to understand a landscape that cannot be fully comprehended by one system. She presents various two-dimensional visual and artistic representations of landscape to support Malcolm Andrews's observation that landscape has shifted from an "inert background to a dramatic event, to itself becoming the dramatic focus." Ryan offers her own photographs of her balsa wood models of the landscapes she discusses, turning two dimensions into three dimensions and back to two dimensions, underscoring her argument that the construction of landscape, as an idea, must "redirect the focus from landscape as (pre)existing physical object towards landscape as agent, as having the potential to generate development, change, and progression." [End Page 146]

Ryan also looks at such unusual texts as the visual rhetoric of advertisements for Irish surfing destinations like Lahinch or Bundoran. Surfing is an apt window on her topic as she argues for an "embodied" performance of the environment: "I believe our corporeality is key to the most fundamental, universal, and essential of all knowledge—how we move, operate, and engage our physical surroundings." It was necessary for Synge to go to Aran and actually walk its stones and shores. It was equally necessary for her research participants, and their photographs, physically to be embedded in the environment. To understand a coastline, or any place, fully, Ryan insists that we must include the full range of experiences of place, not just the interpretive and descriptive.

She frames the idea around modes...


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pp. 145-147
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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