The material consequences

 

Her background as an architect interested in the post-boom Limerick landscape informs the choices curator Elizabeth Hatz has made for a fascinating mix of shows at this year’s EV+A, writes AIDAN DUNNE

EV+A IS IRELAND’S foremost annual international exhibition of contemporary art. It is selected from open submission and, every other year, the guest curator is also asked to invite artists to participate. This is one of those years, and the curator is Elizabeth Hatz. It is, she says, the first time she’s ever taken on something like this, but when she got the phone call she didn’t even pause before saying yes. It seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. So it was that she found herself going through more than 600 submissions late last November and wondering if she’d bitten off more than she could chew.

In fact, she’s clearly thrown herself into the project with a passion. One of the refreshing things about this EV+A, titled Matters, is that it is wide-ranging, eclectic and full of surprises. The show inevitably takes its character from the curator, but usually the curator is an art-world professional and often the resulting selection can come across as a checklist of current art-world trends. Not so with Hatz. One feels that everything she’s chosen is there out of personal conviction on her part.

What about that ambiguous title though? “I meant Mattersin the widest sense,” she says. “What matters in the sense of urgency and importance, but also matter, physically, how we deal with the material world. There is this myth that with the internet and so on, modern life is less and less material, but we would be mistaken to ignore the material. Even our thoughts have a physical form.”

She is a fast talker and a fast mover, lightly built and energetic. Her grasp of the detail of a show that involves close on 60 artists and 11 venues is impressive.

An architect and a teacher, Hatz is Swedish. Unusually, she divides her time between Stockholm, where she is professor of architecture at the Royal Institute of Technology, and Limerick, where she has taught at Saul, the School of Architecture at the University of Limerick, since its inception in 2005. It has to be a demanding lifestyle, but she seems to take it in her stride. You realise pretty quickly that she is one of those people for whom the essence of a profession lies not within its own carefully policed academic borders, but in a broad, humanistic grasp of its cultural history, meanings and possibilities.

HER FAMILY BACKGROUND– her father being a painter and her mother an archaeologist – certainly contributed to this breadth of vision. Her sister, she mentions, is also a painter. Time and again she emphasises that artistic activity not only happens within a social and cultural context but has a role in defining and shaping it, and a duty towards it.

Last year, with her students in Limerick, she set about a project of mapping the city, building up photographic documentation of how it is now, post-Celtic Tiger. She is particularly exercised about planning, she says, because it’s more important than ever, and there is much in the historical fabric of Limerick that she feels is so good. “You can’t just put a building or a development somewhere without consequences. It has an effect on everything around it, it changes things. I love Wittgenstein’s observation that gradually you learn that what’s important in life is not what you achieve but what you manage to refrain from achieving. Every planner should have that in front of them all the time.”

One of the first things she came across when she started looking at the work were David Lilburn’s two large-scale, panoramic prints. “I was delighted, they were exactly what I was looking for,” she says.

Lilburn, who is based in Limerick, makes map-like drawings and prints that detail personal experience of the landscape, in this case the urban landscape of boom and bust in Ireland. Just as Dublin has the shell of Anglo-Irish headquarters in Docklands as a spectral monument to the Celtic Tiger, Limerick has its own stalled Ozymandian development, the Parkway Retail Park, on the outskirts of town, a vast fortress of raw concrete with a scaffolding of cranes looming overhead. That startling landscape is Lilburn’s subject.

EV+A’s main venue is an as yet unoccupied new block right in the centre of the city, the Thomas Street Centre. The views of the city from the several storeys of the building are tremendous and varied.

It’s a great, capacious exhibition space. Not yet equipped with finishes and fittings, it has its own rough character, but Hatz has worked well with that character rather than trying to disguise it – Peter Carroll’s Pig Slat Benches, for example, are within sight of what used to be a huge slaughterhouse. On the same floor is John Gerard’s eerie video, Grow Finish Unit( near Elkhart, Kansas), which offers a chilling view of a factory-farming plant for pigs that seems utterly remote from any connection with the natural world.

“If there’s one piece more than any other that summaries this EV+A for me,” Hatz says, “it is Liu Wei’s video installation, Hopeless Land.” This is a large-scale projection on which we see hoards of people sifting through mounds of material on what looks like – and is – a giant rubbish tip. “They are farmers who have been displaced from their land to enable development around Beijing. They have nothing, and they have to search through the rubbish to try to find something useful, something they can sell or do anything with.”

The wretched plight of the farmers, caught in a terrible cycle of chasing fresh deliveries of rubbish through a smoky, polluted, blighted landscape, is a stark indictment of “progress”.

IT WOULD BEquite wrong to see Hatz’s EV+A as uniformly pessimistic and downbeat though. On the contrary, it is generally positive in tone. She clearly has a liking for creative individuals who are unorthodox, slightly outside the mainstream. There’s John Pickering, a classically trained sculptor and stone carver, who has devoted his life to the exploration of complex spatial geometries, manifested in a group of extraordinarily intricate architectonic structures on view at the Limerick School of Art and Design (LSAD) Gallery.

There you can also see, and indeed use, Shin Egashira’s Urban Toys, elaborate constructions that resemble gym machines as they might be designed by Leonardo da Vinci.

The work at the Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT) George’s Quay campus makes a great show in itself, notably including Tom Fitzgerald’s ingenious reworkings of sea-worn, washed-up plastic fragments and Staffan Nihlén’s room of stone sculptures, several of which are carved in local limestone. Nihlén is a perfect example of Wittgenstein’s principle of restraint. He takes a piece of stone, looks at it and thinks about it, and then tactfully, minimally shapes it (his piece in St Mary’s Cathedral is well worth a visit), scarcely interfering with its form.

In a not dissimilar vein, another fine sculptural guest, in the Thomas Street Centre, is Swiss artist Hans Josephsohn, whose figurative pieces have a beautiful, meditative density.

Irish artists have not been neglected. Among those who stand out are Michael Kane, Simon English, Christopher Roland Mahon and Oonagh O’Brien (a terrific video, Owl). Hatz does not have a hang-up about media – old and new feature throughout, including paintings, drawings, prints, video, photographs, sculptures, installations and audio.

The texture of the show is terrific, with every location offering a carefully considered, distinctive experience (such as Wang Ruobing’s installation in Limerick City Library, which employs, exclusively, library books). It more than lives up to Hatz’s priority in selection and placement: “I always had it in mind that what matters is the person’s encounter with the artwork, not who has done it. Start with the encounter. Then if we need to know who made it, fine, and if we really need to hear heavy theories about it, they can come later.”


EV+A 2010: Matters, curated by Elizabeth Hatz, is at the Thomas Street Centre, the LSAD Gallery, the LIT George’s Quay Campus, City Hall, the Hunt Museum, St Mary’s Cathedral, the Bourn Vincent Gallery, the University of Limerick and other venues until May 23