|the centre of attention|
Circa Magazine, March-May 2006
ev+a review by Paul O'Brien
|or back to the library|
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.
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.
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.