Diversity of talent and approach


BOLSTERED by a number of invited overseas artists (as it was two years ago) EV+A 96 certainly is true to the out look of this year's one man judge and jury, the adjudicator Guy Tortosa.

Monsieur Tortosa apparently has been a key figure in the decentralisation of French art carried out in the 1980s, when it was finally decided that Paris couldn't have everything and that the provincial centres should also have their place in the sun. He is on record as saying, in effect, that people visiting the exhibition should go and look for the art included, and he has been as good as his word. (His eloquence, by the way, is considerable, and sustained at the opening ceremony, he spoke fluently for about an hour).

There are a large number of venues as a result, some of them quite far apart though that in itself is not new, and since many of the exhibits are large, complex installations or conceptual works, the City Art Gallery could only hold so much anyway. Works are mounted in the City Hall, various offices, in the Dolmen Gallery, in King John's Castle, in all sorts of once off venues including pubs, shops, kiosks, and on the side of buildings. There is even an exhibit in Shannon Airport, which I did not manage to see photographs by an invited English artist, Martin Parr. Neither did see Ilya Kabakov's Toilets which was to be mounted on Barrington's Pier but was not then, apparently, ready yet for viewing.

Monsieur Tortosa apart from decentralisation, also believes strongly in bringing art to the people. Again, this has been a policy in EV+A for some years since the exhibition is closely tied in with civic renewal and other laudable projects but it is a burning issue at the moment so much so in tact, that it is easy to char one's fingers on it. For some, time there has been a growing body of opinion which maintains that the private collector has held the reins too long that art should not be elitist or a privilege of the monied classes and that the artist should reach out to a wider public.

There is not new, of course is probably as old as Periclean Athens, if not older. The 19th century was acutely aware of it (at that time, of course, the gallery and dealer system had not yet taken over) and tried to achieve a genuine popular art through public statuary, mural painting, great public buildings including museums, the periodic organisation of massive international exhibitions. The late 20th century is tackling it in different ways but the bridge still seems to grow wider rather than to shorten.

A review is not the place to discuss all this at length it must be said, however, that in this field, many contemporary artists do not help their case. They may genuinely want to reach out to a wider public but the modern art college too often trains them to play intellectual games, to engage in coterie strategies, to cut a figure for the fashionable art magazines and, above all, to indulge in jargon and art speak instead of shaping real visual sensibility. And a number of EV+A exhibitors do seem to share this trend. However...

There is relatively little painting or sculpture in the traditional sense, which at least has the merit of giving the exhibition a consistent character in a strictly topical way. A mix of the two, as has been shown in the past, is generally confusing and sometimes a failure. And with Christian Boltanski, Braco Dimitrijevic, James Coleman and a list of other international names, there is quite an impressive line up even if I have seen better works by most of them in the past. The Dolmen Gallery in particular mounts a strong core of characterful exhibits though I was rather disappointed in the entries of Kathy Prendergast and Alice Maher.

Video art and photography are strong this year and account for several of the most interesting exhibits. And the audio visual installation by Michael Minnis in the City Hall is inventive and arresting.

Slattery's Pub shows an installation by Thomas Hirschhorn (Swiss) called Rugby Scarves which is just that with the addition of great artists names stuck on Malevich, Leger, Mondrian, etc, making the whole thing colourful and good humoured. Another site specific" piece is in Rene Cusack's fish shop where Thierry Fontaine (France) has joined in the mood with a witty and relevant installation on the theme of fish and marine matters generally. And in the People's Park, Bertrand Lavier (France) has the words "Lovely Day" picked out in spring flowers. None of these three pieces is at all portentous or heavyweight, all contain a vital spark of humour and, in their various ways, all of them work.

Another Frenchman, Alain Bernardini, uses the abandoned kiosk just outside the park for a photographic installation which fits in very neatly but then, the kiosk itself, with its period ads, in itself is a collector's item.

I was also intrigued by Hilary Gilligan's imaginative Deceptive Surfaces, a bed on which changing video images are cast against a darkened background, giving a real sense of strangeness and mystery. In contrast, Abigail O'Brien's elaborate Last Supper, in the City Art Gallery, is rather a strained conceit, though cleverly conceived and well carried out. Tania Mouraud's paper installations, in effect quasi geometrical coloured pieces stuck over one another like wallpaper and each carrying lettering, can be seen in several locations and are always apt for the site as well as reasonably eye catching (the one on the quays, apparently utilises names of ships).

In spite of its public role, EV+A is in ways almost a specialised exhibition, working along certain lines and to a visible, though not over obvious agenda or programme. Not that the artists themselves have had to learn their parts but nevertheless their styles fit into a certain overall context however hazily defined that may be or however broad its brief. In short, to an extent you may know what to expect and what not to expect but that still allows for a diversity of talent and approaches some of them well off the beaten track.