art
 and 
context
Sculpture’s Got Form!
August 2014

The Eva Rothschild sculpture exhibition at the Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane is welcome opportunity to see several of the structural variations the artist has worked with over the last couple of years. There is the polygon based floor piece, the corner relief, wall reliefs, columns, and forms on pedestals. If this sounds straight out of the Modernist textbook, the evocative titles of pieces such as Dead Moon and Black Atom confirm an affinity with mid-century American art. Also, the use of primary and secondary colours and especially the black and sometimes shiny surfaces of several works, reference the high-tech architecture of postmodernism. Her references extend as far as the Greek column! While she has developed her signature style, the larger question beyond mere looks is where these references might take us? Whether it is the high-minded seriousness of high modernism or the playful pastiche of postmodernism, it is clear that Rothschild reflects a lot on three-dimensional art of the past. Modernism and postmodernism may be no longer the powerful indices they once were and Rothschild seems to state these only as points of departure or as an affirmation, rightly or wrongly, of continuities in artistic form. This exhibition poses some tentative possibilities as to where she might take things.

A supplement, if you will, to the exhibition is a video entitled, Boys and Sculpture. It is a recording taken by a camera placed in a fixed position in a gallery space which has several Rothschild sculptures installed. Into this gallery space troop eleven young boys who first look at the sculptures and then begin to enter into various forms of ‘play’, pulling the sculptures apart, playing football and sword-fighting with the units, as well as some attempts at re-construction of sculpture. If the originals looked Tatlinesque in their form, their fragility isn’t in the materials as was the case with the impoverished Tatlin’s of Revolutionary Russia, but in Rothschild’s exploration of relational balance. It is this that is torn asunder in the boys’ ‘play’ (the video does seem somewhat contrived). This might be looked at metaphorically in terms of present conditions: the base material is ‘strong’ but what we do to it as arbitrary, without plan. But the video, commissioned as a school’s project by the Whitechapel Gallery in 2012 [1] and used in Dublin City Gallery primarily as a reference point for groups of visiting children, inevitably will be determined in gender terms. Boys and Sculpture resonates with clichés about boys’ behaviour and with the expression, ‘Toys for the Boys’.

The subject of Boys and Sculpture may be the boys’ responses but the theme is adult. While it does not engage with the rule-bound game and seemingly encourages open-ended play, play is nevertheless a part of an induction process in socialization whether it occurs in childhood or in adulthood. There is always an instrumental aspect to play which limits ‘open-endedness’. On the face of it, it seems absurd but ‘play’ has become a serious matter as regards the contemporary economy. In the first instance, commentators have noted the blurring of distinction between work-time and leisure-time as the economy has shifted away from manufacturing industry and the fixed-time standard measure of nine-to-five employment. Second, in the drive towards the so-called knowledge economy over the past couple of decades increasing emphasis is placed on ‘creative industries’ as part of, not apart from, economic production. This is not simply to invoke the older defence posture that the arts are net contributors to the economy in cultural tourism and the like, but more fundamentally that creativity should function in the economic sector proper. Moreover, it may be noted that the large information technology companies to have emerged from Silicon Valley incorporate play in their workplaces. The rationale is that play ‘frees’ creativity which makes the workers better producers. At the same time, as pressure to engage and enlarge art audiences increases, so participation in the form of play or games around but also in art assumes priority. Rothschild seems to be making a case for open-endedness rather than the instrumental ends of economic rationale not only as regards these boys’ responses but that her sculptures are also open-ended—the perpetual re-invention of forms and the space they and humans inhabit. Such interpretation is itself to instrumentalize; insofar as we have choice in the new functionalism the choice over how one views ‘play’ may seem insignificant, but important nonetheless.

While the video is an addition, a set of photographs entitled People with Snakes is more intrinsic to Rothschild’s installation at Dublin City Gallery. People were invited to hold or interlace with snakes; photographs were taken and a selection of the results exhibited. For some time Rothschild has made reference to snakes in some of her sculptural work. This is exemplified in Do-nut (Wakefield), 2011. This polygon shape in six sections is immediately reminiscent of American Minimalism of the mid-1960s but the similarity ends there. The surface simulates the scales of a snake, the largely black surface is interrupted with the occasional flash of bright colour affirming ‘snakeness’. The form is hard shell on the outside but is suggestive of a softness within, similar but not identical to a doughnut coated in icing sugar. The allusion established in the title introduces an inviting quality more within the human comfort zone, leading, one supposes, to the photographs. What this might suggest is a transition from the anonymity of minimalist form and space to a tactile testing of form and space. Where Minimalism simulated industrial form, with the aid of human intervention Rothschild is nudging that form towards conditions that are perhaps more foreign or even alien to us.

As part of its publicity for this show Dublin City Gallery has made a short video made available on its website with Rothschild talking to camera about her work. The artist speaks of the importance of material presence to her practice, material in a broad sense, what it can do, its limits, how it operates in given conditions. But as she says, material ‘dematerializes’, nothing is static. The snake is a ‘largely sentient being’. Rothschild seems to pose the otherness of the snake as opportunity to reflect back on ourselves.

 

Notes:

[1] An extract is available at the Whitechapel Gallery website.

Illustration:

Eva Rothschild, ‘Someone and Someone’, Vestibule, Merrion Square, Dublin, Summer 2014.