Eva Rothschild Alternative to Power 24 September 2016 â€” 15 January 2017
Alternative to Power presents new and recent sculptures by internationally acclaimed Irish sculptor Eva Rothschild. The works are linked and characterised by the artist’s use of co-dependent forms: each piece is made up of multiple elements relying on one another for support. Taking on a range of formats, her columns, frames, arches and benches form a fragile union of physical components, in which our experience of them is determined contextually by the temporary groupings the works inhabit for the duration of the exhibition. Through the work, Rothschild utilises and explores a range of media including Perspex, wood, steel, aluminium, fabric and leather, bringing together the handmade and industrially-produced to create moments of tension around the materials. The exhibition is punctuated throughout by seating designed and fabricated by the artist. At once utilitarian and visually arresting, the stools and benches fulfil a practical function but also support the viewing experience, offering places to pause, look, and be with the work.
Alternative to Power, banner installed in The New Art Gallery Walsall Window Box.
Alternative to Power is Eva Rothschild’s first exhibition in the Midlands and includes a specially commissioned work involving leather, a material at the centre of Walsall’s manufacturing industry. The exhibition continues on the ground floor with a large-scale dyed fabric banner, which the artist has created especially for the Gallery’s street-facing Window Box. In size and form as well as in its handmade nature, the artwork is evocative of historic trade union and political banners, objects that were often assembled quickly for protest or rally to carry potent messages of unity and strength. Zoë Lippett Exhibitions and Artists’ Projects Curator The New Art Gallery Walsall
Cover Image ~ A Forbidden City, 2016 (detail) All images from the exhibition Eva Rothschild — Alternative to Power, The New Art Gallery Walsall, 24 September 2016 – 15 January 2017. Photographs by Robert Glowaki.
ZOË LIPPETT IN CONVERSATION WITH EVA ROTHSCHILD
ZL: You have tended to rebel against the idea that your sculptures constitute a body of work, preferring instead for the viewer to register the individual components that constitute the whole. Notwithstanding this position, the sculptures in this exhibition are linked by their reliance on objects being supported by one another. To be whole, your tape column (Technical Support, 2016) depends on a precise ‘threading’ of multiple parts and the stability of floor and ceiling fixings. Does this notion of dependency hold meaning for you in a wider context – culturally, socially, politically?
Zoë Lippett: I’d like to start with the title of this exhibition, Alternative to Power. As with all your titles, it brings a more emotional and personal framing to the formality of the work and, in this instance, I would suggest, a political proposition. In the time that you have been preparing work for this exhibition, we have witnessed a seismic change in British politics. The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union has ushered in an era of uncertainty and there has been a lot of discussion about the implications of the Leave vote both for arts and culture funding and the freedom of movement of artists. Does the title express your hope that art might offer an alternative to the post-Brexit situation?
ER: Yes, of course. As an artist, I need the viewer to expand the possibilities of the work: I can’t do this; over familiarity will always cloud my view. The sculpture itself needs each of its constituent parts to be whole. There are two ways of making; the subtractive and the additive. My process is additive. This way of working leads to an accumulation of separate elements, creating a diversified whole which presents as complete at the moment of exhibition. But always implicit in its presence is the possibility of change or collapse through the removal of one or other element. This acknowledgement of a lack of permanence and stability is at the heart of my practice.
Eva Rothschild: The title doesn’t refer specifically to Brexit but it does reflect a feeling around the political manoeuvring and negative consensus since the vote. It also refers more generally to a sense that the orthodoxies of power, growth and constant economic expansion can be challenged. It doesn’t specifically nominate art as the alternative but it does raise the idea of the possibility of alternate ways of looking at or inhabiting the world. Art by its very nature is always proposing alternative views of reality; its very function is to look differently or as artist Bruce Nauman, beautifully and arrogantly, says ‘to reveal mystic truths’ i.
Technical Support, 2016
ZL: Furniture is a current interest. Your exhibition is punctuated by seating, from single stools to more social multi-tiered seating. These objects are artworks in their own right but also fulfil a function in offering support for human bodies; an opportunity for the viewer to have a physical relationship with the work. The positioning of the benches could dictate the interval at which viewers stop and pause as well as the length of time they spend with individual sculptures. Is your intention with the benches to suggest a preferred route through the exhibition, to somehow choreograph experience and the way people might relate to your work?
ER: We look at art very quickly, especially non-narrative or durational formats: often we just glance at it because so many things are vying for our attention. The seating is there to give the viewer the opportunity to remain inside the exhibition, to give space for slow looking and increased engagement. They donâ€™t choreograph a route through the exhibition but they do allow me to designate areas of pause or defined viewpoints, hopefully heightening the viewerâ€™s awareness of their own experience of being in the Gallery. If people want to sit down and read this guide or just be with the work then the seating very simply facilitates that happening as part of the experience of the exhibition. They are functional and aesthetic, extending an offer to remain with the work for longer.
Technical Support, 2016 (detail) with stools
Hollow Heads, 2016
ZL: Your work occasionally includes recognisable motifs, for example hands, as seen in your new work The Thinking Arm, 2016. Other forms are more suggestive, for example with the stack Hollow Heads, 2016 or the â€˜headsâ€™ in earlier totemic works such as Women of the World, 2006. There is also the suggestion of time and history in Tombstones, 2012, a column that immediately calls to mind an ancient monument or standing stone. What attracts you to these motifs and to generic structures such as columns? These structures, I suppose, speak universally? ER: Yes, they have always been with us: a painted stick, a head, a column. Generic forms returned to
again and again, always recognisable but allowing an infinite variety of format and nuance. They are what people have always arrived at when separating a bit of material from the mass. This sense of an historical continuity of form interests me both in terms of our physical responses to the object and its familiarity of format and in the references we bring to it. The columns of Tombstones and Ruins, 2016 seem to echo an idea of past and permanence, of time and solidity, while Hi Rise, 2016 and Technical Support achieve the same use of space and height in totally different ways. They are columns but have very little in common with the weight and references of the two cast works.
ER: This multiplicity with similar ways of being present feels very important to me. Making an exhibition is in some way like laying out a range of options for existing: there are core elements that are constant and unchanging but the range of ways of being within that are infinite. The work An Array, 2016 deals with this idea of multiplicity also, in presenting variations and options for presence within a set of unified and contained parameters of colour and location.
An Array, 2016
ZL: Weaving has played an important part in your practice. There is immediacy with the woven pieces, I think, where the artistâ€™s hand is always implicit. Your woven pieces often involve leather, as an element in works such as Cactus, 2007, or as your primary material in other works like Meltdown, 2009. RedSun, 2016 is a large wooden disc across which hundreds of coloured garment
leather strands are stretched. The strands are knotted and connected at irregular intervals, creating a richly textured surface that reveals at once the process of making and the presence of the hand. The knots interrupt our sense of the unified whole, prompting the eye to focus instead on individual sections and the separation caused by the tying of contrasting strands. Does this reflect your rejection of the idea of totality?
RedSun, 2016 Commissioned by The New Art Gallery Walsall
ER: Rather than a rejection of totality, I feel that it is more about making explicit the complexity that is needed to approach an idea of wholeness. The piece is complete but, with the fringe, it extends outside the ‘frame’ that defines it so it has the suggestion of possible ongoing additions or subtractions. With the leather pieces, I am also interested in how colour can be moved through work by the accumulation of multiple elements. In more linear pieces, the gradual accumulation of differently coloured elements causes a colour shift that’s achieved through material rather than through blending or mixing as it would be with a painted surface. In RedSun, the two halves are clear to the eye but the location of the colour change varies with each strand and knot, and the nuances of colour in the red area occur through the use of other pure colours. It is the eye that unifies the surface not the materials.
ZL: The three large frames in the exhibition (Gated Community, 2016) were conceived originally for a domestic environment and set within Sonneveld House Museum, Rotterdam. There, the works were displayed as sculptural interventions into this modernist home, demarcating and negotiating space shared with functional objects in the house. Does the transition of these frames into a conventional exhibition context alter or redefine the work? ER: Although they were made with a specific initial location in mind, I always intended them to function beyond that. They were totally anomalous within the house: a hard, formal sculptural interruption in the rhythms of that environment. Creating an alternative architecture, they operated like a layer on top of the existing structure. In the Gallery it is the opposite, they
almost become domestic in scale, creating smaller locations within the space. Grouped with the other objects, they suggest the possibility of intimacy or even shelter. ZL: Soft Play, 2016 consists of a large vertical Perspex screen flanked by fabric covered triangular cushions, which act as supports for the Perspex. There is an interesting conflict here; a meeting of hard and soft, impenetrable and tactile. The title and oversize cushions bring to mind children’s indoor soft play centres, spaces that seem at odds with a gallery environment where children are encouraged to look but not touch. Many of your outdoor works invite physical interaction. To what extent do participation and play inform your approach to making and your selection of sites for the work? ER: As an artist I don’t think about play when I’m making. However, participation and interactivity relate to the audience or viewer and I do think about that. In my film, Boys and Sculpture (2012)ii I worked directly to test the limits of what we could call interactivity, but that was a unique situation! Generally though I feel that the primary site of engagement with art is through the eye and the contemporary desire for hands-on experience is sometimes so great that we forget that to just be in the presence of an object, looking, is actually interaction.
Soft Play, 2016
With Soft Play, I wanted to have the transparent panel supported by something that had an ambiguous material presence. I wanted to create a tension around the materials and their ability to do what the arrangement demands of them. The waxed and dyed fabric on the cushions doesn’t give much away about what the substance beneath might be and yet the title steers us towards a realisation of their lack of strength in relation to their bulk. It also suggests there are other ways in which the three elements could come together or that they could exist independently of one another.
ZL: Technical Support came out of the tapes accumulating in your studio. Elsewhere in the exhibition, with Ruins, other cast objects such as bottles and beer cans lie scattered at the foot of a high column of cast polystyrene, like historic relics or perhaps the debris of our throwaway consumer culture. We recognise the forms but removed from their original context and function, the objects offer up new associations. Through the casting process, do you seek to trick the eye, to destabilise our perception of what we know and ask us to look again?
ER: Yes, I always want people to look again, to become aware of their looking as active and searching. Cast objects create a material uncertainty that demands this harder looking. It’s such a simple thing, the transferring of form onto material and yet it has endless possibilities for transformation and confusion. It gives physical properties to objects that are totally at odds with their original materiality and allows them to function completely differently. Much of my work is quite linear and open and although it may be large it generally does not rely on volume for presence. I had been using these polystyrene blocks all the time as supports in the studio, the tapes too, and over time, they moved to have a more central place in the work. They had a volume that didn’t feel at odds with the other structures and casting them allowed
me to bring this volume into the room without the attendant suggestions of weight or specific construction. The blocks trick the eye; they toy with our expectations of the familiar. But through the casting process they become materially closer to the ancient rocks and boulders that they mimic. They allow me to make work that has a reference to heavy traditional sculptural materials but that is much more rooted in the reality of my studio and the urban context that I work in. They are whole yet in a constant state of collapse or decay. In Ruins, the blocks form themselves into a column, echoing the monumental, with their false suggestion of permanence and stability, while actually being materially equal to the cast debris thrown aside at the base. In environmental terms, there is something tragic about the fact that the gypsum-based resin used for casting will be long outlived by the now discarded but virtually indestructible polystyrene formers. ZL: You have described your work as existing in two different states: active and static. Specifically, the work as being active in the studio or when touched by art handlers and static in the gallery before viewing reactivates the work. So your sculptures move through different stages of activation depending on context? At the point of the sculptures entering the gallery your direct physical relationship with the work ends. Is the work complete at the point of interaction with the viewer’s eye?
ER: I think the active/static thing is not as straightforward as that. In the studio, the work is always unfinished and constantly being handled. At the point where it leaves, it enters into a different phase. It becomes active in a different way but generally is not subject to change in the way it is prior to exhibition. With regards to completion, I have my own intentions around the work but ultimately I think that each viewer completes the work for themselves. ZL: You have commented that one of the benefits of a longer practice is context. Looking back, are there any works or processes that you would revisit, ideas to which you intend to return? ER: I think it is all continuous. There are materials and ways of making that shift in and out of focus over time. There are earlier works you come back to time and time again and there are pieces that seem totally finished with and closed…. until you decide that they aren’t.
i Bruce Nauman, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 1967, neon and clear glass tubing suspension supports. With this early neon sign, Nauman set forth a powerful statement on the role of the artist in society. ii Eva Rothschild: Boys and Sculpture, Whitechapel Gallery Children’s Commission 2012. This film shows what happened when a group of boys, aged between 6 and 12, were let loose in a gallery full of the artist’s sculptures. The boys began their interaction with the space by looking, then touching, before totally dismantling the sculptures.
Eva Rothschild is one of the leading sculptors of her generation and has gained extensive international recognition for her work. Her practice is informed by an ongoing interest in the meeting points between spirituality, power, visual perception and the nature of materiality. She works across a range of media including steel, leather, resin, plastic and fabric and her work is often characterised by the use of unstable geometric forms. The artist has had solo shows at the Nasher Sculpture Centre, Dallas, Tate Britain and The Hepworth Wakefield, UK. Her work is held in major collections including Tate, The Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Irish Museum of Modern Art. She was elected to the Royal Academy in 2015. Eva Rothschild is represented by Modern Art, London; The Modern Institute, Glasgow; 303 Gallery, New York; Kaufmann Repetto, Milan; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich.
Events: In Conversation Thursday 3 November, 6.30pm, £3 - booking essential Join the artist for a talk about her work with Lisa Le Feuvre, Head of Sculpture Studies at Henry Moore Institute, Leeds. Book your place at the Gallery reception or by calling 01922 654400. Curator tour Saturday 12 November, 2pm, free, drop-in Join Zoë Lippett, Exhibitions and Artists’ Projects Curator, for an informal tour of the exhibition.
A large print version of this guide is available on request. The New Art Gallery Walsall Gallery Square Walsall WS2 8LG 01922 654400 thenewartgallerywalsall.org.uk
Supported by The Henry Moore Foundation and Culture Ireland as part of the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme.