Dam It

Sabrina Mandanici on the opening of the EVA International biennial

Sanja Ivekovic, Lady Rosa of Luxembourg, 2018. (Photo: Deirdre Power and EVA International 2018)

I HAVE A SOFT SPOT FOR GRITTY CITIES. I don’t mean like Berlin used to be in the nineties (even though I wasn’t there then), but the kind of place that, unless you were born there, you most likely would never end up in, if not for a specific reason that brought you. Picture a small city—its medieval core (a castle, a cathedral, and quite a few churches) surrounded and disrupted by industrial brick buildings, working-class housing, and banal architecture from the 1980s to the mid-aughts; spread it over the banks of a river (the Shannon, to be precise) in refined shades of gray, but without the romance—that’s Limerick. And I like it. I recently visited the city for the opening of the thirty-eighth edition of Ireland’s biennial, EVA International.

The first person I met after landing at Shannon Airport was my driver, Tom (he’s been working for the biennial for more than a decade). A Limerick native, he gave me the most comprehensive thirty-minute introduction to the city’s vernacular history (including its pubs) and to the Ardnacrusha Power Station, a hydroelectric dam that was pivotal in the modernization of Ireland in the late 1920s.

The dam’s history, or rather the allegorical painting Night’s Candles Are Burnt, 1927, by Irish artist Seán Keating, which depicts the construction of the power station and its implications for the evolution of Irish society, was the point of departure for the press tour that began at the Limerick City Gallery of Art. It was also the inspiration for Inti Guerrero’s curation of this year’s exhibition, spread across six venues (including the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin). As we made our way through the gallery, he spoke of the fifty-six artists who were invited or submitted their work through an open call. For Guerrero, their works connect through the themes of electricity, light, and metaphors of power.

Opening night at the Limerick City Gallery of Art. (Photo: Sabrina Mandanici)

Instead of creating an overall narrative, Guerrero emphasized his more “kaleidoscopic” approach, in which each space becomes its own exhibition. The concept, however, can wobble somewhat. For example, when grouping works addressing intra-social conflicts, such as with photographer John Duncan’s Bonfires, 2008, memory, via Jenna Tas’s ‘Oh Mnemosyne’ (The Stone Drawings), 1992, and racial discrimination, with Estructura completa (Complete Structure), 2010, by David Pérez Karmadavis—all on the City Gallery’s upper floor—the connections feel more constructed than immanent.

The City Gallery’s ground floor tackles dams and electricity more figuratively. Les diables rouges (The Red Devils), 1964, a brisk oil painting by the late Egyptian artist and activist Inji Efflatoun, comments on the construction of her country’s Aswan High Dam during the 1960s. A suite of small photographs document Liu Xiaodong painting his monumental five-panel work, Hot Bed I, 2005, the artist’s response to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. A direct confrontation between artist and subject is presented in Nigerian photographer’s Uchechukwu James-Iroha’s dramatically lit black-and-white pictures of Lagos’s citizens struggling with access to electricity. But the most intriguing work, both aesthetically and intellectually, is Malala Andrialavidrazana’s Figures 1856, 2018. Part of an ongoing series of digital collages, her works extract and combine symbols and elements—including dams and bridges—found in atlases, bank notes, and historic documents. These imaginary cartographies deconstruct the colonial imagery of the global South as illusions of progress, but also reveal how present, yet disregarded, these illusions remain as a visual currency.

EVA International curator Inti Guerrero (donning sunglasses) in front of Akiq AW’s work at Cleeve’s Condensed Milk Factory. (Photo: Sabrina Mandanici)

Motifs recur across the various venues—chandeliers being one. The most abstracted and texturally evocative interpretation is at Cleeve’s, a former condensed-milk factory full of ample, chilly spaces, which I explored with Nathan O’Donnell, coeditor of Paper Visual Art Journal, and Chris Clarke, the senior curator at Cork’s Glucksman Gallery. As if entering a church, we fell silent while observing Isabel Nolan’s delicate steel sculptures, draped with hand-dyed cotton sheets. Heavy and solemn, they hover like colorful creatures from outer space.

Nathan O’Donnell, coeditor of Paper Visual Art Journal, and Chris Clark, senior curator at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, at Cleeve’s Condensed Milk Factory. (Photo: Sabrina Mandanici)

Cleeve’s is also home to three video installations, including John Gerard’s Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada) and Laurent Grasso’s Soleil Double, both 2014, and both captivating in their own right. However, it was the seemingly endless journey of an Irish forester, trudging through the snow of rural Finland, that got to me. More experience than narrative, The Soil Became Scandinavian, 2018, by artist and writer Adrian Duncan and filmmaker Feargal Ward, traces the trek of one Dermot Mangan in his search for trees to use as telephone poles for postwar Ireland. However, you don’t need to know this background—the cinematography, the exhibition space’s cool temperature, and the tangy smell of old, creosoted poles, installed as part of the work, evoke the feeling of disorientation, fatigue, and threat that this landscape of low horizons and giant trees conveys.

Our press group warmed up at the Tom Collins Pub. We enjoyed it so much that we held our Q+A with Guerrero and Matt Packer, the biennial’s CEO, there. As we talked about the biennial’s concept and history, I lingered on the word EVA (unlike his predecessors, Guerrero intentionally chose to not give the exhibition a title). EVA stands for Exhibition of Visual Arts. Considering that Ireland is Catholic and nearing its May 25 referendum to repeal their constitution’s eighth amendment—which recognizes that a fetus has the same rights as its mother, making abortion illegal—it is somehow pertinent that Eva, in many languages, translates to Eve.

Niamh Dunphy, editor of Paper Visual Art Journal and the exhibition catalogue for EVA International; art critic Rebecca O’Dwyer; artist Adrian Duncan; Emma Dywer, EVA International’s communication manager; and art critic Declan Long at the Tom Collins Pub. (Photo: Sabrina Mandanici)

Women who speak up and take control of their bodies, who call out their abusers, are present in many works at EVA. There is Sanja Iveković’s Lady Rosa of Luxembourg, 2001, an homage to Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who is personified as a gilded, pregnant Nike; Marie-Claire Messouma’s installation #No Name, 2016, her response to the 2012 gang-rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey; and Hair Headscarf , 2016, by Mina Talaee, a piece the Iranian artist wove using her own hair as well as her mother’s. Even if the exhibition spaces do not always work in favor of these objects, their urgency and correspondence with one another are undiminished.

On Friday, April 13, the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment march took place. Many dressed in black and carried beautiful hand-sewn banners, which called to mind the Christian iconography of Eve, Mary, and sundry other female saints, depicted not as penitents but as women who make their own choices. As I watched the procession, four “mourners” played ukuleles and sang “This Is How We Rise,” like an ancient chant, while the others walked silently. It was empowering and heartbreaking.

Procession of the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. (Photo: Sabrina Mandanici)