Paper Visual Art
Sarah Kelleher reviews Still (the) Barbarians in Paper Visual Art No.7.
The most recent instalment of EVA International, Still (the) Barbarians, was by turns didactic, exhilarating, and exhausting – it was also an inescapably political animal. The centenary year in Ireland has provoked much reflection on our recent fraught history, and a renewed appreciation for the progressive social values inscribed in the proclamation of 1916. However, as Koyo Kouoh suggests in her curatorial statement, in focusing our collective attention on that pivotal moment and its aftermath, perhaps less consideration has been afforded to the lasting effects of colonisation. Kouoh’s selection for EVA 2016 set out to explore how violent colonial histories play out in contemporary moments, and further, to explore the parallels between Ireland – ‘the foremost colonial laboratory of the British enterprise’ – and global postcolonial experience . But perhaps the most significant – and indeed provocative – claim raised by Still (the) Barbarians regards the relative absence of postcolonial discourse in Ireland.
I feel here that Kouoh’s assessment is a bit broad-brush and that things are not as quiescent as she claims. Of course, postcolonial discourse does exist – primarily in Irish studies, and in academic disciplines of history and literature – and has done since the 1980’s although admittedly it is less pronounced or visible outside the academy. Neither does her enquiry consider the web of social and political institutions such as the GAA or Sinn Fein, or the rich ecology of visual and popular culture (from cinema and postcards to 1980s punk) that variously contest Irish identity and Irish attitudes towards republicanism and the United Kingdom. From this perspective, Kouoh’s argument seems narrowly theoretical, failing to attend to the ways in which postcolonialism is still operative in the broader national culture. That said, her observation does provide some food for thought. For example, does our ‘mixed’ position as a nation in relation to imperialism, our role in collusion and subjugation, make postcolonialism an uncomfortable proposition? Equally, have the rapid transformations experienced during the Celtic Tiger exacerbated a tendency towards cultural amnesia, making it easier to elide our troubled history and position within the political geography of Europe in favour of an assumed identity as the cosmopolitan citizens of a post-colonial age? The fact remains that Ireland is a postcolonial nation. And as is argued within the postcolonial studies, the affects of colonial rule do not suddenly cease upon the moment of emancipation.
Kouoh’s curatorial argument raises complex, multifaceted issues. Ultimately, however, these are the issues with which the participating artists largely failed to engage. The contributions of Irish artists, for example, could be broadly characterised by their preoccupation with the lost promises of the Rising, rather than a concern with the temporal, spatial, or linguistic effects of imperialism, colonialism, or postcolonialism. (An exception to this was John Waid’s fascinating 2016 work 909,125 minutes later, an unrealised proposal to delay the Angelus, reflecting that Ireland used to have its own time zone, changed in 1916 by English parliamentary decree by twenty-five minutes and twenty-one seconds.) Nonetheless, this spawling show, which included a roaming ice cream van (Deidre Power and Softday’s Nice Screams – A Citizen’s Anthem) and a weekly spoken word film screening in a pub (Liam Gillick’s And Then... at Mother Macs) contained much that was playful and compelling. It was also successful in mobilising both the traditional arts venues, such as Limerick City Gallery and the Hunt Museum, as well as some fascinating slack spaces across Limerick city, from Cleeve’s Condensed Milk Factoy to the Sailor’s Home on O’Curry Street.
The title Still (the) Barbarians refers to the Greek writer C.P.Cavafy’s poem, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, written in 1898, which depicts the inhabitants of an unnamed city-state awaiting the arrival of the ‘barbarians’ – the perennial, politically useful yet amorphous ‘other’ against which we define ourselves. In this context, Alice Maher’s reworked Cassandra’s Necklace (originally commissioned for her 2012 IMMA retrospective) takes on a new, rich significance. A soundtrack has been added to the film: a script by Anne Enright, allowing us to hear Cassandra’s voice, the voice of an outsider, doubly estranged and displaced. In the catalogue notes, Maher asserts that this is a gesture towards recouping the silenced voices of women who were instrumental in the Rising. Alan Phelan’s film work, Casement (2016) explores Roger Casement’s investigations into human-rights abuses in Belgian-occupied Congo, while simultaneously calling attention to the contrast between the ideals inscribed in the proclamation and the antithetical militarism of 1916 commemorations past. Amanda Rice’s mesmerically paced film, The Site Where a Future Never Took Place (2015, lingers on intricate textures of rot and damp, and the rich sediments of rubbish in a derelict factory. The piece unearths an episode from the 1930s when Irish trade delegates, keen to encourage economic development in the newly independent state, invited a small number of Jewish textile manufacturers to move their businesses here and granted them exile. Rice’s film is marked by a lingering sense of entropy, the sourness of abandoned plans, and the weight of failure – a potent allegory of Ireland’s self-interested and limited refugee policy.
Melancholy, disintegration, and the reservation of fragments were recurring themes across the exhibition. Elsewhere in the city, Michael Joo re-inhabited the skeletal Sailor’s Home, installing objects dredged from the grounds of this eighteenth-century ruin and floating the interior wooden window surrounds away from the walls as if the building was slowly atomising. Upstairs, there was a projection of a gaunt Buddha, like a death’s head, while in the rooms below relics were carefully arrayed: massive links of chain, a lump of rough concrete seeded with grasses, a ship’s rope velvet with moss, sections of ancient timber like rotten teeth. Joo conceived of this building as a body, and his precisely judged installation momentarily preserved its desiccated remains. This beautiful striped wreckage...(which we interrogate) (2016) celebrated not only the melancholy poetics of decay but preserved a complex and enigmatic history of displaced objects. In King John’s Castle, Vo Tran Chau’s Water-image (2015), pieced together a ceremonial gown from the shirts belonging to the present-day descendants of Nguyen dynasty. The banal, mass-produced plaid and check fabrics effectively conjured the contrast between the imperial past and frugal present, weaving a history from personal remnants.
For the most part, though, Still (the) Barbarians was massively film heavy, which brought its own set of practical problems, such as noise bleed and waning attention spans. The succession of screen after screen quickly became numbing. More pressingly, even visiting the show over three days, it simply didn’t feel possible to give each work the attention it deserved. Take Kader Attia’s, Reason’s Oxymoron (2015), for example an eighteen channel video installation featuring interviews with philosophers, ethnologists, musicologists, patients and healers. With its insight into how psychiatric pathology is understood in a smaller selection, but here it became lost in the clamour for the viewers attention. One can only spend so long sitting diligently before screens wearing headphones. This became especially frustrating with works such as Jonathan Cummins’s profoundly worthy trio of films, When I leave these landings (2004-9), Go Home (2013-13), and Out the Road (2012-16), each of which approached, or exceeded, two hours of viewing time. Again, their subject matter – the impact of militant ideological conviction on the self and family, explored through sustained conversation with anti – Good Friday agreement members of the IRA and their families – is hugely pertinent to the show’s larger themes, they were ill-served by their installation in Cleeve’s Condensed Milk Factory. It felt almost disrespectful to have to dip in and out of these important and moving testimonies.
As well as the bias towards film, there was also a preponderance of archival or documentary work featuring lots of talking heads or endless piles of photocopied text. Much of this work was didactic and the overwhelming and wearing and wearying impression was being told rather than being shown. One Out of Many Afrophilias (2014), for example, the Otolith Group’s installation at Ormston House, recuperated Transition Magazine, a periodical to postcolonial East African literature. The artists installed a reading room within the gallery where one could flick through photocopied facsimiles of each edition, while original copies of the magazine were arranged on shelves around the gallery. The subject matter might be interesting but the bald representation or archival material was dry and affectless; there was nothing presented here that could not be gleaned from browsing through the magazine’s website. Conversely, on the first-floor gallery at the Limerick City Gallery of Art, Samuel Erenberg’s inert ranks of black canvases marked only with place names and dates defied comprehension without referring to the catalogue. Erenberg’s mementos (2010) mark historical events such as the US military interventions and the history of labour unions, but the potential complexity and richness of his research is rendered in such a drastically reduced medium as to remain totally opaque.
The most successful works spurred the viewer to curiosity, posing more questions than answers. Leung Chi Wo’s Untitled (Love for Sale) (2014) knits a complex plot of intriguingly serendipitous moments into a bifurcated sculptural installation. In the ‘porch’ of the warehouse stood a stack of newspapers; when a button was pressed in the main space, the stack collapsed, than resurrected itself with balletic grace. It was not possible to see the consequences of the button when pressed; similarily, standing by the stack of papers, you couldn’t see what had triggered the collapse. The moment Leung references – aspects of Chinese diaspora, the civil rights movement in the United Kingdom, and the 1996 IRA terrorist attack in Manchester – are intellectually absorbing and the visual impact of the work is thrilling.
Alfredo Jaar’s fantastical The Cloud (2015) hovered close to the ceiling in the depths of the Condensed Milk Factory. The effect was ominous rather than whimsical. If a cloud is a poetic metaphor for freedom, than this brooding mass, lividly lit from within, suggests a gathering storm. Jaar’s improbable phenomenon conjures the growing horror of mass migration into Europe and the burgeoning anti-immigrant sentiment in a more thought-provoking way than Mary Evan’s Thousands are Sailing (2016). Her golden silhouettes (in vein of Kara Walker) are beautifully executed, but ultimately derivative. In contrast, Jeremy Hutchison’s Fabrications (2013), an intriguingly lateral film and sculptural installation, attempts to understand and communicate the psychological stresses experienced by labourers in a Nablus denim plant working in the immediate sight line of an Israeli tank, its gun trained directly at the factory. Hutchison combines a fictional account of indigo mining in Palestine (extraction has, in this account, gradually bleached the blue land white) with a display of mutant, impossible jeans. The artist further commissioned the factory to manufacture jeans representing what it was like to make them at the factory – the results are by turns stunted, attenuated, and abortive.
Against this inventive, passionate work, Carsten Holler’s gnomic sound installation, One, Some, Many (2016), was particularly grating. In three different venues, piles of audio equipment and microphone stands gestured towards some kind of audience participation. Instead, however, the work merely offered the occasional bleat in response to key words – some, one, many. It was simultaneously glib and dull and made all the more frustrating by the (strange) curatorial decision not to label or identify any of the work, which meant that these affectless piles of tech simply failed to register.
James Elkin has argued against ‘the political efficaciousness, the political viability of most post-structural political art [...]. The publics of postmodern political art have been self-selecting: they already know the messages they receive’. One could argue that much of the work in Still (the) Barbarians was preaching to the choir; the centenary of the Rising has already been amply addressed by artists and institutions across the board. However, the manner in which Kouoh contextualised Ireland’s colonial past by couching it in a wider framework of international experience enjoined us to consider the role that Ireland’s colonial legacy still plays in relation to Irish culture and our national imaginary. Still (the) Barbarians was frustrating and fascinating in (maybe un)equal measure. However, the enduring value of the scope and scale of EVA International is that it introduces new perspectives, relates unfamiliar narratives, and reveals unexpected parallels. At its best this iteration compelled us to better understand what our still-contested past might mean for our present.
By Sarah Kelleher