Without the bravado and profile of a national biennial of contemporary art, the Exhibition of Visual Art (EV+A) in Limerick has been Ireland’s best kept secret for twenty-three years.
It began as an artist-run open submission for emerging and established Irish artists. Soon distinguished adjudicators including Pierre Restany, Peter Fuller, Rudi Fuchs and Germano Celant were asked to select the works for the annual exhibition at the Limerick City Gallery of Art (LCGA).
By 1994, the exhibition had outgrown the gallery and started to leak out into other venues in the city. That year, EV+A first staked a claim for itself on the international circuit by inviting the adjudicator, Jan Hoet, director of the Stedelijk Museum in Ghent, to select works by international contemporary artists for a separate Invited EV+A, in addition to the open submissions. Hoet’s choice of artists included Bruce Nauman, Jessica Diamond, Wim Delvoye and Dan Graham, and he transformed the city with sculptures in shops and pubs, and open-air works on a scale unprecedented in Limerick.
Since then, the biennial invited section of EV+A has placed the onus on bringing surprising and challenging contemporary art to Limerick.
This year’s EV+A has been adjudicated and curated by Rosa Martínez, one of a crop of independent curators not tied to institutions, who seem to spend their lives on trans-Atlantic flights or Eurostar trains. As a consequence of this peripatetic existence, the artists Ms Martínez has chosen seem to come from everywhere and yet nowhere in particular. Chinese, American, Swiss, Swedish, Palestinian, Brazilian, Egyptian, Spanish, Cuban, Slovenian, Greek, Turkish and West Indian artists rub shoulders with the twenty Irish artists selected from the open submissions. Her title for the exhibition, “Friends and neighbours” neatly encompasses the juxtaposition of local talent with these far-flung practitioners of contemporary art, many of whom Martínez employed for her last major curatorial outing at the Santa Fe biennial, “Looking for a Place”, last year.
Much of EV+A has been made possible thanks to the efforts of friends and neighbours (even the committee members that preside over EV+A are all volunteers). Xu Bing, a performance artist from China, staged his “Case study of transference” where two pigs, one printed in Chinese characters and the other in letters from the Western alphabet, were coaxed into an East-meets-West sexual encounter, although the pigs, actually on loan from a local Limerick farmer, were not caught in flagrante on this occasion. One friendly neighbour also supplied his unfurnished house, located opposite the LCGA, as an exhibition space. I wonder if he approves of the video installation by Greek newcomer, Nikos Navridis, of a naked man caressing a human-sized balloon and a nude woman wrestling with a seemingly indestructible transparent balloon on the walls of his bedroom?
As demonstrated in the biennials of Instanbul in 1997 and Santa Fe in 1999, the space provided by museums is never adequate for Martínez. She has used many other weird and wonderful locations throughout Limerick including a local pub, a dental surgery, a car park and a church. These unexpected encounters are important to her curatorial ethos as she explains: “The best contemporary art attempts to construct a dialogue with the spectator; artists no longer propose eternal truths, but ephemeral events, personal visions and processes based on experience.”
Every year the adjudicator gives awards for the best open submissions. Martínez picked four women artists from Ireland, each receiving a prize of £1,000 and a one-person show at the LCGA.
EV+A is not only a stepping stone for Irish artists, but has been a respected career-move for curators such as Lars Nittve, Maria de Corral, Guy Tortosa and now Martínez. But it still has drawbacks. It suffers from its dual existence; it is essentially an open exhibition which attracts artists from Ireland, yet every other year there is the added frisson of international input. The favouritism of some foreign curators can also arouse resentment, with many respected Irish artists refusing to submit for fear of rejection. This duality and lack of consistency year after year creates jealousies and tensions among some participating artists.
Despite this, the prospects for future editions of EV+A are good. The Irish Arts Council are urging EV+A to promote itself internationally and run it as a business, not just an exhibition. Paul O’Reilly, the director and curator of LCGA, is hopeful that Harald Szeeman, who was too busy with the Venice Biennale to commit this year, will curate the next Invited EV+A in 2002.
EV+A is an ambitious biennial of contemporary art but the organisers are grounded by a history of having to do things for themselves. It lacks the slickness of major international shows, but that never was the point. Without teams of curators, or hoardes of technicians and assistants, EV+A still manages to be a relevant and provocative show of contemporary art.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Exhibition of Visual Art (EV+A), Limerick'