xxx, 2013. Aluminum and paint, 280 x 560.5 x 279.5 cm. Photo: © Eva Rothschild, Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich

Corrupted Perfection: A Conversation with Eva Rothschild

Eva Rothschild, who will represent Ireland at the 2019 Venice Biennale, expands on the Modernist sculptural tradition, using a range of materials including jesmonite, wood, Perspex, steel, aluminum, polystyrene, fabric, leather, and beads. Her work often examines how objects acquire meaning peripheral to their material reality through the different beliefs, ideologies, and religions imposed on them. Her lexicon is immediately recognizable, but these geometric forms seemingly waver in mid-air, teeter on spindly plinths, or twist and turn through space. She has staged large-scale installations at Tate Britain and the Nasher Sculpture Center, and her first solo presentation in Australia is on view at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, through November 25, 2018.

Ina Cole: You grew up in Dublin and studied at the University of Ulster in Belfast, a place that you’ve called harsh. Does Burning Tyre (2004) reflect on those times?
Eva Rothschild: Art school in Belfast had two advantages: I didn’t pay any fees, and the course was multidisciplinary, which was the main decider. I largely did printmaking for my degree, so I didn’t think of myself as a sculptor until Phyllida Barlow gave me a job teaching sculpture much later on. Belfast was a tricky place, limited in what you could and couldn’t do. There was a clear presence of the Troubles, but this offered a bizarre kind of security to a young person not involved in the conflict. Armed police were on every street corner, so there was very little petty crime; no one I knew was burgled, mugged, or assaulted. It was heavily controlled, as opposed to San Francisco, which Burning Tyre refers to, where I spent a short period of time with people who were completely out of control. I’m really interested in checks and balances around the extreme. I was there on a student visa, living within a volatile situation that became quite dangerous.

IC: Was that edgy period important in terms of the route your work has taken?
ER: When I came back from the United States, I felt a shift in my sense of security. San Francisco was unpredictable, and I felt under threat, which has given me a slightly darker outlook on things. I went to the U.S. because of the cultural changes that took place there in the 1960s, but I didn’t understand how that kind of individualization can lead to a lack of care. There was such a disconnect between the progressive ideas of the countercultural movement and the hippie lifestyle we confronted. Burning Tyre brings together the sense of urgency and intent demanded by protest and struggle, but undermines them through the use of incense sticks— empty signifiers of a spiritual search typified by a lazy appropriation of the material elements of Eastern religions. It is one of my few pieces using ready-made elements, and it’s an important work for me.

Burning Tyre, 2004. Tire and incense, 58 cm. diameter. Photo: © Eva Rothschild, Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

IC: An early work, Actualisation (1998), features two perfect glass spheres—one black, the other white. It was shown in “Strange Powers” (2006), a New York exhibition exploring art and the occult, and then in “The Dark Monarch: Magic and Modernity in British Art” at Tate St. Ives (2009), where it was placed near Barbara Hepworth’s Opus 82. Though your works often reference the formal Modernist tradition, they are unmistakably your own.
ER: I don’t think you lose anything by looking at how someone else has worked; it’s part of the process of discovery. Actualisation was placed in a vitrine—an amazing curiosity cabinet—quite close to Opus 82. Although the spheres look perfect, they’re actually imperfect because they’re formed by hand and not machined. The crystal balls refer to the pursuit of fortune telling, which I find scary; I’d never get a tarot reading. I am interested in religion and belief, but once there’s belief in something, it can open the door to anything, including the impossible. The crystal ball is a perfect form for this. It marries the idea of the Minimalist object, yet it can never be that object, because it’s so loaded. Actualisation, which was my first sculpture, embodies all of my interests—corrupted perfection, esoteric Modernism, and Minimalism shrouded in mystery, or magic Minimalism. In a way, this is what we do when we make art—an actualization.

IC: Ordinary Me and Magical You (2007) mirrors itself and the viewer. There’s an awareness of being doubled within the piece, which is doubling again on itself, creating a kind of quaternity. You have an interest in mandalas, which symbolize personal growth or psychological re-balancing.
ER: You’re reflected in Ordinary Me and Magical You, but it’s also reflecting itself. Mandalas aren’t symbolic in the same way as Christian art. They have functional transcendence. This is different from looking at an image of the crucified Christ, where you just contemplate the image and its meaning. The mandala facilitates an experience beyond you and it being there.

IC: There’s also a sense of transference. You’ve spoken of how we project meaning onto objects that remain unaware of our intention. We persist because the process is, perhaps, essential to our belief structure, yet it’s also probably futile.
ER: It’s not belief, but desire. There are those who will always want more from an image; then there are others for whom it is just an image. If I went to a Buddhist temple, I’d admire the beauty of the objects; but if I were a Buddhist, I’d have a completely different experience that wouldn’t only be about aesthetic presence. People can allow themselves a level of communicative desire around an image or object in a way that doesn’t happen elsewhere.

Ordinary Me and Magical You, 2007. Lacquered beech wood and Perspex, 188 x 325 x 66 cm. Photo: © Eva Rothschild, Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

IC: In a sense, there’s a process of personal nourishment taking place.
ER: Yes, which is strange because it denotes a moral condition to which art shouldn’t be beholden. Art doesn’t always have to be edifying or educative. It can be immoral, disturbing, or disgusting. When people look in religious ways, they’re searching for something they perceive to be greater than themselves. A different way of looking occurs in a secular context, which is less goal-oriented and offers more equality. There’s a divide between people who desire something greater and those who are more empirical. Art is an interesting place to work with those ideas.

IC: In recent years, you’ve undertaken site-specific projects that offer an all-encompassing experience. The jagged and dynamic Cold Corners (2009) forced its way through Tate’s Duveen Galleries. Likewise, Why Don’t You (Dallas) (2012) for the Nasher Sculpture Center meandered snake-like through the building. Were they intended to take the viewer on a journey?
ER: I was once asked if I view my practice as sculpture or installation. I always think of my works as sculpture because they’re singular objects, but by occupying space in the way that they do, they can be considered installation. Cold Corners was an episodic piece that could, potentially, continue forever. Yet it wasn’t elaborate or detailed—it was economical. I wanted it to appear complete, yet be everywhere at once. It also had to have a sense of motion. In photographs, it looks very coherent, but in the space, you had to dodge and duck. Cold Corners had scale, so the individual was dwarfed by it at certain points, but it was completely accessible at other points. You could touch it, lean on it, and it would have been strong enough to sit on; it wasn’t precious at the point of contact. It was made to respond to the neo-classical environment, but it was operating on different terms; it was like an alien within the architecture. I’ve made quite a lot of work with people holding snakes, which relates to Cold Corners in that we may have a relationship to it, but it doesn’t care about us. I wanted that sculpture to colonize the space and give it a dangerous element.

Why Don’t You relates to a TV show I watched as a kid, called “Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead?” So, the sculpture was doing something, and it was asking you, the viewer, to also do something. The Nasher’s architecture is very light, soft, and accessible, so I wanted the work to have lightness and generosity—to be joyful. There was a sense of Why Don’t You being invasive, but in a much softer way. It came in over the information desk—where people could hold it—went down, and then came up again. When thinking about the Nasher’s spaces, I became very interested in Fernand Léger’s paintings of people working on scaffolding because there was such a lack of clarity around the building; Why Don’t You bounded it in a way. I’ve done exhibitions where everything was ultra-black, but that environment demanded color. I’ve always been interested in stripes as a way of breaking up a surface—Why Don’t You started with red at one end and ended in violet at the other. The colors switched through the piece, but you weren’t sure where the switch actually happened. I counted in the colors, then counted them out, much in the same way as when weaving.

Why Don’t You (Dallas), 2012. Aluminum, fiberglass resin, polyurethane paint, and lacquer. Photo: © Eva Rothschild, Courtesy Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas and Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

IC: Your titles can be narrative, ambiguous, or even act as commands. How do you decide what to call a piece?
ER: Some works become a vehicle for a certain title, particularly when they’re episodic. For me, the titles increase the possibilities of the sculptures. I have lists of them; they’re quite fundamental. It’s important to have a poetic, expansive, or even baffling sense around the titles. When we look at art, we’re casting about for the crutch of language. I want the titles to provide support, but also work together in a room. Cosmos, Border, and Iceberg Hits sound quite geographical, for instance. There’s a rhythm between them.

Obviously my works go out into the world and have their own life, but when I create a grouping, the titles form a body around them. Hearing the titles spoken in someone else’s voice sounds strange; it’s always a surprise to me. When I made xxx, I became intrigued by how children now learn the alphabet through sound, and the sound for an “x” is like a kiss. We obviously use “x” as a kiss, but I’d never made that connection—that there’s a weird onomatopoeia taking place. People refer to the sculpture as xxx, but in my mind it’s always “kiss, kiss, kiss.”

IC: Cosmos, Border, and Iceberg Hits were shown in the exhibition “Iceberg Hits” (Stuart Shave/Modern Art, 2018), where they came across as very self-contained. You like your work to be separate from the world, set within a designated space. Is this because it causes viewers to fix their attention, reinforcing the notion of transference?
ER: Sculpture is very experiential. It can be photographed or filmed, but you really need to be with it in a room. That’s why, for me, it’s vital as an art form—that sense of you and the object. In a prosaic way, I’ve started introducing seating into my exhibitions. Giving consideration to a location and the experience of crossing a threshold is really important. What I dread is when people just look from the door without entering. So, the seats serve a practical purpose by inviting people to stay in the space, and they allow contact with the materiality of the work. This is significant because I use a lot of transformed or changed materiality, such as with the cast objects. I work with fabricators, but my relationship to the made object is very important. Although it’s obvious that I didn’t make the large sculpture, Cosmos, I was very involved in its making. While I could describe what needed to be done for Cosmos through models, I couldn’t do that with Iceberg Hits, which is a tactile punching bag that was therefore a very hands-on piece for me.

Iceberg Hits, 2018. Wood, card, foam, wadding, fabric, wax, and steel, 471 x 42 x 42 cm. Photo: Robert Glowacki, © Eva Rothschild, Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

IC: Why did the exhibition take its title from Iceberg Hits?
Over the last few years, my work has become more socially engaged and less hermetic. The world has crept in—it’s become increasingly hard to hold it at bay, with everything that’s happening. The work isn’t polemical; it doesn’t have an axe to grind, but there is a sense of it acknowledging the world in which it’s been made. I’m particularly conscious of borders and walls. I left school in 1988; the Berlin Wall came down in 1989; and I also witnessed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 in Belfast. So “Iceberg Hits” refers to all the structural issues we’ve swept under the carpet, which are now coming home to roost—inequality, the harassment of women, and max exodus from North Africa and the Middle East into Europe.

Iceberg Hits itself is quite a functional work, but the gallery ceiling wasn’t functional enough to allow anyone to punch it. I’m interested in gym equipment as objects that relate to the body, through which one can become more powerful. Yet the work also has a comedic element, in that it’s gigantic. I’m used to making hard-edged sculpture and haven’t worked in traditionally feminized ways. Male artists can make a quilt and there’s no immediate gendering of that object, whereas if I make work with fabric, you always think of the domestic. So, Iceberg Hits is a really undomesticated work using waxed fabric, and it retains all the marks you inflict on it without losing its strength.

IC: Another work in that exhibition, The Leanover, sweeps upward, then cascades to the floor. It’s quite implausible, appearing to defy gravity. How did you make it?
ER: The Leanover is pure pleasure, like seeing a waterfall. I made a model using stiff card, which was glued and then faithfully translated into steel. I discussed balance, support, and joins with a fabricator, since it could have concertinaed. It was white, but there’s also a black one, because I find that transference of color fascinating. The two operate very differently, and I also change the plinths in relation to the colors. I think that you can respond to the permutations of geometry and color as you do to nature. Keeping a sense of confusion, or anxiety, between the works is important, so I may place a pirouetting form next to something that’s gritty and almost abject in its realization.

IC: In “Iceberg Hits,” the contrast between The Leanover and Hangouts (2018) was notable. Hangouts has a similar format to An Array (2016), with a collection of objects housed within an architectonic frame.
ER: I always refer to Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa when thinking about organizational space. It’s a lexicon of shape and movement—emotionally and compositionally. It became a touchstone for those two sculptures. When I made An Array, I became very aware of the language of sculpture, particularly how certain objects start to become your own after a period of time, like an alphabet. I initially wanted An Array to act as a museological display of elements, but it became something very different. Even though everything is as it is at the moment, could the elements change? Hangouts has a metal structure but contains Perspex elements and a column. What’s in service to what? Are the objects equal? I’m very interested in the idiosyncratic display of Brancusi’s work at the Museum of Modern Art and in his notion of episodic form. He built up different objects until he reached the right height. How did he get Endless Column so high at that time? It’s really hard to build a high sculpture.

Technical Support (detail), 2016. Steel and jesmonite, dimensions variable. Photo: © Eva Rothschild, Courtesy 303 Gallery, NY

IC: Many of your works are totemic—Us Women, Egyptians, Technical Support, Bright Eyes, and Yr Crystal Brain. Can these sculptures be lengthened or shortened depending on their location, and is this transformation essential to our reading of them?
ER: The sense that these works could continue, or that a decision was made that they’re at the right height, is important to me. Technical Support has been made desk to ceiling and floor to ceiling. It could go anywhere at any height, so it is an endless column in a way—you can add and subtract.

IC: The Inside of Your Head and The Horn of Plenty (2011) are ovoid pieces pocked with large holes. Both recall the egg-like form that played such an important role in the history of modern sculpture, particularly in the work of Brancusi, Hepworth, and Naum Gabo. What prompted them?
ER: Definitely an awareness of that Modernist form. Their work was carved, so it’s subtractive; they started with a whole and ended with a hole. There’s a sense that the center has gone elsewhere. That way of working isn’t available to me. Mine are more like a kind of skin, in that nothing was ever there. Subtracting and adding are very different processes. In a pedantic way, I wanted to make something that was additive, but mimicked the subtractive process. The Inside of Your Head was made from a strange mixture of cardboard, chicken wire, papier-mâché, and newspaper, painted in many layers. It was very heavy. But you live and learn with regard to materials, and I realized better ways to make them over time.

Those works are shown on stands, so they’re about head height, and the experience of your head in relation to the object is important. They create an internal space; it’s not about you entering a space. As I was making them, I became more and more interested in how much I could remove, until they became a three-dimensional net. I also applied spray paint, but there’s a disconnect between the object and the trajectory of the spray. Although you can’t control the spray in the same way as a brush, I felt it was important to approach the pieces in this way, because it allows them to appear freer.

Hangouts, 2018. Plexiglas, painted rebar, jesmonite, fabric, paint, MDF, and steel, 294 x 240 x 180 cm. Photo: Robert Glowacki, © Eva Rothschild, Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

IC: You’ve compared Hepworth’s second studio, the Palais de Danse in St. Ives, to Brancusi’s studio in Paris. How would you describe your relationship to your own studio?
ER: It’s very intense. One of my big anxieties is the idea of my home being under threat, and I feel the same about my studio. I really need it; it’s vital to my practice. People often say that you can work anywhere as an artist, but I can’t. Where would I make the work on a day-to-day basis? What would I do without tools? That relationship is under threat, because of the precarious nature of even having a studio now. If you’re experimental, but don’t have a space to try things out, you may not have the latitude to arrive at a different conclusion. A studio is essential to everything. It’s a room of one’s own, in the largest sense.

Ina Cole is a Contributing Editor for Sculpture based in England.