“It seemed to be a moment connected with a world beyond the shores of Ireland.” Matt Packer, Director of EVA International, on the construction of the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric plant.
The hydroelectric dam at Ardnacrusha in County Clare looms large in the minds of many Irish people. In primary school, the fable of its transformative effect on the Irish state was regularly related to young, impressionable minds. The village’s name only adds to the impression it makes, conjuring images of vast bodies of water poised to crush.
When the dam was built in the late 1920s, it brought electricity to many homes that had been without power up to that point, supplying the entire country’s electricity needs at the time. The structure was instrumental in the modernisation of Ireland, bringing it closer to Europe in terms of quality of life and economic prosperity. With the building of the dam, the bounded island of Ireland stretched out a tentacle to the rest of the globe.
Around 50 years later, in the veils and gales of rainy 1970s Ireland, a group of artists and academics founded an exhibition of visual art (e v+ a) in Limerick. Their aim was to bring international visual art into the country and generally raise awareness of the form. What began as an annual event is now a biennial called EVA International, a show that sprawls throughout its founding city in multiple venues, displaying work by artists from around the world. The change in title points to EVA’s tradition, ushered in after only two editions, of using an international curator’s eye and connections to assemble the programme. This has remained the status quo ever since, with this year’s programme of artists from Ireland, Korea, Colombia, Nigeria, Venezuela, Indonesia and beyond selected by Hong Kong-based Colombian curator Inti Guerrero.
The 2018 programme takes as its starting point a 1927 painting depicting the building of the Ardnacrusha dam by Irish artist Seán Keating. Keating’s painting connects the 38th edition of EVA in 2018 with a legacy of modernisation and internationalisation, a watershed moment in Ireland’s social and economic trajectory. From its third edition, EVA’s international focus has connected a relatively small city on the edge of Europe with the rest of the globe through open call and invited application. But it is this idea of the ‘international’ that Guerrero’s programming interrogates.
Guerrero has not proposed a title for the 2018 programme, breaking with a tradition that’s been in place since 1990. It’s an intentional move to shift the conversation around what an international art world looks like, as well as what it means to place a single concept on a diversity of work.
“What is meant by international isn’t what it was. I tend to resist the idea of an international art world, because you don’t need much scrutiny to realise that doesn’t really exist. The art world is made up of different narratives that come from different places and coalesce and often contradict each other – there is no international art narrative. The moment EVA got a title is the moment in which the exhibition was seen to be more than just a showcase; that it’s a set of ideas, an argument made through an exhibition. And that in the ‘90s was still a relatively new idea,” explains Matt Packer, EVA’s current director.
It seems that Guerrero wants to simultaneously bolster the international legacy of EVA while opening out what that international legacy means – it’s not about gathering a diversity of work into a neat bundle tied up with a snappy title, but rather allowing a multiplicity of ideas to jostle and sit alongside each other. There are major themes that can be spotted in the programming: gender politics run strongly through several of the pieces (Sanja Iveković’s Lady Rosa of Luxembourg (2001), Peju Alatise’s Flying Girls (2016) and the contribution by the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth), while ideas around technology and modernisation can also be pulled out (Lee Bul’s State of Reflection (2016), John Gerrard’s Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada) (2014)). But there are also smaller details, pieces whose subject doesn’t match any particular wide-ranging theme and are a world unto themselves.
Matt Packer points to the contribution by the Irish Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth as one of the works he’s particularly interested in seeing play out.
“The Artist’s Repeal campaign is going to be doing a street procession during the opening weekend, with banners, and then they’re presenting an archive of materials at the Cleeves site, and offering an information point for details related to the campaign. What’s interesting is not only how it coincides with the referendum in Ireland, but also that, as EVA’s an international project, it’s an opportunity to see not only what the campaign and those issues mean through an international lens, but also as a form of art activism – how that translates through an international lens.”
The Artists’ Repeal contribution is one in a list of contributions from Irish artists in this year’s programme, including Isabel Nolan, Sam Keogh, Rita Duffy and John Rainey.
The decision to forego a title is just as political a move as parsing the programme with an overtly political title. It speaks to a world where placing hard lines around people and ideas (through borders and categories) becomes an increasingly dangerous tendency.
Another departure this year is the inclusion of an extended programme at IMMA as part of the main programme in Limerick, perhaps the first step in a future move towards reaching out nationally as well as internationally. The IMMA programme, which will be exhibited in the Project Spaces at the Museum, features work by three different artists, all dealing with the politics of communication. Roy Dib’s video piece Mondial 2010 (2013) looks at institutional borders in modern day Middle East, while Marlon T Riggs’ Tongues Untied (1989) explores language in the African-American gay community.
The third artist in the programme is Derry-born Locky Morris, who Matt Packer describes as “one of the most unsung artists in Ireland”. Locky will present his 1992 work Comm, a 40-foot undulating wall frieze of sensual, organic forms.
Comm doesn’t betray its subject matter easily. The materials that make up the curved wall sculptures in the piece are toilet paper and clingfilm, singed with a blow torch; the shapes suggest roiling tongues. The genesis of the piece was the practice of smuggling letters (‘comms’) from and to Republican prisoners during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Letters would be painstakingly scribed in tiny writing on toilet paper or cigarette papers, before being sealed in clingfilm, concealed in the mouth and transmitted through a kiss.
“Because of people I was hanging around with, I was aware that smuggling messages was happening, so it was part of the landscape. Around the time of Comm, I was asked to design a trophy for a table quiz to commemorate Seán Keenan, a prominent Republican in Derry, who had died. So I wrote comms to a whole bunch of Republican prisoners, I wrote them all out myself on cigarette paper and wrapped them up in clingfilm. The idea of the work was that I asked the prisoners to write something about Seán, did he mean anything to them, and then send me out the comm. But the comms would never be opened, they would be displayed in this little box, which would be the trophy. The little comms were all wrapped up and mounted like fishing flies in the box. So I used these comms as a wee conceptual art piece.”
Locky’s work after university began as overtly political, dealing with the context in his native Derry and showing in local community centres before being shown in galleries. But after a while, the expectation and scrutiny that goes along with being a spokesperson within a charged political situation began to tell on the artist. Comm is the piece that marks the beginning of his transition to finding subtler ways of approaching his subject matter, as well as a movement away from being an artist who deals only with the Northern Irish situation.
“I started becoming more and more uncomfortable with it, almost becoming a spokesperson for a generation for a certain thing, and I wasn’t really that type of person you know, to sit and be interviewed. I became increasingly troubled by that aspect. And I suppose the commodification of it in a sense, in the art world. Consumerism, commodification, that would be a big thing in the back of my mind as an individual reacting to the world.”
Though Locky finds it hard to look back, preferring to focus on his current preoccupations, twenty years of distance have offered a fresh perspective on what turned out to be a seminal piece in his body of work.
“I look at it now and it’s like an explosion! There’s a slight expression of ‘Fuck youse – there’ll be ways found.’ It’s defiant – it was in that time and it’s of its time.”
The 38th EVA International opens in Limerick on April 12th, running until July 8th.
EVA International at IMMA runs from April 6th to May 27th.
For more information visit www.eva.ie
Words: Rachel Donnelly
Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Campaign Repeal! 2018 Photo: Alison Laredo, courtesy the artists
Locky Morris Comm 1992 installation: toilet paper, wallpaper paste, cling film (sealed with flame) dimensions variable, each element ca. 30 × 75 × 20 cm courtesy the artist
Roy Dib Mondial 2010 2014 film, 19 min courtesy of the artist
Marlon T. Riggs Tongues Untied 1989 film still Photo: Ron Simmons courtesy of Signigyin’ Works and Frameline Distribution