Lizzie Gore-Grimes meets sculptor Eva Rothschild, the artist chosen to represent Ireland at this year’s Venice Biennale
LIZZIE GORE-GRIMES meets sculptor Eva Rothschild, the artist chosen to represent Ireland
at the Venice Biennale, to talk international success, raising boys and taking up space.
I’ve arranged to meet sculptor Eva Rothschild in the Shelbourne Hotel and it’s fair to say I’m feeling suitably intimidated. And so I should be. Eva is one of Ireland’s most internationally successful artists; her work is collected and exhibited from New York to Amsterdam and Milan to New Zealand and this May sees her celebrated as the artist chosen to represent Ireland in the Venice Biennale – one of the most important international showcases for contemporary art in the world.
We’ve never met before but the moment she walks in I know it’s her. Dressed in easy denims and a faded navy sweatshirt, emblazoned with bright shards of colour, she is effortlessly interesting looking with heavy framed statement glasses and close cropped dark hair. As soon as she sits, she puts me at ease as we do what Dubliners do and spend a few minutes tracing all the various people we have in common and conclude that there’s barely one degree in it after all.
But then Eva is not someone who stands on ceremony or sees her practice as an artist as a rarefied thing. Ten minutes before we met I had been glued to YouTube watching a clip of a film she made called Boys and Sculpture for The Whitechapel Gallery, London in 2012.
In the video you see a group of boys, aged between nine and 12, enter the exhibition space where several pieces of Eva’s work are displayed. The sculptures are striking – some spindly and delicate, some more spherical and sturdy – each exuding a slightly alien yet playful presence. At first the boys are nervous, giddy, darting from one thing to the next, eager to assess the space and these unusual compelling forms. After a while a few gather in a group around one particular piece. You watch with bated breath... until one boy does what you know he will. He prods it. And so the ripple effect kicks in. Tentative at first, they are then all compelled by causeand-effect curiosity to see how far they can, literally, push the pieces. Even though the YouTube clip is only an abbreviated five minute version of the full 25 minute video piece, before it finishes certain sculptures lie in a heap on the floor while others have been dismantled and are being tossed in pieces between the boys.
At the outset of that video piece, Eva simply told the boys that once they had finished exploring the work with their eyes, they
were free to touch it, and, crucially, she added that they would not get into trouble. “As the mother of three young boys I was intrigued to see how it would unfold. I was curious to explore our gendered relationship with space: the concept that boys, and men, are more confident in the material, physical world. There is a certain will to power in relation to the physical world that I see as male while the female trait is more tentative.”
Eva was also keen to play with the idea of transformation of materials. “There is an idea that once you create a piece of art, a painting or a sculpture, it is then set. Impermeable. Other elements in our life: clothes, electronics, furniture pass through stages of wear, use and redundancy; whereas art is an eternal presence. Or is it?
“Each piece I make is made up of elements,” Eva continues. “I wanted to see what would happen if the work went through a further transformation at the hands of the boys.” Eva goes on to explain that the full 25 minute video piece reveals all sorts of fascinating psychological and sociological patterns as the older
play with,” recalls Eva. “Kirsty asked me to think about what I really wanted to make, and I replied: “I’m thinking a series of triangles, made out of perspex, like giant Swiss cheese, all stacked together” – so that’s what we did. It marked a real leap for me as an artist – from not wanting to take up space to relishing taking up space.”
But she doesn’t do it all by herself. Eva laughs good-naturedly when she thinks of people asking her how she makes her work. “I have been asked that question in relation to my sculpture in the Duveen Gallery [an extraordinarily ambitious linear sculpture that stretches nearly the full length of the neoclassical galleries in The Tate Britain]. I didn’t make it, is the simple answer! It’s over 70 metres long and weighs over 1.8 tonnes. I worked with a team of engineers, fabricators and installers, as an architect works with a team of builders.”
Today Eva works with a tight team in her studio workshop in Hackney in East London. “I have four people who work with me very regularly and then we pull in others with specialist skills where needed. The lovely thing about this upcoming exhibition at the Venice Biennale is that for the first time we will all travel as a team to the exhibition space and be involved in the installation together – along with curator Mary Cremin – and be there with the work while it is on view. I’m delighted everyone gets to share the full experience.”
Other than that, Eva is not allowed to say much more about the actual work that will be revealed in the Irish pavilion in Venice on May 11. “You’ll just have to come to Venice to see it for yourself,” she finishes. How I wish, but whether I make it over to the lagoon or not, I am certain that the work will resonate with strength and presence, wit and flair, as its creator does. boys break off pieces of sculpture to brandish as swords and guns, while the younger ones start to pick up the dismantled artwork and rebuild it into new forms, which the older boys then move in to destroy. Lord of the Flies in visual art form.
There is an unflinching intelligence in Eva’s steady gaze as we chat; she is clearly a woman who knows exactly what she wants to express and how to express it – traits that no doubt have played a huge role in establishing her as one of the world’s foremost contemporary sculptors. “I operate in a world of power tools, spray paint, concrete and metal,” she says. “Yet I went to an all girls’ private school in Dublin, where there was simply no allowance for my interests. Other than Home Economics there was no opportunity to study ‘making’ of any kind. But hopefully this is changing. I was so excited when I saw my sons’ GCSE choices come in and there was a subject called ‘resistant materials’ – obviously open to the girls as much as the boys as they go to a mixed school.”
After school Eva went on to study fine art in Belfast. “The great thing about The University of Ulster degree course,” explains Eva, “is that it was an open fine art course, which is quite rare, so I got to experiment with different genres. I loved print-making but was drawn to sculpture.”
After Belfast, Eva moved to Glasgow and credits this period in her life as crucial to her development as an artist. “During my time in Glasgow, I became involved with the Transmission Gallery and found myself surrounded by a dynamic group of people who had a real sense of agency around their practice. It meant that, creatively for me, there was no slump after my college years.”
The moment that Eva recalls as pivotal in establishing her as a large-scale sculptor was in 2000 when she was preparing for a show in The Showroom in London with curator Kirsty
Ogg. “It was the first time there was a little bit of budget to
“There is an idea that once you create a piece of art, a painting or a sculpture, it is
then set. Impermeable. Or is it?”
Venice Biennale runs from May 11 to November 24, labiennale.org; cultureireland.ie/venice Iceberg Hits exhibition, London, 2018 ABOVE The Fallowfield marks Eva’s first foray into tapestry weaving, 2018