Read Kevin McGarry's review of EVA International in the summer edition of ARTFORUM
Limerick's EVA International dates back to 1977, when it began as an annual exhibition of contemporary works from Ireland and abroad. The show's curatorial roster would eventually include such luminaries as the Italian art historian Germano Celant (in 1991), the Spanish curator Rosa Martinez (in 2000), and the Chinese curator Hou Hanru (in 2008). In 2012, EVA commenced a schedule of alternating years and rebranded itself with the subtitle "Ireland's Biennial." This most recent iteration, EVA's third as a biyearly event, was curated by Koyo Kouoh, the Basel- and Dakar-based founding director of Raw Material Company, an arts initiative that bills itself as a resource center, gallery, and residency program supporting artistic production in Africa. Kouoh's self-professed commitment to interrogating postcolonialism strikes a chord here, as Ireland reflects on the centennial of the 1916 Irish Citizen Army's Easter Rising insurrection against British rule.
Kouoh has titled her biennial "Still (the) Barbarians," a play on Constantine Cavafy's 1898 poem "Waiting for the Barbarians," in which an unnamed citizenry asks why their heads of state have suspended their lawmaking and have begun decorating themselves with opulent jewels. In the call and response of the poem, the senators answer that this is because the barbarians are due to arrive, that such splendor will dazzle them while legal rhetoric would bore them-yet the barbarians never come.
In keeping with Cavafy's sense of moral purpose, the works included in "Still (the) Barbarians" aspire more to political substance than to visual impact, and as a consequence, the exhibition is more intellectually than formally engaging. This is hardly an uncommon problem on the biennial circuit, where seriousness frequently trumps sensorial power. To Kouoh's credit, the theme isn't self indulgent conceit, but rather evidence of a commitment to democracy in its most elegant form: as an equitable representation of a diverse public. This democratic bent is accentuated by the fact that Kouoh voluntarily continued EVA's tradition of issuing an open call, through which many of the works have been selected. The bulk of the show is divided between Limerick City Gallery of Art, the city's contemporary art museum, and Cleeve's Condensed Milk Factory, a raw, sprawling space with ties to its past, with a handful of in situ projects scattered elsewhere in central Limerick, a gritty riverside town (with roughly half the population of Zurich) that appears to still be recovering from its Thatcher-era "Stab City" appellation. The specter of fallen industry haunts the milk-processing plant, the larger of the venues (which in its heyday produced more than 100,000 cans per day). Without saying so, "Still (the) Barbarians" recasts the vacated building as a factory of stories: Nearly all the works sited here are cinematic. Of these, many are labored – earnest but ponderous – and rely too much on the site's evocative atmosphere to compensate for their formal insubstantiality.
Among those that rise above is a video diptych by the young Sengalese artist lean Ramageli, Joe Ouakam, le berger (Joe Ouakam, the Shepherd), 2015, a portrait of the artist's mentor in which the older man, Issa Samb, is often absent. When he appears he is shirtless, holding a pipe in his mouth and drawing an oversize profile on a wall with charcoal. More often, the wandering, sepia toned gaze of the camera takes in a workshop filled with wood, brittle leaves, bicycle spokes covered in dust and cobwebs-ephemera from Samb's life, which he considers an artwork in itself.
The large hall containing Ramageli's piece also includes a wall plastered with frenzied, monotonous charts, graphs, and ledgers by Parisian artist Eric Baudelaire, which graphically represent a worldview that might be seen as antipodal to Samb's. Rather than depicting an artist who disavows objecthood, Baudelaire shows how Western power structures are compulsively driven to quantify everything, even radical dissent. Throughout his career, Baudelaire has made several films tracing the histories of international terrorist cells. These obsessively researched new visuals depict vast networks of ownership and control, and further imply how these ossified systems have fueled decades of geopolitical strife. The diagrams, collected from various peer-reviewed political-science and international-security journals, attempt to quantify and predict terrorism, as if it were a market force and not a violent refusal to abide by such systems. By showing how terrorists are postioned as bogeymen with actions ludicrously perported to be predictable, Baudelaire's wallpaper (details of which are read aloud by a recorded Irish broadcaster) harks back to Cavafy's politicians and their barbarians, fanciful depictions of whom were lorded over the people in the absence of responsible governance.
The most lyrical piece in the factory, and in the show overall, is by London-based Swiss artist Uriel Orlow. A set of projected slides printed with fragments of sentences, Grey, Green, Gold, narrates a circular story, written in the pithy, plain tone of a fable, explaining how an incarcerated Nelson Mandela and his comrades used the scantest of resources to write a six-hundred-page memoir, which they condensed into approximately sixty pages by retranscribing it by hand in tiny letters. They then secreted it in cocoa tins that had previously contained seeds intended for a bleak garden plot in their prison yard before smuggling the manuscript out of the compound. Orlow's work is a meditation on the power of smallness and the methodology of resistance.
On the subject of smallness, it's only reasonable to appraise EVA through the economic lens of Ireland, a country considerably poorer than several other EU nations.
There isn't a single work in the biennial that relies on the too-big-to-fail bravado of a tentpole production budget. (Michael Joo's installation This beautiful striped wreckage (which we interrogate)..., 2016, in a former sailor's house, narrowly avoids this pitfall. The misc-en-scene of mossy, corroded nautical apparatuses and fragments of nature resituated in the rooms of the ghostly structure do not come together convincingly enough to hold their own against the creaky splendor of the building itself.) One of the most transporting passages of the show is a cold, cavernous chamber at the end of a hall of interlocking chambers in the factory, in which Alfredo Jaar suspended tufts of polyester fiber from ceiling-mounted bulbs to create The Cloud, 2015, a glowering synthetic cumulonimbus floating over a desolate oasis.
The quaint quarters of Limerick City Gallery of Art provide a significantly less immcrsive experience. While the venue accentuates the uncompelling gestalts of several pieces, the spectrum of identities and heritages woven into the works en masse creates a sense of buoyancy, as if this were some utopian academy. Much to EVA's credit, despite its limited resources Kouoh's show is one of the most international exhibitions of its kind. I say this not only in terms of ticking off diversity quotas, whose transmutation into bare metrics can stifle curatorial efforts. There is a conscientious balance of Irish artists (nine out of the forty-eight participants) and a good variety of global ones, but more imporrant, there are numerous works that manifest the interlaced nature of globalized culture today: a web of complicated, often dynamic identities, making clear the dangers of blind allegiance to political leaders and the power of activism.
The most elegant examples are Willem de Rooij's Blue to Black, 2012, and Black to Blue, 2016, rectangular reams of fabric laid on identical plinths and installed side by side, whose ombre designs fade from one color to the other. The earlier work was produced for a show curared by Kouoh in Dakar on the subject of trade ties between the Netherlands (de Rooij's homeland) and North Africa. It features Hollandaise wax print on cotton, made using a process that, while synonymous with the Netherlands, originated in Ghana. The newer textile was hand-pr inted in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, using batik, a technique developed that country. Dutch colonization in Southeast Asia brought the technology to Ghana, where it was readily embraced and used to create the textiles that have become a visual cue for traditional African sartorial identity. The work manifests the very fabric of cultural exchange, markets, and domination.
"Still (the) Barbarians" is a humble show whose works serve a unifying conceit about revolution. While consignment to a curatorial premise too often diminishes an art work's agency, Kouoh's thoughtfully wrought tapestry elevates sometimes mediocre works by situating them in a delicate if weighty conversation about a world still in the throes of colonialism and its aftermaths. If there's a problem with this politically charged show, it's that few works spark the fire of real transgression. What smolders instead are disparate strands of inquiry into some of the present moment's most dire crises: vast economic inequality; political unrest that has uprooted millions and fueled xenophobic, reactionary movemenrs; and the loss of individual and collective identities.