Identity crisis

United States of Europe exhibition explores notions of citizenship and the freedom of expression, says Tina Darb O’Sullivan

Identity crisis

UNITED States of Europe (USE) is a touring exhibition of work by 15 leading European artists. It explores citizenship, freedom of expression, democracy and identity. Initiated by the Goethe Institute Paris, the exhibition is presented in Cork by Cork Civic Trust, The National Sculpture Factory and Crawford Art Gallery.

Crawford curator Dawn Williams has given Irish artists a bigger focus in this stage of the tour. She cites Kennedy Browne’s 2010 piece ‘How Capital Moves’, a video made partly in reaction to the Dell computer factory moving operations from Limerick to Lodz in 2009. The work ask why capitalist organisations are unconcerned by the impact their decisions have on their employees. “I think it’s a key work in the exhibition,” says Williams. “They’re obviously talking about the many nationalities of the telesales workers.”

Anna Konik is a Polish artist who undertook a residency with the National Sculpture Factory, in Cork, in 2006. That year she shot the poetic film, Our Lady Forever, in the former Our Lady’s psychiatric hospital. Her inspiration was a play given to her by a young man suffering from schizophrenia. His theme was turning into the person you love. Konik’s film portrays a couple endlessly searching for each other.

Konik has seven videos in USE, running concurrently on seven monitors. Says Williams: “She is quite a nomadic artist, and she has quite a deep relationship with people who are marginalised in society. People who don’t quite fit in — there’s a beautiful reflection of a Russian woman in one film.”

John X Miller, of Cork Civic Trust, was the first point of contact in Ireland for the USE project. “It has been two and a half years in the making, since the Goethe-Institute Paris first contacted me,” he says. “It’s probably a direct legacy of Cork Capital of Culture, because I was involved in a project involving ten European countries in 2005 and that’s how they came to me.”

The exhibition is on two floors in the Crawford, and in the Atrium in Cork City Hall. It is timely: the Cultural Connects Programme of Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union is on this year.

“The space requirements are huge,” says Miller. “A minimum of 800 square metres. Given the subject matter and the style of the exhibition, and the various types of art and artists that are involved, I don’t think it could have happened without the involvement of the Sculpture Factory and the Crawford Art Gallery.”

USE artists spoke last weekend at a two-day symposium, ‘Dreams of Freedom? Conversations on Aesthetics, Ethics and European Democracies’. The NSF took the lead in putting this symposium together. “We had speakers from different vantage points, from Greece, from Northern Ireland,” says Mary McCarthy, director of the NSF. “I think something can happen at a discussion like this that arts organisations, either collectively or individually, may want to take up again. It’s a very pertinent discussion that’s happening in Europe at the minute: what’s the space for debate and can the cultural community in any way inform or impact, or try to speculate, or suggest different ways of doing things? We feel the space for debate is contracting. We’ve seen it directly at a European level. Right-wing governments are really destroying arts organisations, especially in Holland, and a bit in Britain, though less so here. But, as a sector, we find the space for dialogue has shrunk hugely in the last two years; both physically, in the public space, and intellectually. Artists have no way to impact on political discussions. It’s a very one-dimensional debate so far, it’s been very much about the economy, it’s a very kind of capitalist discussion.”

The exhibition and symposium have the same concerns. European citizens are impacted by decisions in Brussels and control is centralised. Citizens identify with their nationality, not as citizens of the EU. The USE challenges this united European citizenship concept.

“The questions they throw up are, ‘how do we fit into Europe?’. or even, ‘do we fit into Europe?’. Or ‘how does one, as an individual, feel about being European? Is it even pertinent to your day-to-day existence?’,” says Williams. “So the artist will pick up on many of these strands. Some deal very directly with the subject, like Artur Zmijewski, who is very political. His ten-piece installation on the second floor shows films that are part of a bigger body of work. They’re all filmed at public meetings of groups like the Orange Order parade, in Belfast, or the Polish National Front. How does one individual mix? How does the individual become the group? And what happens when the individual becomes the group in a local and European context? USE is ... very, very pertinent.”

*United States of Europe runs until Saturday, Mar 30, in Crawford Art Gallery and Cork City Hall

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