Hanging in the archway of Limerick’s municipal art gallery is a paean to the city’s industrial past. A painting by Seán Keating, Night Candles Are Burnt Out (1927) shows a local hydroelectric power plant as an allegory for the dawn of a new era. In the background, the gleaming white fortress of the plant straddles a river abutted by a rocky valley. Developed between 1925 and 1929 by the new government of the Irish Free State, the structure harnessed the force of the Shannon river to electrify all counties in rural Ireland through a ground-breaking national scheme. Figures in the foreground represent the ethics of this historical turning point: a corpse hangs from a pylon as a cautionary sign of the country’s poverty-stricken future without industry; a priest reads from a prayer book as a symbol of the unwavering significance of the Catholic Church; and a man watchfully points out the backdrop to a young boy, dramatizing the artist’s instruction to the viewer. See, measure, conquer.
The Columbian-born curator Inti Guerrero positions Keating’s painting at the centre of this year’s EVA International – a 12-week contemporary art exhibition across five venues in Limerick (and the Irish Museum of Art in Dublin). Bringing this historical piece into dialogue with contemporary works by 55 artists from 27 countries, he nimbly disrupts its original meaning. The human cost of industry is continually hinted at throughout the show – from Viriya Choptpanyavisut’s video of impoverished fishermen silhouetted by a Bangkok skyline, to Uchekuwu James-Iroha’s photographs of men lining Lagos’s electricity circuits in a chain. The threat of rigidly held beliefs is another prevailing theme – from Akiq AW’s photographs of militarist propaganda in Jogja to John Duncan’s photographs of anti-Catholic bonfires in Belfast. And man’s slippery grip on technology impresses you like a knock to the head, most explicitly in Sam Keogh’s garbled performance in which he fruitlessly tries to explain the functions of a defunct starship control panel.
Guerrero’s playfully subversive approach to Keating’s painting foreshadows his curation of the biennial as a whole. He has refused to give this year’s EVA a theme, describing it instead as a ‘cosmology’ of loosely related exhibitions. Such vagueness might be seen as just a stand-in for the woolly titles that so many of today’s international art biennials wear. Yet the fact he admits to it is revealing. Rather than putting on a pretence of seamless cohesion, Guerrero embraces antagonism in a way that speaks to tensions in Limerick’s social – and architectural – history.
Ten installations haunt the dank warehouses of the Cleeve’s condensed milk factory, EVA’s largest venue on an extinct industrial site on the northern bank of the river Shannon. Broadly responding to failed narratives and ideologies of progress, the works resonate with their dilapidated surroundings. In Isabel Nolan’s 2018 installation, Section (Sun Comprehending Glass), architectural forms literally fold in on themselves. Three concentric chandelier-like sculptures diagonally overhang a factory floor. Dimly illuminated by one lightbulb and draped in undulating swathes of dip-dyed cotton, they take on the appearance of ornaments that have lost their function, affirmations of grandeur on the brink of collapse.
Where Nolan deflates the vocabulary of grandiose architecture, Laurent Grasso pushes it to a dystopian extreme. An 11-minute video, Soleil Double (2014) presents a hypnotic montage of neo-classical sculptures and cityscapes filmed in Benito Mussolini’s Esposizione Universale di Roma, the district designed as the site of the 1942 World Fair as a celebration of Fascism (a plan that went unrealized). Static, unpeopled shots of austere monuments are animated by the addition of two suns glimmering in an ochre sky. Bifurcated light rays pierce the rigid arches of a colossal palace. A double shadow looms beneath a saluting sculpture. The fantasy of order is stretched to breaking point.
Elsewhere in the factory, Beto Shwafaty’s photographic series, Remediations (2010–14), similarly appropriates historical imagery in a way that thwarts its political purpose. Concrete art motifs are superimposed on idealized representations of Brazil, spanning from military propaganda to colonial stereotypes. Presented alongside Alexander Apostol’s video of an op-art industrial interior in eastern Venezuela and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s empty gallery interpretation of Brazil’s utopian capital, Shwafaty’s series brings art historical and nationalist narratives into jarring confrontation with one another.
Throughout the industrial site, you get the sense that the works have been cast up from a kind of shipwreck. Take Adrian Duncan and Fergal Ward’s video installation, The Soil Became Scandinavian (2018) which is based on a chronicle dating from 1946. It tells an unfinished story of an Irish forester’s quest for tree trunks in Finland to be used as electricity poles. A montage of shots interrupts the steady progress of the journey: the forester figure is captured trailing through a horizonless expanse of snow, then walking backwards over stacks of chopped wood, then hobbling in his skis through the interior of a data centre. The video’s deferred narrative is rendered literal by its surrounding installation: two abandoned electricity poles positioned at angles rhyme with the vertical supports of the factory roof.
When considered alongside Duncan and Ward’s thwarted industrial narrative, the dam in Keating’s painting feels like a broken promise. Indeed, following the development of decentralized power networks, the dam generates a mere 3% of the nation’s electricity today. Now a museum, you can have your photo taken in its obsolete control unit with your arm around a waxwork figure of its inventor. No longer a beacon to a bright future, the dam has become a memorial to a lost past.
On a visit to the dam, a tour guide energetically explains the mechanisms of a hatchery the plant developed for protecting salmon swimming downstream, a scheme greeted with grumbling shakes of the head by local sceptics. Meanwhile, in Limerick’s art museum, the annihilation of communities by industry resounds like a warning – from Liu Xiaodong’s documentation of displaced peasant labourers in Fengjie to Steven Cohen’s video performance of himself harassing squatters outside Johannesburg.
Beyond the exhibition space, another confrontation is taking place. On 13 April, timed with the opening of the biennial, a group of hooded figures slowly and silently leads a drumming procession down the streets of Limerick in the style of a funeral march. Initiated by local artists campaigning to repeal the Eighth Amendment – the constitutional preclusion of women’s abortion rights in Ireland – the march takes EVA as a platform to challenge steadfast ideologies.
Guerrero’s curating neither shies away from these weighty topics nor does it seamlessly assimilate them. Instead it gently taps against them in a way that makes us aware of the space from which we are tapping – the international art biennial. John Gerrard’s Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada) (2014) distils this sense of self-awareness. A live simulation of a solar power plant in Nevada, it presents a rolling satellite view of a gleaming tower encircled by a mosaic of mirrors that slowly move to catch the rays of the sun. The work is mesmerizing in its quasi-natural beauty: the mirrors are configured to the pattern of sunflower seeds bisected by narrow pathways that recall ancient sun symbols. Yet our astral awe is undercut by the synthetic quality of both the medium and subject matter. A simulation of a simulation, Gerrard’s Solar Reserve conjures nostalgia for nature and then throws it back in our face. Beauty comes from failure. The light from the screen flickers on the corrugated iron of the factory roof.
Main image: John Duncan, Glenbryn Park, Belfast 2004, 2008. Photograph, 1 x 1.2 m. Courtesy: the artist and EVA International
First published in Issue 196