Eva Rothschild is Ireland’s artist at the Venice Biennale. Her exhibition Kosmos is on now at City Gallery. This is an edited transcript of a conversation at Tuatara Open Late, 4 October 2018.
Robert Leonard: It’s a great pleasure to welcome London-based sculptor Eva Rothschild. Her show Kosmos is currently at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art as part of Melbourne International Arts Festival. She’s here in Wellington on a site visit, as we’re presenting the show early next year. 2019 will be a big year for her. She’ll be representing Ireland at the Venice Biennale. Eva, how did you become an artist—a sculptor?
Eva Rothschild: I always wanted to be an artist. I went to a Catholic girls school. Art was on the curriculum, but there was no proper teaching, no making things, no workshops. All we did was draw still lifes on sheets of A4 paper. Initially, I went to art school in Dublin. But, I did my degree at the University of Ulster, Belfast.
Unlike other Irish art schools, you didn’t have to specialise after first year. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I was keen not to specialise. I started off doing sculptural installation work, but ended up in printmaking—I wanted to learn how to do something properly. I was interested in sculpture, but making sculpture in a traditional way seemed impossible. The thought of talking to the woodwork and metalwork technicians was daunting.
In the 1990s, Belfast was a difficult place to live. After art school, I moved to Glasgow. I had friends there and was aware of its art scene. I got involved with Transmission Gallery, where I worked for a few years. I was making work, but it was still print focused. I always skirted around the fact that I wanted to do sculpture, to make things. Even when I was doing my Master’s at Goldsmiths in the late 1990s, there was the sense that, if you were serious—and I considered myself very serious—you shouldn’t be ‘making’. But, now, I have a strong commitment to the idea of sculpture and I can’t imagine working in another way.
Indeed, you’ve become an exemplar of sculpture as sculpture.
Phyllida Barlow—a huge figure in sculpture internationally—employed me to teach sculpture at the Slade. To me, that was an affirmation. Despite the fact I could hardly hammer a nail straight into a piece of wood and was useless at casting, I could finally say, ‘yeah, sculpture, that’s what I do’.
What’s your studio like? How many people work there? What does a day there look like?
My studio used to be big, but, due to the cost of space in London, it’s now half the size—about eighty square metres. There’s a smaller back section with a sink, where I do the casting. I keep all the really filthy stuff there. I work regular hours, from about quarter past nine until half-six or seven. My typical day is a mix of making and planning. Working in a multimedia way requires lots of planning, getting materials, making sure you have things for the next stage. I employ people part time: one does admin; two work on making, packing, organising shipping, stuff like that. For me, a good day is when there’s been a lot of making and not too much talking on the phone.
How much work is done outside the studio by fabricators?
Anything that’s metal. Because the studio is so small, we can’t do much metal work, so I get the metal sculptures made outside, then paint them in the studio. There’s quite a lot of back and forth with that, which I hate.
You’ve been away from your studio for three weeks now. What’s that like?
I get anxious. It’s strange. I’ve been in Melbourne installing—doing what I’ve been preparing for—and yet I feel like I’m not making work because I’m out of the studio. If you have a studio-based practice, anything else—including putting the work where it’s intended to go—is guilt inducing.
In Kosmos, there’s a painted concrete-block wall, a metre-and-a-bit high, called Hazard. It runs across the room. You have to walk around it.
I’m interested in what I call ‘hazard architecture’. When I visited Melbourne, around Christmas last year, I was struck by the number of concrete barriers in public areas. There had been an attack, a guy driving down the pavement running over people. The blocks were placed to stop that happening again. The attack was a terrible outrage, but I was surprised at this excessive physical response. In London, we’ve had numerous events like this and the history of Irish terrorism, and you do get these blocks in certain places, but not to the extent that I saw in Melbourne.
In the show, Hazard creates a barrier. It makes people aware of their own bodies negotiating it, of the space it’s in …
… and of which side they’re on. The blocks have been painted with a diagonal perspective pattern, in black on one side, green on the other.
I grew up in Dublin, by the harbour. Harbours often have areas painted with stripes to denote zones, specific functions. In Northern Ireland, curb stones also get painted red, white, and blue to delineate loyalist areas. I’m interested in this kind of shorthand.
In Hazard, it looks like blocks have been moved, messing up the pattern. It reminds me of dazzle camouflage.
I was interested in how the pattern could be disrupted. I’ve made work with tangrams in the past.
The largest work in the show is Cosmos. How would you describe it?
It’s a painted aluminium gate structure. There’s three large open panels, 3.5 metres high. They lean inwards and are supported by angled braces. The panels are painted gloss black; some of the panels’ inner surfaces and some faces of the internal braces are painted with colour gradients.
Why call it Cosmos?
I wanted to suggest something infinite while using basic materials and forms—containing the uncontainable.
It’s similar to Hazard, in combining literal, sculptural spatial markers (the black-grid aspect) and illusionistic painted ones (the spectral colour fades).
I’m intrigued by the ways outer space is aestheticised. I’d been looking at images from the Hubble Space Telescope, the farthest that the human eye has yet seen. They are fascinating and beautiful. But I learnt that the colours are actually fake. The images have been artificially coloured to help us read them.
That work’s called Cosmos with C and the show’s called Kosmos with a K. What’s the difference a K makes?
I don’t know the origin of using a K instead of a C, but it signifies something alternative. The obvious example is ‘Amerika’. I like the slightly out-there feel it gives and the way it looks.
How important are titles for you?
Pretty important. If Cold Corners (2009) was called something more descriptive, like Sequence of Sixteen Triangles, it would change the work, and I wouldn’t be happy with that. The tiniest scrap of language can be a way into a work or a way out. It can give you your bearings or be misdirection. Titles add nuance. Occasionally, my titles are humorous or dark. Sometimes I store up titles, then find works for them.
There’s also an aspect of your work that lends itself to description.
I like the idea of making something you can describe as ‘a gate’, ’a wall’, ‘an arch’, or ‘a column’. That’s why I work so much with known forms rather than invented ones. There’s a valency to nameable generic architectural and geometric forms. ‘Triangle’, ‘pyramid’, ‘square’. They give us enough to know the basic forms, if not the detail. I’m interested in making objects with that kind of language around them. But, the language we use to describe things is not equal to our actual visual or bodily experience of them.
In Kosmos, there’s a striped column running from floor to ceiling.
Technical Support is a stack of casts of rolls of tape: gaffer tape, masking tape, cloth tape, Sellotape. It’s an additive work. It’s been installed in different formats in different places. It came about in an odd way. In the studio, I was making head forms. While working on them, I kept them straight by propping them up on rolls of tape. Then, of course, I’d need some tape. So I cast some rolls of tape to use as supports. This became a habit. Most days, I would cast them. Having spent a lot of time where I couldn’t afford materials, I like to be thrifty. Often, when I’m casting something else, there’ll be leftover resin. Casting rolls of tape became a way to use up those dribs and drabs. Suddenly, I had about 200 casts. They started to take on a form of their own. I was making an exhibition, and, at the last moment, realised I had enough of them to make a column.
So you started casting the tape rolls without the column in mind?
Brancusi is clearly a reference point for Technical Support.
I admire the openness in his work. When you look at Endless Column, it’s obviously not endless, but you could keep adding to it. I’m also attracted to Brancusi’s plinth-based sculptures, where there’s a conversation between, say, a beautifully polished sculpture and a roughly hewn plinth. I like his plinths more than the things that sit on them. He gives the plinth a sense of real weight.
In Kosmos, two works using upholstered forms might carry a feminine soft-sculpture association: Organic Threat (suggesting a children’s soft-play area) and Iceberg Hits (an absurdly tall punching bag). Do you think twice before working with forms and materials that are loaded in gender terms?
I think more than twice. It took me a while to do any substantial work with fabric for that reason. For female artists, fabrics are loaded. Male artists can make as many cute ceramics and quilts as they want without being reduced to craft—not that craft is reductive. But, the ways I wanted to use the material had to be specific and forceful. I felt tentative about it, but I feel open to it now. I’d like to make more work with fabric.
Declan Long described your works as ‘an ever-updating ensemble cast of sculptural characters’ with ‘strong standalone personalities’ but ‘profoundly interdependent’.1 His reading seemed oddly anthropomorphic.
But, you can see them as having characters without their being anthropomorphic. I see works in relation to each other. There’s a difference between creating a single work and creating a show. I think of the way people place figurines at either end of a mantelpiece, as ‘conversation pieces’. There’s something funny about having a square and a triangle conversing.
Is it different when you make a show, putting your sculptures in conversation, and when curators make them, generating their own conversations between them.
I’m very controlling, so generally other people don’t make my shows.
You take a lot from art history but you also take the history out of it. It’s like, for you, different moments in the story are all equally present, all available.
I don’t see why they shouldn’t be. Certain artists may critique or engage a specific art-historical moment. My work engages with art history, but that’s not its subject. I feel that what’s gone before is now common knowledge. It’s a shared language; something we have, can learn from, and work with.
Do you think your work speaks to the current moment or sits outside it?
One of the few advantages of getting older is realising how certain works responded to life experiences—I couldn’t have made them at another moment. My 2016 show at the New Art Gallery Walsall came around the time the UK Labour Party’s elected its new leader and the Brexit vote. There was a window space at the front of the gallery. I’d been working with cloth and I wanted to make something that was clearly of that moment. So I made a banner using the show’s title Alternative to Power and installed it there. I probably wouldn’t do that now.
Politics is one thing, spirituality another. Tora Baker wrote that your ‘work is concerned with … how certain qualities of corporeality might be invested with spiritual meaning’.2 Do you see your work as spiritual?
Well, it’s not prayerful. I’m interested in belief and faith. I’m from a Catholic background, so that’s what I’m most familiar with. But I don’t see Catholicism as so different from other modes of belief—I’m interested in it all. I’m interested in how religious objects are used as conduits: the Christian with the crucifix, the Hindu meditating on an idol of a deity. These objects are about a desire for something more than the physical. I’m interested in the transformative, the possibility of communication with something outside the self. I want that excess. If you’re trying to write poetry, make art, or make music, empiricism only gets you so far.
Are you inviting us to get involved in your works physically?
This is a tricky one. They are robust enough to engage with physically, but not for hundreds of people to. So, that possibility is there, but not.
There are occasions when you’ve organised people to get physical with your sculptures. I’m thinking of your video Boys and Sculpture (2012) and the dance performance in Kosmos on Monday night, earlier this week.
With the Boys film, the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, asked me to propose a work for their annual Children’s Commission, which involves making a work for or related to children. I’d wanted to make this work for years, but, because of the logistics, never got around to it—working with children, you have to get permissions and it’s complicated. I made a show of my work in a gallery then invited a group of boys aged six to seven to interact with it. I told them to engage visually first; then, when they felt they had exhausted that, they could touch the works. I said, whatever they did, they wouldn’t get in trouble. And I filmed what happened.
They looked at the works for about ten minutes, then began to touch them, then play with them, and then they transformed them. They imagined the sculptures as other things. They played football and had sword fights with them. They wore them. One rode a piece like a horse. They even took bits home.
Did it turn out as you expected?
Mostly. But, there were things I wasn’t expecting, to do with how they interacted with each other based on age and race—certain boys were clearly bullies. It was Lord of the Flies. But I was proud of the boys, because everything they did—except for a little bit of bullying—was so joyful and …
They were so happy. Boys are caught in this bind. In many ways the world is theirs, but, actually, until they become adults (basically, once they get over the age of ten), they’re seen as pariahs. There’s a sense that young boys are trouble, that they don’t fit into the education system, that they need to be constrained. If a group of boys came into the Gallery, I’m sure your hosts would be on their walkie talkies immediately.
There’s boys and there’s contemporary dancers. Tell us about Monday’s performance.
It was only three days ago and I haven’t fully processed it yet. I did another dance collaboration in the UK, a piece for two dancers, with Joe Moran. I made the sculpture as a dance set specifically, knowing the dance that would take place. So, there was an element of collaboration. The piece in Melbourne was the opposite. I was keen to work with a choreographer and Jo Lloyd wanted to work with me. She’s done a lot of stuff; she used to be with Chunky Move. I’m not interested in making sculpture for the body, but I did want to make costumes. Apart from that, I simply gave over the show to her expertise.
Do you see your work as interactive?
People are always asking, ‘Is the work interactive?’ And my general response is: you can interact with it by looking at it and walking around it, and, in the case of the curtain piece, The Sacrificial Layer, walking through it. But, something more is implied by this term, ‘interaction’. What is the other thing people want the work to do? When I work with dancers, it’s because they have a depth of bodily learning and movement knowledge. For most of us, if we’re out somewhere dancing, we’ve got four or five things we do, and then, maybe, if we get really drunk, we might throw in a few more. But it’s going be limited. But, dancers, who spend their time doing this, have this repertoire within their bodies to draw on in relation to what I’ve done. I wanted to bring those things together.
What aspects of the performance did you like and dislike?
You can’t ask me that! It was both amazing and stressful. I’m not a dance expert, but I liked it when the dancers moved together and there was a sense of synchronicity. I liked it when they passed through the curtain. I didn’t respond so well to other parts, particularly the spoken bits. Plus, when I make costumes, I generally like the dancers to keep them on. But, I invited them to respond so I could be surprised by what they did. Another time, I could work with a choreographer to develop something totally within my taste.
For you, which was more interesting, the way the boys engaged with the sculptures or the way the dancers did?
They’re chalk and cheese. Personally, I felt more emotionally engaged with the boys. I had to meet and talk to them. Plus, I have three sons, who were all younger than the boys in the video when it was made. I always make the joke that that film is my life: boys and sculpture. There isn’t very much else that I do. It feels close to me. The Whitechapel made a video where they interviewed the boys afterwards. It was moving, hearing the boys talk about their sense of being curtailed all the time, then being given this freedom to do something.
Has being a mother informed your practice?
When I first had my children, I was loath to talk about them. But now, I feel that’s pointless, because they are part of my life. A well-known British woman artist once said there are great artists who have children—they’re called men. I don’t agree. Young women artists are anxious that having children will restrict them. Obviously, there are practical limitations, certainly in the first few years. And much of that depends on economic circumstances. But I think there’s a popular misconception that you’re going to become limited in your thinking because of having children. Actually, I feel the opposite. I know more about the world because I have children. I see things from the viewpoint of a younger generation, through the music they listen to and what they watch on TV. Having kids is part of life and it’s an expanded way to live.
1. Declan Long, ‘Eva Rothschild’, Frieze, no. 189, September 2017. https://frieze.com/article/eva-rothschild-1.
2. Tora Baker, ‘Artist and Sculptor Eva Rothschild to Unveil Exciting New Work in London’, Creative Boom,