A Choreography of the River Tagus

By James Lingwood

On 24 February 1641, the Italian surveyor Luis Carduchi set out on a journey from Toledo, following the River Tagus as it flowed downstream to Alcantara. He had been commissioned by King Philip IV to ascertain whether it would be possible to take soldiers and supplies on boats down the river to Lisbon and the Atlantic sea, where they could reinforce the Spanish kingdom’s efforts to subjugate their rebellious neighbours in Portugal. 

Over the course of eighteen days Carduchi measured the varying depths of the river, noted the weirs and channels, marked where there were large rocks to avoid, or narrow gorges to pass through. “We examined the bad ways, lost dams and streams as drawn,” Carduchi wrote in his report, before concluding that a route would be possible but not easy. [1]

The report came in the form of an album with over fifty schematic watercolours of successive sections of the river that showed some of its key characteristics and potential dangers.  Carduchi called his report a 'chorography': a mapping or describing of a place.

Cristina Iglesias also spent many days walking by the River Tagus. She followed the rough path that runs beside the river as it curves around the rocky outcrop on which the city of Toledo above was built, and which afforded it a natural protection.   She explored various run-down buildings and ruins, observed the abundant plant life growing besides the river and the imposing rock formations on the opposite bank. Walking away from the city, she reached the edge of an old weapons factory, where a walkway had been built over the fast running water, around a building that once housed turbines to generate electricity. Amongst several other abandoned buildings there, she came across an old brick tower in the Mudéjar style, once used to store water.  

At the same time, Iglesias also explored the city above, intrigued, as all visitors are, by the interweaving histories embedded in the architecture of Toledo, the signs of how Moorish, Jewish and Christian faiths had created a layered and tolerant civic culture before the latter asserted its supremacy in 1492. This history was familiar to Iglesias. Indeed the experience of Islamic architecture with its sequences of closed and open spaces, latticed screens and patterned surfaces had played a formative role in shaping some of her earlier work.    

What was less familiar was the sophisticated system that had brought water up from the river and distributed it around the city. A close look revealed that some of the vestiges of this system are still visible; old cisterns, underground channels, bath houses, and drinking fountains. Behind and beneath the stone surfaces of the city circulated the water from the river below, without which Toledo could never have flourished as a great centre of European culture. The contrast between the busy streets and public spaces of the city above and the solitary walk along the river could scarcely be more pronounced. Down by the river, with the exception of occasional walkers, there was almost nobody around.  

Like Carduchi, Iglesias looked closely at the waters of the River Tagus, registering the variety of moods in different stretches, the places where the water runs rapidly over a weir, creating agitated and smooth surfaces next to each other, wider sections where the water flows more calmly, and stagnant backwaters. She observed how the water reflects clouds, rocks and trees, how it changes under different weather conditions, how it both dissolves and mirrors its surroundings. 

In his treatise on how painters could most effectively represent water, the English writer John Ruskin urged the painter to look closely and deeply, working in nature rather than in the studio.  In a section headed “sketch of the functions and infinite agency of water”, Ruskin wrote: 

Of all inorganic substances, acting in their own proper nature, and without assistance or combination, water is the most wonderful.  If we think of it as the source of all the changefulness and beauty which we have seen in clouds; then as the instrument by which the earth we have contemplated was modelled into symmetry, and its crags chiselled into grace; then as, in the form of snow, it robes the mountains it has made with that transcendent light which we could not have conceived if we had not seen; then, as it exists in the foam of the torrent, in the iris which spans it, in the morning mist which rises from it, in the deep crystalline pools which mirror its hanging shore, in the broad lake and glancing river… [2]

Ruskin wanted to suggest how a painter could truthfully portray nature’s ‘changefulness.’ The natural world, in the form of sculptures cast from plants, is an important element within Iglesias’s work. But her preoccupation, in Toledo and elsewhere, is not so much representation as incorporation; how the viewer moves through the work, and the work moves through the viewer. An idea for a work running from the city to the river, and from the river to the city, began to take shape: a work of sculpture in three different places, the abandoned water tower which Iglesias had come across on the edge of the old Fábrica de Armas, the weapons factory by the river, the large and busy open space of the Plaza del Ayuntamiento in the heart of the old city, and a quiet interior space within the cloistered Convento de Santa Clara higher up in the city. Iglesias decided to incorporate three different elements in each of these places – the ‘infinite agency of water’, the abundant matter of the natural world and the harder materials of architecture – and to consider closely the visitor walking between the places and moving within them. Carduchi called his mapping of the river a chorography. By contrast Tres Aguas, Iglesias’s work for Toledo is less a work of description than a kind of choreography, a journey through re-imagined spaces that reconnects the lost world of the river to the city above.

Water had already featured as a significant element in Iglesias’s sculpture in the years before she began thinking about Toledo and the River Tagus. In 1997, she conceived an extraordinary transformation of a square in front of the Royal Museum of Fine Art in Antwerp.  Eventually completed in 2006, Deep Fountain comprised a huge surface cast from eucalyptus leaves, over which water flooded and receded, appearing and disappearing through a cleft cutting through the cast natural forms.

The special qualities of water were also an important if less overt element of the Suspended Corridors, a number of room-sized sculptures made by Iglesias in 2006. The hanging walls were made of a lattice of letters based on passages from J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World. One of the texts describes a vivid experience of walking by a river, not unlike the one beneath the city of Toledo:

They were rounding a bend, as the river widened its approach to Mont Royal, and the water ahead was touched by a roseate sheen, as if reflecting a distant sunset or the flames of a silent conflagration. The sky however remained a bland limpid blue, devoid of all clouds.  They passed below a small bridge, where the river opened into a wide basin. A quarter of a mile in diameter. With a gasp of surprise, they all craned forward, staring at the line of the jungle, facing the white-framed buildings of the town. The long arc of trees hanging over the water seemed to drip and glitter with myriads of prisms, the trunks and branches sheathed by bars of yellow and carmine light that bled away across the surface of the water, as if the whole scene were being reproduced by some over-active technicolour process. [3]

Iglesias’s sculptural choreography for Toledo involves three different kinds of movement. The first of these is the walk; a journey on foot along the river and then back into the city. It takes time, a good two hours or so, and to experience Tres Aguas fully, there is no other way. The city, the river, the geology and the plant life are not simply a setting for the main act; the passage from place to place is an integral part of the work.

The second movement draws the visitor more closely into the work. Experiencing Tres Aguas in the Torre del Agua involves climbing an exterior staircase, following a walkway around the side of the roof, pausing to take in panoramic vistas of the city and the river before descending a second staircase inside the tower. At first the view inside is almost vertiginous, the gaze plunging down towards a deep basin below. On reaching the bottom, the visitor finds a place around the basin, stands and looks closely at the dark green surfaces of the sculpted forms. 

The third movement of Tres Aguas happens within the sculpture, an orchestrated cycle of water flowing in and out of the deep basin.  As the water empties away, more and more of the surfaces below are revealed, until only a few small pools are left amongst the crenellated forms. After a brief pause the water rushes back in and the basin fills up. When the water has almost reached the feet of the viewer, it becomes for a period completely calm, its surface a mirror that reflects both the onlooker and the architecture. 

These different movements are similarly present in the Convento de Santa Clara. The ascent up a flight of stone stairs attenuates the threshold between the street outside and the quiet room, and accentuates the feeling of being deep inside. Having arrived, the visitor is again stilled, becoming for a time motionless as the water slowly rises and falls in the basin. By contrast, visitors enter the busy public space of the Plaza del Ayuntamiento in the heart of the city from a number of different streets. The elongated rectangular basin, like a huge long bas-relief cut into the ground, is gradually revealed as the visitor approaches. Animated by sunlight catching its surfaces and the movement of the water running through the channel and across the expanse of another cast vegetal mass, the sculpture transforms the hard stone space into which it has been cut. 

As the visitor is drawn into each part of the work, different materials and details are revealed. In the water tower there are metal tanks on top of the building, translucent alabaster sheets in the windows, welded metalwork balustrades, and finally the vegetal mass of the cast metal basin. Some of these details contain worlds in themselves. The milky white alabaster resemble clouds, and when the water pours back into the empty basin, it looks like an aerial view of glacial rivers rushing over an ancient land mass.   

But for all its visual pleasures, there is a darkness at the heart of Tres Aguas. The cast forms derive from barely identifiable roots and weeds.  Seemingly in a state of arrested decomposition, they are a tangled mess, close to formless. If some of Iglesias’s other sculptures, with their more exuberant plant life, have affinities with the rich depictions of nature in Flemish tapestries or the abstracted patterns of Islamic art, the basins of Tres Aguas – especially those in the tower and the convent – bring to mind the great series of paintings Courbet made in Franche-Comté in 1860s of dark grottoes, surrounded by massive rocks and verdant vegetation, from which water gushes out. Like Courbet’s paintings, Iglesias’s sculptures pull the viewer towards an invisible source, a dark place of origin.

Both in its totality and within each of its parts, Tres Aguas is a cyclical work. Its structure echoes the journey of water itself, the hydrologic cycle, as it flows from a source to a place – a lake, river, or sea – evaporates, precipitates and gathers again. Tres Aguas summons up so many resonances and allusions, offers such a complexity of experiences, that there is no better place to end than by quoting parts of the magnificent eulogy to water in James Joyce’s Ulysses:

What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier returning to the range, admire? Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of Mercator’s projection: its unplumbed profundity in the Sundam trench of the Pacific exceeding 8000 fathoms: the restlessness of its waves and surface particles visiting in turn all points of its seaboard: the independence of its units: the variability of states of sea: its hydrostatic quiescence in calm… its persevering penetrativeness in runnels, gullies, inadequate dams, leaks on shipboard: its properties for cleansing, quenching thirst and fire, nourishing vegetation: its infallibility as paradigm and paragon: its metamorphoses as vapour, mist, cloud, rain, sleet, snow, hail: its strength in rigid hydrants: its variety of forms in loughs and bays and gulfs and bights and guts and lagoons and atolls and archipelagos and sounds and fjords and minches and tidal estuaries and arms of sea: its solidity in glaciers, icebergs, icefloes: its docility in working hydraulic millwheels, turbines, dynamos, electric power stations, bleachworks, tanneries, scutchmills: its utility in canals, rivers, if navigable, floating and graving docks: its potentiality derivable from harnessed tides or watercourses falling from level to level: its submarine fauna and flora (anacoustic, photophobe), numerically, if not literally, the inhabitants of the globe: its ubiquity as constituting 90 percent of the human body: the noxiousness of its effluvia in lacustrine marshes, pestilential fens, faded flowerwater, stagnant pools in the waning moon. [4]

1. Luis Carduchi, Chorography of the River Tagus (1641)
2. John Ruskin, Of Truth of Water (1843) Modern Painters, Volume 1
3. J.G.Ballard, The Crystal World (1966)
4. James Joyce, Ulysses, first published 1922, corrected edition London/New York (1986) pp.549–550