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Fifty artists, 17 venues: EVA International art extravaganza takes over Limerick

The 40th art biennial brings political vision to Limerick – and features a cafe as a unique work of art

Some people in the art world imply that they know everything – and that anyone they don’t know about isn’t worth knowing at all. Avoid them. There is always more to discover.

At the 40th EVA International, the biennial art extravaganza that sprawls across Limerick, the work of more than 50 artists is on show at 17 venues. These range from galleries to a cafe and a cathedral, from the city’s university to an office suite and shop windows. The art is equally diverse.

Find, for example, Clodagh Emoe’s Reflections on a City Lot, at the derelict “Fireplace” site on Nicholas Street. A huge print of urban weeds, it was made from plant dyes and will gently disintegrate in rough weather. A couple of doors down, Dian Severin Nguyen’s video, If Revolution Is a Sickness, is like an extended K-pop video – but one made by an artist, and overlaid with a subtitled voiceover of excerpts from a disparate bunch that includes Hannah Arendt, Mao Zedong and Ulrike Meinhof.

Matt Packer, the biennial’s director, and his team at EVA invite a guest curator to put together a theme and a roster of artists. This year Sebastian Cichocki has done the honours. Chief curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Cichocki was born in Upper Silesia, but his family come from a village close to the border with Ukraine. Given that geography, it is no surprise to find a thread of works by Ukrainian artists running through the exhibition. There are also themes of climate change, citizenship and activism – Cichocki emphasises the idea of “gleaning”, by which he means gathering and sharing the fruits, and the fruitful ideas and political movements of the Earth.


At EVA, this encompasses a cafe that has been turned into an artwork by Navine Dossos, who divides her time between the UK and Greece, and whose large-scale murals can also currently be seen in the courtyard at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, in Dublin.

There is a huge and fabulous tapestry by the Polish artist Goshka Macuga, and a selection of drawings by Joydeb Roaja, from Bangladesh, which have echoes in John Gerrard’s more recent Leaf Work, commissioned by Galway International Arts Festival in 2020 for Derrigimlagh bog, in Connemara.

That’s the intriguing thing about discovering artworks that are brand new to you: they can seem both excitingly different and hauntingly familiar. This may be because the concerns occupying artists are pretty universal these days.

The war in Ukraine has brought some strands into sharper focus. The My-Musical Collective and Pidsoma Shelter are a Ukrainian artist-led group whose actions include throwing parties as a means of survival and, via the Lviv Kitchen initiative, sending vegan food to the frontline for those whose life choices before the war extended to a conscious decision not to cause harm or suffering. They are represented by a video at the Bourn Vincent Gallery; elsewhere at the university, films from the Freefilmers collective include an exploration of attitudes to gentrification in Mariupol, made in 2018, four years before the city was destroyed.

Seeing EVA in its entirety takes stamina, so the Grove cafe is a good spot to start. Dossos has redone the space, including murals, tables, cushions and a nice line in ceramic pieces. The wall paintings are bright, friendly fruit, nuts and herbs: all things that can be foraged around Limerick and its hinterlands. Descriptions under glass on the cafe tables are taken from a 19th-century guide; they include intriguing information about the seed contents of excavated cess pits and handy warnings about the occasional poisonous result.

The coffee is excellent and the cakes are amazing. So does it matter if people come into the cafe and don’t realise they’re sitting and sipping in an artwork? No, says Dossos, who hopes the piece will remain but has no control over what happens once EVA is over. There is talk of IMMA acquiring it, which raises interesting questions about ideas of ownership, as it would mean that they’d take an ownership of the artwork’s legacy, not that they’d come to own the cafe. It also nudges uncomfortably against our mania for ownership, even of intangible things, which reached its nadir with the ludicrous mania, now fortunately waning, for non-fungible tokens, aka NFTs.

Anyway, why is this mural art? It is a question that goes to the heart of this year’s EVA, where many works are actually the evidence, or legacies, of works from the past. A series of photographs and a video at the University of Limerick are documentation from Gordon Matta-Clark’s Food, a restaurant the late artist founded in SoHo in New York in the 1970s. The photographs are beautiful, almost like Dutch still-lifes from the Golden Age, although that’s not the point of them here. Also at the University of Limerick, this time at the Bourn Vincent, a line of black-and-white photographs, taken by Eustachy Kossakowski, show an “escapade” from the 1960s, where a group of Polish curators and critics went around the countryside stealing scarecrows, with the plan to show them at the Foksal Gallery.

What ties all these together is the thought that, while some artists make things that can be bought and sold, others are more occupied with exploring ways of thinking and being, even to the extent of living their lives as an expression of art. By this they mean living and working in a way that explores consequences, finds meaning and revalues what may otherwise appear meaningless or become forgotten.

That can feel like hard work, not only for the artist but also for the visitor to an exhibition. Some of what is on display is an artefact of a distant event, or an invitation to find out more about the thinking of the artist or artists behind the work. Cichocki has rightly dispensed with long didactic labels, which can often make you feel as if an exhibition is bludgeoning you with homework. But, while the essays in the free EVA guidebook are illuminating, the individual details don’t offer too much in terms of a way in. This means that, unless you’re exceptionally well read, well travelled or otherwise well versed, a great deal might sail over your head.

To Dossos that doesn’t matter very much. She believes that if you sit with ideas around you, some might soak in. It can feel exhausting when everything may be a metaphor in disguise, but that is where beauty can operate as a type of Trojan horse, luring us to pleasure while the ideas seep in. It is true that we don’t give as much time to visual art as we do to theatre and books, so wrapping it around yourself in a cafe replete with appetising snacks is a good tactic.

In some ways EVA offers too rich a mix. The more visual works draw the eye. Rachel Fallon and Alice Maher’s epic textile The Map (2021) hangs in its own space at the Coach House of the People’s Museum, which makes perfect sense, as you couldn’t look at anything else with that in the room. At Ormiston House, the late Janet Mullarney’s carved Domestic Gods figures (from 1997 and 1998) are still stunners, so it’s easy to overlook smaller insertions, and the decision to put large video screens on the floor without an obvious (or comfortable) spot to sit means you may well miss some gems.

This is particularly true at the Bourn Vincent Gallery, where Peter Nadin’s film The First Mark, made with Natsuko Uchino and Aimée Toledano in 2008, could easily be overlooked. By doing so you’d be missing out on the thought-provoking processes of an artist who left the art world at the height of his fame, and instead decided to “unlearn how to make art” while also farming.

At St Mary’s Cathedral, Kian Benson Bailes has two sculptures that look like brilliantly eerie praying mantises, or creepy beetles. Drawing on mythology, religious iconography and the artist’s own experience growing up gay in a rural environment, they are costumed in cloth, including some of the artist’s mother’s clothes, once borrowed for cross-dressing purposes. Beside these, rare photographs from Teresa Murak’s performances from the 1970s and 1980s get a little bit lost, and it is one spot where a different installation decision might have shone a better light on these fascinating glimpses into this artist’s work.

The layering of eras of art has the uncanny and occasionally dispiriting effect of making one realise that artists have been calling our attention to the issues embodied in this edition of EVA for decades, if not for centuries. Will it change anything? Cichoki says he is “trying to evacuate art from contemporary art, because contemporary art is an enclave of elitism and overproduction”. He has a point. On the other hand, the mainstream isn’t always the enemy.

At Limerick City Gallery of Art, EVA works mingle with pieces from the permanent collection. Initially it’s exciting to have a sense of infiltration and disruption – until you realise that the permanent collection is already self-disrupting with a really nice hang. Mary Swanzy sits with Diana Copperwhite, and Elizabeth Magill is there alongside Nano Reid, William Leech and Vera Klute.

Alongside Cichocki’s selection, another strand of EVA shows a series of commissions and partnership projects, some of which are one-off performances and screenings, and some of which are installations. Here, Bea McMahon’s installations at the Gardens International complex is particularly strong, as is Frank Sweeney’s with Michelle Malone. Not everything works. As the opening evening draws to a close, an art truth emerges: the performance space downstairs at the Commercial is full. Those upstairs are on edge with the sense of missing out on something significant. Those downstairs are wondering when it might eventually be okay to leave but not wanting to go, in case that moment comes. (It doesn’t.)

There used to be an idea that the story of art could be told in a neat line of cause and effect, and that every era has its handful of famous artists, from whom influence poured bountifully down. This is not so, and it never was. Art has always been diffuse, organic, slippery and hard to categorise. Fortunately, the idea of knowing and understanding everything has gone. So stop worrying about it, visit EVA, embrace the discoveries to be made, and don’t forget to stop for coffee.

EVA International is at venues around Limerick until Sunday, October 29th