James Merrigan is an artist and art critic.
Before I delve into the art of eva International 2012 I will briefly describe recent events and developments in the Irish art world that coincide with this long-awaited biennale of visual art. On 17 May – the day before eva International opened in Limerick city – the Visual Artists Workers Forum (VAWF) had the second event of its year-long existence at the Glucksman Gallery, Cork. Secondhand reports confirm that the discussion was combative, but to what end? Like Seanad Éireann, VAWF at this point in time can only be defended for its potential rather than its achievements; and the question has to be asked, can there be tangible outcomes from what has been so far a long wick of ideological discussion? The forum was sold out and even ‘trended’ on Twitter. But while arts-centre auditoriums fill up with discussion forums, and art exhibitions are something you view at the intermission, those who work voluntarily at grassroots level in artist-run spaces and as interns for art institutions are mere recyclables in the current austerity, and no amount of talking is going to change that fact.
May 2012 sadly saw the closure of two progressive artist-run spaces: SOMA in Waterford and Occupy Space in Limerick. With less opportunities for emerging artists to show their work and unpaid creative endeavours being uprooted from commercial properties with no more than a few days’ notice, it is no surprise that eva International received over 2,000 submissions from both established and emerging artists from 76 countries. The hunger to show has never been so great. So, it was with these subtexts that I engaged eva International – being drawn to artworks that fed the eyes, not the ears.
Annie Fletcher’s ‘point of departure’ for her After the Future curatorial is theoretical, but thankfully it is one that pushes against false notions of progress and institutional critique. The media theorist Franco Berardi (‘Bifo’) is the visionary quoted more than once in the literature for the event. One quote in particular on the printed map for the biennale subscribes to what is the psychological dictate of mindfulness:
Ideology and advertising have exalted the permanent mobilisation of the productive and the nervous energies of humankind towards profit and war. We want to exalt tenderness, sleep and ecstasy, the frugality of needs and the pleasure of the senses. 
The largest venue on O’Connell Street was my first port of call. Working from the fourth floor down, Sarah Pierce’s serial brown-paper posters repeatedly affirm in silkscreen print and white collage ‘It’s time, man, it feels imminent’. The repeated phrase from the mouths of bystanders at demonstrations in the US between 1968 – 2008 manifest into cliché. The posters lead up to two audio speakers that resound with other voices; from Mary Kelly to Liam Gillick. The posters would have been enough, succinctly describing Fletcher via Berardi’s ‘want’ for blissful purgatory in a capitalist environment that perpetually desires change no matter how bad or good things are thought to be at any given moment in time. On the floor, eyes and feet are continually interrupted by Sanja Iveković’s littered text on red paper, which details a document “on marginalised women, poverty and violence against women in Ireland provided by the National Women’s Council Of Ireland (NWCI).”  Against Barbara Knezevic’s charged everyday materiality that holds for dear life onto the penthouse floor of the unfinished commercial building block, Iveković’s scrunched red papers read as poppies rather than as red-dawn reportage on violence against women.
One floor down Aoibheann Greenan’s mixed-media installation presents the artist as high-priestess of the mediated image.  Greenan’s titles for works such as Karma Coma and Iron Lion Zion – combined with deer-skull and snakeskin ingredients – speak of ritual and the colourfully exotic in the ‘chromophobic’ space of art. The artist’s installation is the most idiosyncratic presentation at eva International, traversing the thematic of the event itself to become another entity.
On the same floor (and placed throughout the eva International venues), Fergus Daly and Katherine Waugh’s A Laboratory of Perpetual Flux offers unedited interview footage from their excellent 2010 film The Art of Time (see the essay I wrote on the film here: http://unbuildingproject.wordpress.com/). In these ‘Max Headroom’ editions, artists David Claerbout, Chantal Akerman, Doug Aitken, Vito Acconci and French philosopher Sylvère Lotringer become what Waugh herself has described as “thinking heads rather than talking heads.”  Their in-depth thoughts on spatio-temporality are somewhat out of sync with a society that is rocketing toward film director Mike Judge’s vision of a dumbed-down future in his film Idiocracy.  But if you practice patience the intellectual reward from exposure to these brilliant minds is priceless. While Lotringer is the star of The Art of Time, Acconci steals the show at eva International. If you trail back to Greenan’s ritualistic mixed-media installation, Acconci comes across as a voodoo priest of all he surveys: especially when bursts of thought visibly warp and twist his physiognomy.
On the second floor of the O’Connell Street venue I immensely enjoyed Polish artists Przemysław Kwiek and Zofia Kulik’s (Kwiekulik) digitised projected slide sequence Activities with Dobromierz (1972 – 1974). After being mentally bombarded by Daly and Waugh’s thinking heads, Kwiekulik’s silent photo montage of hundreds of slides of the artists’ infant son being absurdly positioned in the everyday domestic settings of their home was a welcome respite: the only audio pollutant was background noise emanating from Ailbhe Ní Bhriain’s patiently digitised dioramas on the same floor, which added something to the visual reliance of Kwiekulik’s work. Each pose of their son has that self-conscious desire to become an artwork, especially when arbitrary geometrical arrangements of vegetables frame Dobromierz. However, this was the ’70s when control was the essence of Poland’s Communist regime and argues the point that politicised art has strong formal currency when it happens as a result of, rather than a premeditated reaction to the societal conditions of the day.
Mark O’Kelly’s installation of paintings and floorbound vitrines containing various readymades – from tin cans to the novel of prose poetry By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart – is a formal triumph. At first I didn’t recognise it as O’Kelly’s art practice. Over the years the artist has given us a generous archive of imagery that deals with representation at its core; not the arbitrary search through Google Image that infects painting practice today. Also unlike most artists O’Kelly writes and speaks intelligently about his own practice to the point were he leaves most of us in the dust of his semantic excursions: a decade ago as a first-year art student I came away a little shaken from a two-hour visiting lecture by the artist. The negative side-effect of this torrent of knowledge is the image becomes a subliminal blip in the margins of some verbal onslaught. At eva International O’Kelly’s work does the talking: it is a joy to see. The painting languages of abstraction and representation meet half-way; injected with a sophisticated colour palette of greens, browns and greys. The work is both industrious and glamourous (is that Grace Kelly I see in one portrait?). O’Kelly dotes on painting processes and invites the viewer to dote too. His reductive approach and toolshed modesty at eva International make this the most exciting output by the artist in recent times.
Other works worthy of mention at the O’Connell Street venue are Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor’s video work Rite of Spring (2010) – a silent film that follows the hand-me-down footsteps of Roma children burning mounds of white poplar fluff that combust without a trace. Gavin Murphy’s video work Something New under the Sun – an audio-visual portrait of the demolished IMCO building on Merrion Road, Dublin, from the 1970s and its chief architect Oliver Percy Barnard – is visually mesmerising in the silent interfaces between Murphy’s spoken words. Greg Howie’s braced sheet of glass with ratchet straps is a tense portrait of mysterious equilibrium. While Sam Keogh’s Monument for Subjects to Come – what looks like a large celestial or subterranean rock substance decked on a rough palanquin as some votive offering – submits to Fletcher’s curatorial premise by evading the limiting chronological measurements of past, present and future.
Outside the cohesive site on O’Connell Street things get somewhat diffuse. At Limerick City Gallery of Art (LCGA) Niamh O’Malley’s work submits to the biennale’s prevailing subtext of presentness on a surface level via the naked skin of a posturing model in the sumptuous black-and-white video work Model, and the alternating reflective, translucent and opaque surfaces of the accompanying Screen. Silence is the noticeable affect of the day as Sarah O’Gorman’s double overlapping slide projection of an interior view of a room at the Skyline Motel, Virginia,1968 (2011) achieves a state of immanence as you wait for the slides to change: the sound of the projector cheekily suggests that there is more to come.
Also at LCGA, Adrian O’Connell’s large video projection Library over-literalises the “diminution of the written word” : depicting a library atrium with several balconies from which people fling books. It’s more prison riot and institutional critique than a eulogy for print and language – the stack of Britannica encyclopedias tips it over the literal edge – Encyclopedia Britannica went fully digital in 2012. If read ironically Library can be enjoyed as spoof.
After a ten-storey elevator ride with two businessmen at the impressive Riverpoint venue, the much promoted Jos Carlos Martinat’s Vandalised Monuments: Power Abstraction 4 triggered annoyance. What was first installed as a white monolith comprised of solid model replicas of a dozen iconic buildings in Ireland – from the Four Courts to the social-welfare office on Cecil Street – is now, and will be for the duration of eva International, a platform for so-called democracy to be performed – granted by the artist’s invitation to the public to spray their message on the sculpture with on-site aerosol spray cans. French philosopher Jacques Rancière once said that “Democracy is excess,” and that it doesn’t mean satisfaction in social and economic status, or other aspects following that position, but rather demanding and continuously asking for more. In this sense Martinat’s sculpture successfully portrays the failure of democracy and the revolutionary voice, especially when the contemporary mind has nothing more enlightening to say than “you missed a spot.”
Greatly anticipated since Annie Fletcher was named as curator with her combined experience and reputation at home and abroad, eva International Limerick has been a long time coming. Unlike the previous annual art event that seemed to always subscribe to some form of localness and performed as a static entity, Fletcher has developed an evolving curatorial programme where other curators and artist groups are invited to interrupt the trajectory of the event through fringe projects.
The Belltable Arts Centre becomes a hive of activity during the biennale’s duration, where two curators (Kate Strain and Megs Morley) consecutively show the fruits of their labour from researching video works in the Israeli Center for Digital Art. Strain’s Making a Scene – Raising the Ink Flag runs till 10 June. It is not an overtly political selection of video. All the works reveal their message through poetic slippages, helped out by how the curator has displayed them in what is a difficult space to negotiate. Nira Perg’s Sabbath (2008) is a personal favourite, lyrically documenting the activities of the Ultra Orthodox Jewish Community as they position barriers around the city on the eve of Sabbath. This political activation of the Belltable Arts centre will be followed by the shamanistic shenanigans of Marcus Coates curated by Pádraic E. Moore. And Gracelands (curated by Vaari Claffey) relocates for the first time from its home in Leitrim to the Milk Market in Limerick city as a one-day exhibition of film, events and performance.
Another fringe project to take note of is Re-Possession by Caelan Bristow, Marie Connole and Aaron Lawless at Faber Studios. Although I am only informed by rumour, it seems that Faber Studios have set up shop across the road from the Garda Station on Henry Street. Taking into account that their joint project involves “stories of loss and theft” and the production of an “Inventory of Objects from departments of Lost & Found” you can imagine that the cops across the road will be keeping an eye on developments.
Finally, Luc Deleu’s Construction X at Arthur’s Quay Park – art was only a glint in my eye when it was first displayed at the same location as part of eva 1994. As an image it has become a great promotion tool for the whole event and doesn’t disappoint in the flesh. Comprised of 9 interlocked shipping containers – it definitely marks the spot – it is defined by its shifting temporality due to its past and present relationship with the Limerick site. It achieved an unmovable permanence in the minds of the public who saw it in ’94; and will do for the ‘now’ generation and future generations as myth.
Remember, it has only been six months since the Irish art world could begin to forget (and secretly mourn) Dublin Contemporary – the last large-scale art event that didn’t realise its full potential. Perhaps its slogan ‘Join the discussion’ didn’t help? In contrast, it is the strong visual silence of the majority of works at eva International (ironically ‘Silence’ was the first thematic of Dublin Contemporary) that makes this eva the best yet in my memory, and it has only just begun its evolving trajectory.