Eimear Walshe on Representing Ireland at the 60th Venice Biennale

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to artists and curators exhibiting in and curating the various national pavilions of the 2024 Venice Biennale, the responses to which will be published daily in the leadup to and during the Venice Biennale, which runs from 20 April to 24 November.

Eimear Walshe is representing the Republic of Ireland; the pavilion is in the Arsenale.

Photo © Cáit Fahay. Courtesy Ireland at Venice

ArtReview What do you think of when you think of Venice?

Eimear Walshe Jumping off a bridge into a canal while visiting the 2013 edition of the biennale. The weather was warm, it was my first visit. I did not know the score.

AR What can you tell us about your exhibition plans for Venice?

EW The exhibition is called ROMANTIC IRELAND. It’s a multi-TV video installation, soundtracked by an opera, set into earth-built walls. The opera came about when the composer Amanda Feery invited me to write a libretto. Opera felt like a powerful format to write about the material legacy of colonialism and eviction in Ireland. This history, in Ireland and elsewhere, is one of generations who endured the extremes of terror, despair, dispossession, betrayal and ostracisation, as well as love, duty and dependance on the land, and on shelter and community. I wrote the libretto last July, and set the story in an eviction scene in the 1940s. An old man’s house is being demolished around him as he tries to die. He laments the indignity of his death, and describes his relationship with the materials of his house – the man and the house kept each other standing. The video and sculpture, each concerned with building and ruination, are in a sort of ‘before and after’ temporal relation with the opera.

AR Why is the Venice Biennale still important, if at all? And what is the importance of showing there? Is it about visibility, inclusion, acknowledgment?

EW The inherited format of the biennale reflects a kind of geopolitical lunacy – reifying national borders, centring imperial power. Artists and curators must contend with this, because we know it doesn’t reflect reality. It underestimates international affinities and solidarities, the movement of people and ideas, collaborations across borders. This is what creates any place’s culture. Going back decades, some of Ireland’s favourite Irish dances are from France, most of my favourite traditional songs sung in Ireland are Scottish, you know what I mean? But this issue becomes more acute when you account for the influence that Italian and European politics has on the Biennale format: Italy recognises Ireland as a nation, so we can have a pavilion; Italy doesn’t recognise Palestine, so it has no national pavilion. Artists + Allies x Hebron will participate in the collateral events, and the curator has included Palestinian artists in the Central Pavilion. This is how we get to hear from Palestine in this international conversation, despite the enormous and violent structural barriers. But claims of inclusion or acknowledgement can’t be made with things as they are. That’s why it’s imperative for me that artists and curators engage with the internationalism of the biennale but assert a break with the ‘world fair’ format.

AR When you make artworks do you have a specific audience in mind?

EW I think about my friends, they are my inspiration and critical community. And I think about people I don’t know, their struggle, and how my work might be a friend to them.

Eimear Walshe, ROMANTIC IRELAND, 2023, production still. Photo: Faolán Carey

AR Do you think there is such a thing as national art? Or is all art universal? Is there something that defines your nation’s artistic traditions? And what is misunderstood or forgotten about your nation’s art history?

EW The nation is a very arbitrary category for breaking things down. Of course there are regionally specific concerns and sensibilities, but that goes right down to a village level, never mind the nation. I think things get interesting when you see the links across places in the most localised way. I’m so moved by, and find so much insight in works like this.

AR If someone were to visit your nation, what three things would you recommend they see or read in order to understand it better?

EW I think the late nineteenth-century land war history is the most essential to understanding Ireland now. Listen to the Maamtrasna Murders episode of the Irish History Podcast by Fin Dwyer to learn about how language suppression interacted with the colonial legal system. Then listen to Irish Traveller singer Thomas McCarthy’s recording of Moyasta Shore. There’s references in it to resisting the laws of Arthur Balfour, of the Balfour Declaration, who also extended the Coercion Acts in Ireland. Finally I would recommend reading THE LAND FOR THE PEOPLE, by me, if you can ever find a copy.

AR Which other artists have influenced or inspired you?

EW Sarah Browne, Dylan Kerr, Ruth Clinton and Niamh Moriarty, Jack Hogan, Colm Keady-Tabbal, Maïa Nunes, Alice Rekab, Cameron Lynch, and everyone who performs with me. Artists who I’m close to, even if they make work that’s very different to mine, have expanded the vocabulary and ambition of my work. Sometimes I just imagine the feedback they would give me, I don’t even need to call them for advice half the time.

AR What, other than your own work, are you looking forward to seeing while you are in Venice?

EW Wael Shawky’s pavilion for Egypt, which has a piece I’ve never seen before about the politics of the medieval crusades. It was made a few years ago and uses cinematically filmed puppets, it looks very beautiful. It’s a pertinent time to look back at Europeans using religion to justify imperial plunder and murder in the eastern Mediterranean.

The 60th Venice Biennale, 20 April – 24 November

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