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How sculptor Eva Rothschild keeps viewers on their toes

Tricked materiality: Rothschild’s Technical Support. Photo/Andrew Curtis

An Irish sculptor exhibiting in Venice and Wellington wants to engage and trick viewers with her work Kosmos.

Eva Rothschild says she’s shivering in the London warehouse where her large metal sculptures are fabricated. But she’s got a deadline keeping her warm, for her biggest assignment yet – representing Ireland at the 2019 Venice Biennale. In fact, she’s been so consumed by her work that she forgot about our scheduled interview to discuss her City Gallery Wellington show, Kosmos.

Dublin-born Rothschild is putting the finishing touches on the pieces and won’t say much about the Venice show, but she’s proud to be representing her birth country.

“It’s a real privilege to be chosen,’’ she says. “It’s something I had hoped to do for a long time. My identity as an artist is formed by where I grew up.’’

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The Biennale exhibition is likely to represent what the 47-year-old is renowned for: large-scale works that employ a huge range of materials and processes, drawing on the formalist tradition and putting her spin on it.

A joint project with the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, Kosmos is the first survey of Rothschild’s work in Australasia.

Rothschild, who graduated from Goldsmith’s College in London with a masters in fine art two decades ago, has exhibited throughout Europe and North America since the late 1990s, building an international reputation for works that merge the legacy of modernist sculpture with classical architecture, spiritualism and pop culture. Her works are in the collections of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Tate in London.

Kosmos, she says, “should give a sense of the sculptural possibilities, and of variety within a practice’’. She wants viewers to question what they are seeing and to physically engage with the work, so she has stools to sit on, a wall to walk around, curtains to walk through.

Eva Rothschild. Photo/Getty Images

“Primarily, I’m interested in the experience the viewer has between the eye and the body. The sculptures work more as a whole than separately. They expand the idea of what our experience of objects might be, and how we engage with objects that are just there, which are not trying to tell us something.’’

The 23 works in Kosmos are made of diverse materials: concrete, steel, leather, jesmonite, beads and plastic. A floor-to-ceiling column entitled Technical Support is a stack of coloured resin casts of rolls of tape (she was collecting them and turned them into an artwork). Hazard, 2018 is a stack of concrete blocks dividing the room, painted in haphazard geometric patterns. The piece is what she has coined “hazard architecture’’, the growing proliferation of blocks and barriers placed near ports and roads in response to the threat of urban terrorism. “There’s a sense of being directed by the objects in these places,’’ she says.

The largest work, Cosmos (intentionally spelt differently from the show’s title), is three black 3.5 metre-high slatted structures leaning against each other. Says Rothschild: “The external piece is quite forbidding. Its black shiny surface is like a set of disruptive gates.” Black is the colour she uses most, which she regards as like another material.

“Black has the quality of defining an edge particularly well. Whether it is shiny or matte, it can create depth and reflectivity. It’s another tool to work with to create definition.’’

Rothschild sets out to make sculptures that have a tricked materiality”. She wants us to question what we are looking at. “I like to keep viewers on their toes. The viewer has to look harder and work harder and, hopefully, that leads to a greater sense of awareness,’’ she tells the Listener.

An Organic Threat. Photo/Andrew Curtis

In 2012, in an attempt to engage with her audience, she left a group of 11 boys unsupervised in an exhibition of her sculptures at the Whitechapel Gallery in London for a film project. The resulting video, Boys and Sculpture, is shown as part of Kosmos.

The kids had been invited to look at the work and, if they wanted to, explore it through touch. All I said was that they would not get into trouble.”

Why a group of boys? The mother of three sons, aged 8, 11 and 13, says, “I’m a woman, and I know about girls. I went to an all-girl Catholic school. I was interested to know how males and females occupy their space. I’m really interested in how teenage boys are viewed as pariahs in society. If people see a group of girls coming into a gallery, they will respond very differently than they would to a group of boys. We have a very negative, gendered reaction to boys aged nine to 25.’’

She was, she says, surprised at how much the boys enjoyed interacting with her art and was fine with the end result – bits of sculpture everywhere, some of it being used for football practice.

It was one of the first times she had really experienced a direct reaction to her work.

“It’s a strange thing to put a show out there and wonder if it connects with people or not … Every time I do a show, I still get anxious. It still feels like stepping out into the void.’’

Eva Rothschild: Kosmos, City Gallery Wellington, April 6 to July 28.

This article was first published in the April 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.