A History of Stone, Origin and Myth (2016), Tom Flanagan and Megs Morley, Photo courtesy of Tom Flanagan and Megs Morley
‘I grew up with that border and I wouldn’t want it back again...’ intones the septuagenarian taxi driver taking me from Shannon Airport to Limerick. He is speaking of the boundary separating British-governed Ulster in the north from the Republic of Ireland, which since 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, abolished border controls, symbolically softening an 800 year-long conflict. Now, in the aftermath of June’s referendum, the border’s return seems inevitable: a clear indicator of the disruption to the Irish peace process resulting from Brexit.
I am visiting EVA Interantional, Ireland’s biennale of contemporary art, coinciding this year with the centenary of 1916 Easter Rising, a calamitous event, which definitively swung popular opinion against the British Administration leading to the War of Independence and the constitutional division of the country.
This edition of EVA has been selected by Senegalese curator Koyo Kouoh who, following fellow African curator Okwui Enwezor, has set out to advance debate around the idea of the postcolony through contemporary art. Here she presents work by fifty-seven international artists whose focus on subjects ranges from diaspora, migration and racism, to ethno-sectarianism and nationalism, and which positions Irish experience in a comprehensively global context.
The contextualisation of representations of conflict in contemporary art within a narrative of colonial process parallels my own research into commissioning, collecting and exhibiting art at the IWM in the period since 1968. This was the year when Irish civil rights activists in Derry marched in protest against discriminatory British policy. The resulting ‘Troubles’ provided the impetus for the IWM’s creation of the Artistic Record Committee (ARC) in 1972 and the commissioning of the figurative painter and Royal Academician Ken Howard, who travelled to Northern Ireland the same year to produce an artistic record of the British Army’s activities there.
The global protests of 1968 gave impetus to the idea that art can operate as a highly effective means through which to analyse and oppose power. Over the ensuing decades, this led to the emergence of the contemporary art biennale as a platform for critical investigation into the narratives of colonial conflict in which, as Kouoh puts it, ‘art operates as a thinking system of its own.’ Kouoh’s achievement with this edition of EVA is to place artists from the original British colony in dialogue with those from former colonial territories — Palestine, Bangladesh, Ghana, Nigeria, Singapore and Hong Kong — setting this in a wider global discourse which incorporates voices from the Philippines, Viet Nam, Korea and Chile. Simultaneously the legacy of Irish Independence is interrogated in incisive work by a generation of artists born during the Troubles: Tom Flanagan and Megs Morley for instance, whose excellent film essay A History of Stone, Origin and Myth (2016), connects the metaphor of the body politic to commemorative monuments that personify Ireland as a grieving woman - thus accusingly signalling ‘the shackling of women’s bodies to the nation state.’
Leopoldville, Alan Phelan, Photo Courtesy of the Artist and EVA International
Elsewhere Alan Phelan’s Leopoldville (2016), conflates human rights abuses perpetrated in the Belgian Congo at the turn of the last century (and investigated by the Irishman Roger Casement), with the subjugation of Irish women, ‘the single greatest failure of the project of an independent and egalitarian Ireland’.
Murmuration, Criodhna Costello, Image Courtesy of the Artist and EVA International
The biennale title is borrowed from Constantine Cavafy’s 1898 poem ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ which as Kouoh explains ‘evokes the idea of a foreign threat that never quite materializes but drives political policy, militarization and fear-mongering.’ In this context Criodhna Costello’s Murmuration (2014) offers a timely analogy, not just between the effects of diaspora, illustrated in the image of migratory starlings from continental Europe joining Irish resident birds in the ‘mumuration’ of the title, an aerial performance to confuse and detract predators. But also, in the continuously looping form of the 20-minute shot, an invocation of a history destined to repeat itself. For more information about EVA International see: http://www.eva.ie/