First off, I’m always delighted to travel to Limerick, but doubly so when EVA is on. This notwithstanding, it is a bloody long journey from my home, Wexford, so I had high hopes that I’d be able to make a good job of seeing it all while I was there. This proved to be illusory. EVA 2016 is even more film-heavy than previous iterations. Combined with the frigid cold of the Milk Factory venue – so as to keep the milk cold, apparently – my chances of seeing everything were not looking good. So another trip will have to take place, which I don’t at all mind, but surely there’s a better way of presenting film works so as to allow them to be seen in their entirety? Most if not all of the works here invite prolonged engagement, but I estimated that it would take about three days to do so. And a blanket: which, to be fair, I should have remembered from only just withstanding the cold watching Elizabeth Price’s stand-out 2014 contribution.
I say all of the above so as to say that this is only a partial response. In truth all biennale responses are, but I had to leave the milk factory after three hours as my hands were turning blue. I did not make it to two of the smaller venues, either, the Hunt Museum or John’s castle. So this is a 60% impression, at best. But what I did see was some very good work.
(Not at all)Fresh off the bus, I went to the nearby Limerick Gallery of Art, which is one of the two exhibition hubs. I’m always struck by the strangeness of this gallery, which doesn’t seem to lead the viewer anywhere. This was perhaps exacerbated by curator Koyo Kouoh’s decision to leave the artworks unmarked, save for an exhibition map on flimsy newsprint that inevitably disintegrated as the day went on. It is a controversial decision, but I don’t think the work suffered as a result. That being said, though, I can’t determine if they gained anything from it either. As is well-known, Kouoh’s EVA, titled Still (the) Barbarians, is broadly informed by post-colonial discourse, a discourse that fits well with the recent boon of 1916 commemoration. It’s a theme that she seems to have backtracked on somewhat, though, admitting that for whatever reason Ireland doesn’t really see itself in these terms. The danger is that the exhibition would have slipped into mawkishness or a certain curatorial pushing of the overlaying theme. Thankfully, from what I saw, this is an exhibition that does not do this: subtlety has its place here, alongside more overtly political statements.
In the first venue, I was instantly drawn to Vietnamese artist Tiffany Chung’s installation an archaeology project for future remembrance (2013). Spread across the entire room, it comprised a pair of beautiful architectural drawings, which then led onto a series of texts, and a four-channel video installation. In the centre of the space there is a large slab of what looked like marble, freshly excavated and showing its considerable age. The work stems from Chung’s research of an area in Ho Chi Minh City called Thu Thiem, currently undergoing massive development. Previously one of the city’s most densely populated areas, it is now razed, bringing into relief questions of how a place comes to define itself in the future, and how the past is configured in this relationship. Invariably, Western interests encroach upon the site: one of the two drawings is a painterly depiction of an American Aid plan for the area, from 1972; the other is another Western plan from even further back, from 1795. Sovereignty, it seems, is a precarious notion within modernisation, but the work resists such narrow interpretation: instead, it is a thoughtful meditation on the limitations of memory, and what is held onto for future use.
Elsewhere on the ground floor of the Limerick Gallery, I was impressed by the work of Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor, who showed two large textile pieces, Les Mondes et les choses (2014) and Le Monde et la dette (2016). Two maps of the world done in appliqué, here the world is differentiated on the level of things i.e. what the countries produce, and on their respective levels of debt. In the two works, the world is configured on the level of productivity, and the nation state per se is reduced to monetary value, what it can do and what it can produce. The world here is a financial system, its borders only permeable to the free-circulation of capital. Bodies, however, are limited such free movement.
Charles Lim Yi Yong’s video Stealing the trapeze works this angle in a similar manner. A former Olympic sailor, here the video is split into two channels. On the left, there is a group of men sailing a rudimentary catamaran, leaning back in unison to direct it against the wind and all the while dumping fresh loads of seawater out of the boat’s belly. To the right, the picture could not be more different, with an elegant white catamaran sailing languidly through the South Asian sea, peopled by only two sailors. A catamaran-type vessel has its roots, however, not in Europe but in South Asia: some variation on its form has been used since 5AD. What is interesting in the work here is the colonisation of something like the catamaran, which has been converted wholly into a Western construct, inseparable from wealth and leisure. These were probably my standouts from the Limerick Gallery, but there were a lot of other strong works, including ones by Willem de Rooiji, Philip Aguirre y Otegi and Pio Abad. I think also this was where the curatorial theme was most focused, with its remit becoming much more open in the other venues I visited.
After this, I made off for the Sailor’s home, following a somewhat bleak route down Henry Street and then walking up and down O’ Curry Road until I spotted its small entrance. The city centre of Limerick, as I pointed out two years ago writing about EVA 2014, continues to elude development. After 2008 any such plans were shelved. I am reminded here that gentrification is almost always good: artistic spaces getting shut down only being possible if those spaces exist in the first place. Anyway, at the Sailor’s home, Canadian artist Michael Joo is the sole occupant, and he makes great use of what could be a very overwhelming space, enlivening it with subtlety with materials dredged from the port and fittings that had been removed for repair. Completed in 1865, the home was built as accommodation for some of the 1,500 sailors that passed through the port each year. Its secondary function was more a moral one, so as to protect them from the nefarious vices of the city. Joo’s This beautiful striped wreckage (which we interrogate) (2016) inhabits the ground floor of the building, alongside a video work showing a (presumably plundered) Buddha from the British museum, which can be discerned from half-way up the first floor stairs. Without the latter, the work is for me somewhat lacking: beautiful, certainly, but somewhat indistinct from the faded grandeur of the home itself. The video brings it back to objects, trade, and Limerick’s undeniable link to cultural imperialism. Reawakening the building, he also invigorates its dark past.
After leaving the Sailor’s home I moved over to the biennale’s second hub, Cleeve’s Condensed Milk Factory just to the north of the Shannon. There are a lot of artists here, spread out over a warren of spaces, ranging from office-cube to cavernous. As I said, I didn’t get to see all the work: it just wasn’t possible in three hours. I probably started in a weird place, with Jonathan Cummins’ three-screen installation (When I Leave These Landings, 2004-2009; Go Home, 2010-2013; Out the Road, 2012-2016). I could not hear the second film at all due to noise overlap, but I liked what I saw from the other two, which were interviews with an IRA political prisoner in Portlaoise, and his family, who had long suffered for his commitment to the cause. Belief is immaterial, but I liked the contrast that Cummins presented, between belief and its effects. I think there would have been a real value in seeing them in their entirety, but the three films ran over six hours combined. This was a similar frustration with another work I would have liked to have lingered for, Public Studio’s frenetic video installation Road Movie (2015), but will return to on my next visit.
One work that I did stay for, quite possibly because it was really warm and had nice seats, was Ulrike Ottinger’s The Conquest of the Happy Islands – A Colonial Opera, which was made in 1984. It is wonderfully over-the-top, putting me in the mind of Herzog’s Fizcaraldo, and presenting a dubious opera that recounts the triumphant conquest of the Canary, or “Happy”, Islands. It is not a straight depiction, however, but is instead always estranged to a degree. A frame surrounds the opera’s proceedings, which never lets it slip into verisimilitude. There’s an audience there, too, that observes rather incongruously from a rocky perch. So, we are watchers of watchers, implicated by association. It’s a rich and dense work that really gets at the insanity of colonialism, the pomposity and entitlement that enables one country to arrive and demand subservience. But its also a meditation on performativity, inasmuch as the opera as cultural artefact always produces something in the world: this can be totally coexistent with the parameters of cultural imperialism.
Other highlights here for me were: the sculptures of Dorothy Hunter (Unassigned Monuments 1 through 6, 2013); Sarah Pierce’s fascinating four-channel installation The Question Would be the Answer to the Question, Are You Happy? (2011-present); Amanda Rice’s video installation The Site Where a Future Never Took Place (2015), and Larry Achiampong and David Blandy’s terrific animated videos Finding Fanon 1 and 2 (2015). I really could go on and on, and hopefully I will get a chance to extend this response after a subsequent visit.
In the evening we went to see Liam Gillick’s contribution to the biennale, And then…, which is an event that happens every Thursday for the duration of the exhibition. For it, people are asked to get up and retell a movie’s plot, any movie. When I was there, a woman was outlining the plot of nineties sci-fi Tremors, a film I’ve not yet had the pleasure of seeing. A few of the review’s I’ve read of this year’s EVA have honed in on this contribution, and a very underwhelming Carsten Holler piece, as evidence of pandering to two very well-known artists, the quality of their respective contributions notwithstanding. I can understand this argument, but at the same time I’ve been assured that the Gillick work was great in the exhibition’s first few weeks. If I’m honest, it seemed a little flat when I attended, the experience of listening to people relay film plots not unlike listening to someone recount their dreams. Offsite works like this have the possibility to be really valuable in retaining interest in the exhibition, and perhaps this would have been more achievable with an artist that was able to remain in situ. That being said, none of this stopped me having a great night.
Overall, or indeed not at all, my impressions of EVA were positive. Kouoh does an admirable job in putting forward a coherent theme that avoids didacticism. Post-colonialism, memory, meaning, and trauma are big themes, and ones that we are bound to remain aware of, even after all this 1916 hoopla has died down. For the year that’s in it I guess, but also for research for something, I am currently reading Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces (2015), which gives an account of the revolutionary generation that birthed 1916, and finally, independence. Interestingly, one of the reasons he accounts for 1916’s symbolic bloodshed was not just Ireland’s colonial status. Instead, 1916 happened because of a harshly-felt difference between that generation, and the one that preceded them; between their perception of the world, and how their parents viewed and lived it. They wanted to live differently to their parents, in effect, with colonialism playing of course an important role in that. One argument could say that this generation could be seen analogously, but whether or not any change happens is still up for grabs. Indeed as recent Irish political developments have made painfully apparent, the role of art within the state is nowhere near assured. So my recommendation is simple: visit EVA. Translate petitioning to activity, and go see it. After this centenary year, and following years of cuts, it remains to be seen how much need (i.e. funding) there will be for art. Visiting EVA helps to allay any such doubt.