The art of power
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