eva International 2012 – After the Future

Various venues, Limerick

This year’s eva International, curated by Annie Fletcher, borrows its title from the Italian theorist and activist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. The phrase ‘after the future’ might carry any number of connotations, but Fletcher specifies the purchase she intends it to have here: it signals a call to ‘refuse current neoliberal economic diktats and obsession with notions of progress’; we should slow down, combat the instrumental logic of efficiency and productivity, and re-affirm pleasure; we must reject both nostalgia for the past and the sacrifice of the present for a ‘developed’ future; and we should celebrate ‘the uncanny and visionary capacity of artistic practice to interpret and envision things askance’. Fletcher’s curation presents a subtle and powerful exploration of the art of the recent past (the chosen touchstones are Croatian artist Sanja Iveković, the Polish duo KwieKulik, and Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers), in relation to work by both established contemporary practitioners and emerging voices. While the potency and sophistication of the contributions was not entirely even, After the Future featured some individual artworks of singular brilliance, as well as numerous groupings that illuminated each piece with sensitivity and intelligence.

Fletcher’s skill throughout the biennial was to articulate art’s critical potential – especially in political terms – whilst also maintaining a varied yet coherent sense of what the specific contribution of art, as distinguished from say photojournalism or political campaigning, might yet be. This had not only to do with overt expressions of protest, but also with the affirmation of alternative, less instrumental ways of thinking; of an enlivened attention to the material fabric of everyday life; and of an unruly way of drawing images and things into the charged field between thought and sensation.

That the concern with politics would not be trained upon class and economics alone was immediately evident upon entering Limerick City Gallery of Art. Iveković’s Shadow Report (the first manifestation of which appeared in 1998) straight away brings the issue of violence against women in Ireland into visibility. Strewn across the floor of the first room, and scattered further afield by the time of my second visit, were scores of scrunched up pieces of red paper printed with a disturbing report provided by the National Women’s Council of Ireland. These crumpled sheets, coloured an angry red and casually kicked and buffeted around the gallery, constituted a precarious yet indignant gesture; and its weight became more insistent as it was encountered repeatedly throughout eva’s main exhibition spaces.

Iveković’s piece provided a frame for understanding the formally very different work of Kate Davis in an adjacent room. Curtain I-VII (Die Schönste Frau in der Geschichte der Mythologie) (2011) comprised seven copies of a poster of Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, with a differently degraded image of the infamous slash made by suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914 superimposed onto each. Here Davis alerts us both to art’s historical complicity with patriarchal forms of representation, and to examples of radical, violent models of spectatorship. Which is more precious, the rights of Emmeline Pankhurst – ‘the most beautiful character in modern history’ – or a painting of ‘the most beautiful woman in mythological history’?

Also at the LCGA was a suggestive juxtaposition of three artworks exploring the basic operations of architectural, semiotic and pedagogic structures. Emma Houlihan’s stark, cast concrete Arch (2010) presented a monument to the utter failure of social cohesion attending the progress of the Celtic Tiger. The arch, dependent for its defeat of gravity on the mutual support of each stone by its neighbours, is here reduced to a lumpen rubble of disassembled units. This work shared a space with Broodthaers’ slide piece, Images d’Épinal (1974). Broodthaers sequenced images from mid-nineteenth century lithographs produced in the French town of Épinal, pictures that became so popular that image d’Épinal is still used in French as a synonym for the stereotyped image. It is from such images that as children we learn to connect words with images and things: the world becomes intelligible, but only by way of our submission to systems of classification and stereotyping that are implicated in the exercise of power. Broodthaers alludes to this discursive function while also reveling in the suggestive potential of the juxtaposition of these image-emblems. Pedagogy, classification, rudimentary architecture and an interrogation of creative expression are enfolded in a third work in this cluster: Priscila Fernandes’ Product of Play (2011). This video projection observes a boy arranging a set of coloured building bricks and an older girl who, having riotously scattered a set of such blocks, laughs playfully before uncannily breaking into the song of a trained operatic voice. Here the disciplinary shaping of children produces unsettling results.

I found the remaining works downstairs at LCGA a little less convincing. Pilvi Takala’s The Trainee (2008) documents a performative attempt to disturb the smooth running of the marketing department of Deloitte, during which the artist lingered in odd places (she spent one day in a lift, for example) and conspicuously performed no tasks. While her presence certainly provoked concerned reactions from her co-workers, these were not of a particularly surprising kind, and the artist seemed rather too keen to alert the other employees to her odd, Bartleby-like behaviour for it all to avoid the air of self-conscious wackiness. Anibal Catalan’s site-specific installation, Morphological Zone (2011-12), which combined pictorial, sculptural and architectural elements, carried some of the formal dynamism of Russian Constructivism. However, almost 100 years on, and with those forms of immersive dynamic abstraction so familiar to design and product showrooms, the utopian charge of the original avant-garde project does not carry over here. Upstairs at the LCGA, however, Hyewon Kwon’s unemphatic video, Untitled ♯1 (2010-11), was particularly powerful. Kwon looped some archival footage filmed in Seoul’s Municipal Workers’ Dormitory in 1962 with various newsreel voiceovers and musical scores. These offered dramatically different narratives and, oddly and disturbingly, the footage was able to act as convincing backdrop to each one.

KwieKulik (Przemysław Kwiek & Zofi a Kulik): Activities with Dobromierz (1972-1974). Detail 44. Courtesy of KwieKulik Archive.
KwieKulik (Przemysław Kwiek & Zofi a Kulik): Activities with Dobromierz (1972-1974). Detail 44. Courtesy of KwieKulik Archive.

Moving away from the LCGA, Marcus Coates’ video The Plover’s Wing (The Palestinian/Israeli Crisis) (2008), on view at the Belltable, was absurd, bewildering and provocative, but not very good. Coates, dressed in a light blue Adidas tracksuit, wearing a badger skin on his head, and with a stuffed hare’s head poking out of his jacket, is meeting with Moti Sasson, mayor of the Israeli city of Holon. Coates, earnest in both his published interviews and on-screen demeanour, offers his shamanic services to Sasson, and the wisdom derived from his access to the world of animal spirits. We see an apparently sincere Coates act out his entry into this world and, returning back to us after a staccato sequence of shrieks and grunts, he brings with him the tale of the plover bird, the behaviour of which he then allegorizes to inform the mayor that Israel has a victim complex. Not perhaps the most subtle piece of political analysis ever delivered, and Sasson, a bit bewildered but remaining surprisingly well disposed, does not feel the need to ask Coates any further questions. Like an imagined meeting of Joseph Beuys, Ali G and The Mighty Boosh, the piece carried considerable entertainment value, and was certainly more telling than the ignorable work on the 10th floor of Riverpoint. Here, José Carlos Martinat’s Vandalized Monuments: Power Abstraction 4 (2012), like many relational artworks, failed to deliver on the liberatory claims made on its behalf.
Along with the LCGA, eva’s second major exhibition space was 103-104 O’Connell Street. Dozens of artworks were installed over four floors and, while not all the juxtapositions were equally illuminating, there were some brilliant moments. The different floors were linked by the recurrence of Iveković’s Shadow Report, and by the lengthy interviews filmed by Fergus Daly and Katherine Waugh (of the latter, the one featuring Sylvère Lotringer was particularly compelling).

Seeing Mark O’Kelly’s work on the 2nd floor made me aware of how little painting featured in the exhibition, although the slow tempo of Ailbhe Ní Bhriain’s digital video collages elicited the kind of prolonged, decelerated attention often characteristic of that medium. On the 1st floor a spare, elegant sculpture by Greg Howie, simply titled ( (2011), used ratchet straps to bend a sheet of glass into a shallow arc, its curve supplying enough stability for the sheet to stand precariously upright. Attending to this work – a combination of ubiquitous building materials and a delicate formal solution – made me suddenly more alive to the nature of materials. The tension, poise and spareness of this piece approached something of the charge of Tatlin’s revolutionary experiments, which Catalan’s more spectacular installation at LCGA failed to achieve.

Art’s proximity to political activism was perhaps closest in Zanny Begg and Oliver Resler’s satisfyingly outraged film, The Bull Laid Bare (2012). Effective as a mode of consciousness-raising, its formal innovations were enlisted in the service of reinforcing the exposure of the psychopathic logic of corporate capitalism, and its devastating effects on the Irish economy. In comparison, Sarah Pierce’s It’s Time Man, It Feels Imminent (2008) was much more sober and reflexive, seemingly driven less by an agitational agenda and more by an interest in interrogating the relationship of Conceptual Art to contemporaneous moments of popular political protest. While Pierce’s project felt rather knowing and careful, her interview with Mary Kelly, in which the latter remarks upon the replacement of the slogan, ‘Make love not war’ by the blunter imperative to ‘Stop the war, have sex!’ rivets us to the texture of language and its importance for activist protest.

For me, however, the most potent artwork in the biennial was the haunting, enlivening slide piece by KwieKulik, Activities with Dobromierz (1972-4). Here the long-marginalized experimental Polish artists Przemysław Kwiek and Zofia Kulik took nearly 900 photographs in which their own infant son appears positioned alongside various everyday household and natural objects. The means are very modest (a baby, a blanket, some onions, some ice, a bucket, etc.), and the spatial and relational propositions very systematic (the artists were reading the linguistic theory of Adam Weinsberg); but the visual, psychological and conceptual effects of seeing this baby uncannily made over into something like a lexical unit were both unsettling and somehow visionary. The rigours of logic, set theory and linguistic typology are held up against the affective dynamics of family life and the crystalline beauty of natural fragments. Dobromierz returns the viewer’s gaze, but blankly, as he is taken up in the ambitious (and sometimes disturbing) experimental games of his parents, who were forced to explore the universal in private, excluded as they were from the public sphere by a cruelly bureaucratic and repressive state apparatus.

The preponderance of lengthy video pieces in Fletcher’s show might have seemed odd, given Berardi’s emphasis on the importance of taking control of one’s own experience of time. The open temporality of the sculptural pieces, however, made up for the absence of painting in this regard, and the predominance of the projected image also leant the installation a presentational coherence. Characterised by aesthetic conviction and ethical commitment, the best moments of the biennial offered encounters that were both arresting and galvanizing. At these points, contemporary art’s ability to maintain contact with broader social and political dynamics was affirmed, without it becoming a mere instrument of other kinds of project.

eva International – After the Future was on view 19 May – 12 August 2012.