Read Jesse Bond's City Column: Limerick in Artlicks.
Despite the nearby airport, I imagine few tourists are drawn into Limerick, instead heading in the opposite direction to explore the spectacular landscapes of the west coast. Yet EVA International - a biennial of contemporary art event based in the city - and the beginnings of a burgeoning art scene, may have the potential to counteract that.
Although it proudly announces itself with the tagline 'lreland's Biennial', EVA International could perhaps be one of the longest running and least known biennials. Local artists and academics initiated Limerick Exhibition of Visual Arts (now EVA International) in 1977 to celebrate and promote the visual arts within the city. Over the years it has been curated by a series of guests, including Sandy Nairne (1979), Brian O'Doherty (1980) and Koyo Kouoh (2016) .
Titled Still (the) Barbarians, this year's EVA lnternational commemorates the centenary of the Easter Rising, investigating the postcolonial condition of Ireland, which Kouoh describes as 'the colonial laboratory of the British enterprise'. The 57 selected artists hail from 23 countries, offering a global overview of responses to postcolonialism. EVA is spread over several sites in the city, including King John's Castle, The Hunt Museum and Limerick City Gallery of Art as well as unusual venues like Cleeve's Condensed Milk Factory and the Sailor's Home, providing an insight into the spaces Limerick has to offer to artists.
Cleeve's Condensed Milk Factory is a sprawling former industrial site on the west bank of the river. Empty since 2011 , it is now owned by Limerick City and County Council. The largest building is an imposing limestone nineteenth century flax mill, which is surrounded by low storey warehouses reflecting the changing use5 of the site. Although it is impossible to catch a whiff now, apparently for a long time you could still smell the insipid stench of dairy. What is most notable is the sheer amount of space that is sitting here waiting. EVA has put it to impressive use - there are 25 works on display and each has an ample room - but its permanent redevelopment is still pending. Particularly suited to the space are several large video projections and installations , including Alice Maher's Cassandra 's Necklace (2), (2016), a two screen video projection that is given the entire ground floor of the flax mill.
Across the river on a hill above the docks sits the Sailor's Home, another site owned by the council awaiting redevelopment. Built in the 1850s, the building is a former hostel for sailors passing through the city. For EVA, an installation by Michael Joo now inhabits the space. Odd items from the garden and local docks have been brought into the space, such as a discarded rope, which is now grwoing moss. The old window casements have been reinstalled, hovering away from the floor and walls. Added to the exposed brickwork and holes in the floorboards, it feels as if the building has been contracted and shrunk, left empty too long, foreign forces have taken hold.
At the Sailor's Home I spoke to Sophie Gough, a sculpture student in her fourth year of Limeric School of Art and Design (LSAD) who was volunteering with EVA. She explained what it is like to study in Limerick: 'Everyone knows everyone, we're like an overgrown family! And then the extended family grows out to all the arts organisations in and around the city.' Sophie explained that because Limerick is relatively small in comparison to Cork or Dublin, there is a strong sense of co-operation, mutual support and collective enthusiasm, which she describes as a 'big-win mentality'.
Ireland is stil lrecovering fromm the property bubble burst of 2009. In Limerick this resulted in a proliferation of empty buildings.'With all the disused spaces around Limerick, between the different disciplines in the college we have found our fair share of pretty amazing exhibition venues up through the years' Sophie explained.'From this year's third year sculpture group taking over a primary school in the city centre; to last year's third year print and lens based media groups moving into the Sailor's Home; to my own class group, sculpture and combined media, finding a gem of a spot in the city centre for our show - which has been used on multiple occasions since, by both students of LSAD and professional practicing artists.'
These temporary exhibitions and events in spaces that are not permanately designated galleries are a vibrant yet precariuos feature of the visual arts in Limerick. As Sophie pointed out landlords are not always willing to offer properties for temporary use. However the city does have a few enduring spaces.
Ormston House is a cultural resource centre in the heart of Limerick City that was established in 2011 to, as the team explained, 'address a gap in teh ecology of project spaces in the city''. Run by a team of volunteers, throughout the year they host a programme of exhibitions, studio visits, artists' talks, workshops and professional development events, alongside an annual membership scheme that offers two exhibition opportnities a year.
Ormston House aims to support emergent practices ad the development of challenging and experimental work whilst growing audiences for contemporary art within Limerick. One of her focuses this year is 'to create a space to hang out'. The exhibition curated to coincide with EVA did just that, with a reading space displaying copies of Ugandan magazine Transition and a programme of public interventions that actively encourage audiences to engage with this material. Yet despite its survival for the last five years, Ormston House does not have permanent tenancy or a source of funding.
At the end of a row of empty shops is Limerick Fab Lab. This space, supported by the school of architecture at the University of Limerick, offers a access to a range of digital manufacturing tools, from 3D Printers to laser cutters. Through a series of tutorials, workshops and talks, the space aims to make a space for meangingful interactions with the community. Whilst it might be seem that the facility appeals exclusively to designers and architects, this summer they are running courses aimed at artists.
Limerick has all the right ingredients, but as yet has not quite reached its full potential. As is always the case, whether it does or not depends on securing ever elusive funding. 2016's edition of EVA International is accompanied by Limerick's bid to become 2020 European Capital of Culture. If this comes to fruition, the funding and audiences it will bring might just be enough to secure some of the city's fleeting spaces.