The art of power

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Pre­view­ing Lim­er­ick’s 38th EVA In­ter­na­tional

When Inti Guer­rero, the cu­ra­tor of EVA In­ter­na­tional 2018, made an ex­ploratory visit to Lim­er­ick to get a sense of what kind of ex­hi­bi­tion he might make, he had a light-bulb mo­ment when he was in the Hunt Mu­seum. He saw Night’s Can­dles are Burnt Out, one of the paint­ings Seán Keat­ing made as of­fi­cial artist dur­ing the con­struc­tion of the Ard­nacrusha hy­dro­elec­tric power sta­tion, which be­gan in 1925. That mo­ment was the key to his ap­proach to mak­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion.

For the vast ma­jor­ity of EVA’s cu­ra­tors – a dif­fer­ent in­ter­na­tional fig­ure is in­vited to cu­rate each time – there’s a bal­ance to be struck be­tween their ex­ist­ing knowl­edge of the con­tem­po­rary art world, which is why they are in­vited in the first place, and ac­knowl­edg­ing the con­text: not just Ire­land, but Ire­land away from the cap­i­tal and to­wards the west.

That usu­ally en­tails a crash course in Ir­ish his­tory, culture and so­ci­ety. Guer­rero, who was born in Bo­gotá, Colom­bia and is only in his mid-30s, cer­tainly took that to heart. He has pro­duced an ex­hi­bi­tion that is heav­ily in­vested in Ire­land’s post-colo­nial re­cent past and con­tentious present, in­clud­ing Brexit anx­i­eties about the North-South bor­der, and the pend­ing ref­er­en­dum on re­peal­ing the Eight Amend­ment.

Night’s Can­dles are Burnt Out is a broad al­le­gory, in Keat­ing’s most the­atri­cal man­ner. In fact, he could be de­pict­ing a stage. As a back­drop, the mas­sive con­crete earth­works of the damn emerge from the land­scape. Across the fore­ground, an en­sem­ble of Ir­ish types is posed. They in­clude Ir­ish work­men, an en­ter­pris­ing cap­i­tal­ist men­aced by a gun­man, and a priest study­ing the bi­ble. The lat­ter, Keat­ing wrote: “rep­re­sents the un­chang­ing church ever present when spir­i­tual guid­ance is needed but con­cern­ing it­self only with a king­dom that is not of this world”.

Ard­nacrusha was im­por­tant both sym­bol­i­cally and prac­ti­cally, sig­nalling the fledg­ling state’s in­dus­trial and mod­ernising as­pi­ra­tions and pro­vid­ing most of the coun­try’s elec­tric­ity sup­ply. It was also a pre­lude to the mas­sive Ru­ral Elec­tri­fi­ca­tion Scheme, which fol­lowed in the lat­ter half of the 1940s and turned the lights on all over Ire­land. Guer­rero has put Keat­ing at the heart of EVA. More, art that ad­dresses the con­struc­tion of hy­dro­elec­tric dams in var­i­ous lo­ca­tions through­out the world, and the im­pact, sig­nif­i­cance and long-term ef­fects of such schemes, anchor Guer­rero’s en­tire project, which com­prises works by 56 artists from 28 coun­tries.

The cat­a­logue is not just an ac­com­pa­ni­ment to the ex­hi­bi­tion, it’s part of the ex­hi­bi­tion, and rather like a hefty mag­a­zine, with widely var­ied con­tent, in­clud­ing A Short His­tory of Dams and much else. It reprints, for ex­am­ple, Joan Did­ion’s es­say on dams from The White Al­bum.

She de­scribes how the Hoover Dam, a piv­otal ini­tia­tive for kick­start­ing the United States post-De­pres­sion, and the show­piece of the Boul­der Canyon project, im­printed it­self in­deli­bly on her mind: “The sev­eral mil­lion tons of con­crete that made the South­west plau­si­ble.” She notes the rather naive be­lief, in

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