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Circa Magazine, March-May 2006

ev+a review by Paul O'Brien

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Some decades ago Erich Fromm wrote a book called To have or to be, defending the importance of nonmaterial values in the modern world. These days, however, 'being' does not often get a look in vis-à-vis 'having'. In their different ways, Marxism and Christianity once offered an alternative to consumerism, but both, where they still exist as forces to be reckoned with (eg China, the US) have largely surrendered to the commodity economy. The utopian visions of Marcuse and Illich have given way to the abstruse musings of Baudrillard and Virilio. Even where Leftist theory survives (for example in the political writing of Chomsky), it is defensive - and environmentalism is even more so. The term 'communism', which once had a liberatory resonance, has been irretrievably wrecked by the gulag. In the era of rampant, feel-good consumerism, where all that is solid has melted into air, instrumentality predominates and the bottom line is king.

With even the university under assault by commercialism and utility, the art world is one of the few remaining places where some tolerance exists for noneconomic values. Consequently the choice - by curator Katerina Gregos - of 'generosity' as the theme of this year's ev+a was an appropriate one. A number of artists made positive use of this with reference to the 'gift economy'. John Rubin with the Independent School of Art gave some free publicity to a Limerick powerlifter, Liam Beville. In return the athlete agreed to wear the school's logo - mutual aid in action. Nina Tanis, in her Cathedral installation, invited participants to write accounts of their happiest moments, to be attached to strings dangling from the ceiling - the work was reminiscent of Sophie Calle, but with a positive twist. Alexandros Georgiou made a contribution to the prevailing alternative ideology (both economic and environmental) with his 'anti-greed' badges.
Elsewhere, the group Superflex, with their Free beer contribution, adapted the open-source, Creative Commons copyright initiative to disseminate a free recipe for beer, thus raising issues about conventional and alternative legal structures (as expounded, for example, by legal theorist Lawrence Lessig). The work also highlighted the question of the relationship between traditional 'tangible' commodities like beer, and 'intangible' information which has become the basis of the knowledge economy. Mario Rizzi's video installation incorporated stories from Limerick people - including inmates in the local prison - while Johanna Lecklin set up a café where people were invited to swap a story for a cup of coffee (it is planned to stage some of the stories later). In the ongoing spirit of filling in the gaps caused by contemporary alienation and fragmentation, Jennifer Nelson and Dimitri Kotsaras called to the homes of Limerick residents, offering to cook a meal with them, to result in the production of a cookbook. Áine Nic Giolla Coda and Michael Minnis installed lightboxes featuring images of local residents in empty alcoves in St. John's Square. The group Enso are, they tell us, in the process of creating "A New Treaty for Limerick." In the words of the exhibition guide, "This treaty being an article of reconciliation, understanding, compromise, harmony, reunion, and freedom from strife will address all contemporary social issues within the city and propose possible solutions." Occasionally, though, all this goodheartedness verges on the twee - as in Kostis Velonis' (amusing) utopian design of a recreational structure for cats. Overall, an alternative, endearingly wholesome social vision co-existed in this year's ev+a, with an occasional, residual irony.

The idea of questioning the nature of art has been a commonplace since Duchamp, but here that notion was merged with the concept of breaking down barriers between art and the community as a whole, as well as exploring issues of reciprocity and mutuality. The ghost of Kropotkin, with his vision of a stateless, marketless society of mutual aid, sometimes seemed to raise its benevolent head. The annual ev+a event, spread over a dozen or so locations, has undeniably put Limerick on the cultural map, both nationally and internationally. In the sense of art-fashions at least, Limerick has become like Venice, Berlin or anywhere else. It is increasingly difficult to distinguish the work of 'Irish' artists from that of their continental (or global) counterparts. Courtesy of low air fares, the green feline is becoming seamlessly incorporated into world culture, in parallel to its integration into the global economy. Conceptualism, installations, video, photography and sculpture (in the broadest sense) predominated in this year's ev+a, while more traditional media such as painting were notable for their scarcity. The exquisite drawings of Eoin McHugh, on display in the University of Limerick, are an exception in their 'traditional' form, but even they are strongly underpinned by theory. Evoking a fictional world, they raise the question of the application of literary rhetorical devices (such as metaphor) to the interpretation of visual art.

The prevailing cultural zeitgeist favours some kinds of artists, for example the flamboyant and prolific Nevan Lahart, whose Dada-esque work, often using throw-away materials with a nod to Christian Boltanski, references exploitation and the waste-economy of consumerism. A safe enough bet in political terms, one might think, but Lahart's work has a real edge where it addresses taboo subjects. These include the touchy topic of Islam; the Irish flag where the 'orange' section dissolves/ pixelates into Papal yellow; and the stereotype of Limerick itself as a lawless location. It is to be hoped that the widespread exposure this artist has received in recent times will not blunt the edge of his work, with its anarchic and often uncomfortable overtones. Reminiscent of the stories of Jorge Luis Borges (really ideas for novels that were never written), Narda Alvarado's work is along similar, slightly outrageous lines to Lahart's. Alvarado experiments with the graphic representation of ideas rather than finished works - sometimes with amusing results, as in the imaginary advertisement for a brand of cocaine, or a device to externalise guilt. Julika Rudelius' video installation gives a voice to a segment of society that is often marginalized in contemporary art: rich men in suits. Whether it is a lawyer scathingly remarking on the downside of 'pro-bono' work, or a millionaire commenting on his comparative poverty vis-à-vis other millionaires, this thought-provoking work calls some stereotypes into question, while simultaneously highlighting the gap between a privileged section of society and the rest. At the other end of the scale, Chris Reid's poignant photographs of deserted homes in Dublin's inner city, cleared to make space for development, highlight the human elements that are sometimes lost in abstract social and economic conceptualisation. More positively, there was Ciara Finnegan's cheerful video piece of older people defying age-related stereotypes through dance. On the one hand, religion gives way to art and culture: successful use has been made of a disused church in St. John's Square which is now the Daghdha Space, a venue for contemporary dance which incorporates a number of video installations as part of ev+a.

On the other hand, spirituality invades the gallery: a semi-ironic shrine has been set up below a picture in the permanent collection of the Limerick City Gallery of Art (Portrait of Stella by Charles Jervas) that is popularly reputed to have healing qualities. As the ghost of religion invades the gallery, the ghost of communism also makes an appearance in ev+a: Otto Berchem, in the tradition of 'ostalgia' exemplified by the film Good bye Lenin!, pays video homage to Dean Reed, a Leftist singer of US origin who settled in East Germany and became widely popular there. (The work also evokes echoes of the Limerick Soviet of 1919.) Susan MacWilliam's work, which often references the paranormal, was represented by an exhibit incorporating illuminated text and video on the topic of the New York mystic Kuda Bux who was, apparently, an adept at "eyeless sight". Artist Phil Coy presented a riveting video piece of soprano Germain Wilson, singing a single vibrato note which resonates in the dish of a disused Omega Tracking station in Trinidad. In the margins and the remnants of science, art steps in. Mention should also be made of two strong pieces in the associated student show at the Limerick School of Art and Design: Niamh O'Beirne's buttered stones with their biblical reference, and a ladder with money at the top (albeit one that cannot be climbed) by Dawn Meagher.

If there was a subliminal message in this year's ev+a, it was something like this: we know what we want (kindness, reciprocity), we know what we don't want (selfishness, exploitation) but the old ladders have failed: we don't know how to get from here to there. This year's ev+a demonstrates that the vision of an alternative society where human values and relationships are primary, and caring is more than an ironised cliché, is still not quite dead.

Paul O'Brien teaches at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin.