Issue Twenty : Winter 2022

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Low clouds in Glen Forsa on the Isle of Mull, Scotland, UK. Image by Jill Dimond on Unsplash.

Introduction to Issue Twenty

Over two years ago, before the global pandemic upended our lives, Open Rivers started talking with Professor Mary Modeen, an artist, academic, and convener based at the University of Dundee in Scotland whose work, creativity, and generosity have created an international network of collaborators doing place-based work. For this issue of Open Rivers, Modeen stretches the journal toward international perspectives on the meaning of rivers. This collection of artwork and reflections, place-based engagements and community-driven actions demonstrates exactly that—the meaning of rivers to so many people in so many different places—through stunning exhibits and galleries, lyrical prose, and reflections on waters in place…

Fig 1: Detail. The River Ericht, Blairgowrie, Perthshire, Scotland, 2020. Image courtesy of Mary Modeen.

Guest Editor’s Introduction to Issue Twenty: Rivers and Meaning

Firstly, a welcome to you readers, traditional style. Just because we are many, sitting in many places gathered in “internet land” does not mean that I cannot welcome you as a virtual visitor to my place and to what we may imagine as our campfire. Here, 200 meters from the banks, I share with you the River Ericht and speak to you with the sounds of water flowing across rocks and swirling in the currents.

I welcome you to the hills and forests, the local berry fields of Scotland, perched on the divide between the Lowlands and the Highlands and the farmlands growing potatoes, beans, brassicas, and barley. You too, in my imagination, have your places to share—your rivers and lakes, your coastal beaches and mountains. We are first and ever in the world by the time we come to know where we are. As we come together, what we share here are stories from places and people across the world showing and telling and singing songs that reveal more than one place, more than one story…

Mississippi River Fugues, collage of video stills, Margaret Cogswell, 2008. Image courtesy of Ed West.


What is it to “know” rivers? As an artist I have been asking myself this question for over twenty years. Ever since an artist residency in Cleveland, Ohio led to my encountering the burning river history of the Cuyahoga River, I realized that all rivers have stories, and to learn of their histories was to explore and listen. In this essay, I will focus on my research on different rivers, sharing the meandering paths which have led me to explore these rivers and my creative responses to them in the form of mixed-media art installations that seek to reflect the complex relationships between land, water, and peoples. To contextualize the impetus for what developed into an ongoing series of River Fugues projects, I will offer some personal history. Although I was born in the United States (in Memphis, Tennessee along the Mississippi River), I went to Japan with my parents when I was 18 months old and lived there until I was 13 years old…

Fig. 1, The Kākā Reserve reflected in the Awataha Stream. Video still from ‘Re-Generation’ 2019. Image courtesy of Laura Donkers.

(Re)connecting Community to the Awataha Stream

Our modern ways of living have created an environmental crisis that threatens the very survival of humans and many other species. Yet awareness of this situation, though it may create an urgent sense of responsibility and even guilt, does not necessarily translate into action to change our ways. A narrative of “ecological disaster” can alert the public to the need for action, but the scale of the crisis and lack of wisdom to act can be overwhelming.[2] So how can communities become motivated to respond?…

'TWEED: Border Ballads' courtesy of Tania Kovats


The River Tweed speaks instantly of borders, of unity and division, but also of warp and weft, telling us much about its shapeshifting character. This living marker of national meanings and historical boundaries flows eastwards 97 miles from the Lowther Hills to Berwick-upon-Tweed, descending 1,440 feet over that length. Its source rises 40 miles north of Scotland’s westernmost border with England. The river enters the sea two miles south of the border’s easternmost point. There is a ring of geological predestination to this bordering identity. It’s as if the Tweed exists as a sturdy trace of the ocean that separated Scotland and England 520 million years ago…

The Twelve Jing Xiakou, a real scene, Taishan Shigandang. Image courtesy of Jiao Xingtao.

Professor Jiao Xingtao and The Yangdeng Art Cooperative Project

By Jiao Xingtao and Mary Modeen. The Yangdeng Art Cooperatives, with a cumulative total of more than 37 artists and students, worked each year in collaboration with local villagers in the small rural village of the same name as the river, Yangdeng, in a remote rural area of Tongzi County in Guizhou Province. Organized and led by Professor Jiao Xingtao, this project, over many years, was begun to “reconstruct the continuity between art and life” through an emphasis on “artistic negotiation.” As such, it constitutes a socially engaged art initiative, locating this remote rural village sited on a river as the experimental art locus for approaching an independent but profoundly collaborative working method…