Read Oliver Basciano's review in Art Review Summer 2016
To an extent, Koyo Kouoh's curating of the biennial EVA International is about winners and losers, and the truism that history is written by the former. A pair of artworks installed in the abandoned milk factory that serves as one of the main venues brings this into focus. Part of Uriel Orlow's Grey, Green, Gold (2015-16), accompanied by a 'Mandela Gold' crane flower seed under a magnifying glass and a photo graph of the flower in bloom, is a slideshow of intertitles that relate the story of the prison garden developed by the ANC inmates of Robben Island. The political prisoners relied on seeds smuggled in and ostrich droppings for fertilizer; Mandela buried the manuscripts of his auto-biography Long Walk to Freedom (1995) among the plants. Orlow's work is neighboured by the films of Jonathan Cummins.
Here, across three sizeable ceiling-hung screens and a single monitor, we witness interviews with recently released IRA prisoners and their family members about the anguish of incarceration, every emotional wince and pained face projected large. The juxtaposition is telling: the 'terrorists',as they were once branded, of the antiapartheid struggle, are lauded as inspirational figures because they triumphed. The IRA soldiers, who were jailed fighting for a united Ireland, and who failed, remain personae non grata.
Kouoh's exhibition, which involves the work of 51 artists, continues in this vein, highlighting how the effects of colonialism – particularly British colonialism, both in its rule of lreland prior to the 1916 rebellion, the centenary of which provides a fitting peg on which to hang the show, and in Africa and beyond – endures. John Waid's 909,125 Minutes Later (2016) at the Limerick City Gallery, for example, consists of a clock and a written proposal to RTE that the one-minute interlude of church bells, rung before the evening news since 1950, be delayed by 25 minutes and 21 seconds. This would reflect 6pm in the time zone Ireland operated under prior to 1916, when, six months after the Easter Rising, the British government implemented Greenwich Mean Time. The TV station refused the request.
Yet this is an exhibition that also rises above specific political or historic episodes. On display is a wider sense of ruin, a portrait of our insatiable appetite for violence. Otobong Nkanga's, The Weight of Scars (2015) is a wall-hanging fabric that invokes a cosmological diagram. Made up of patchworked blue-hued mohair, polyester, cotton and linen, it also includes black-and-white photographs that depict a landscape wrecked by heavy mining. The work inspires a wellspring of sadness, a sense of destruction reiterated in Samuel Erenberg's installation of four dozen or so black paintings, each with a place name and date painted neatly in white (recalling On Kawara perhaps). Each corresponds to a conflict – 'South Dakota 1890', 'Hiroshima 1945', 'Albania 1997', 'Uganda 2008' – and such is the frequency of these historic moments that it becomes ap parent that war is not the exception but the norm. Indeed, David Blandy and Larry Achiampong's live-action Finding Fanon 1 and animation Finding Fanon 2, in which the artists and their avatars discuss radical theorist Frantz Fanon as they negotiate a postapocalyptic dystopia, points perhaps to the endgame. Kostas Bassnos spells out the biennial title in Greek (which is para phrased from C.P.Cavafy's Greek language poem 'Waiting for the Barbarians') across the roof of the milk factory. In Cavafy's 1898 work, a city is left adrift without an enemy –the barbarians – to fight and define itself against. So too in Kouoh's biennial – for all our claims to civilisation, from the Ancient Greeks to the British Empire and beyond – violence is presented as an integral and perhaps vital part of the human character.