the gentlewoman

The Calling

The Dublin-born, Belfast-educated and London-based sculptor Eva Rothschild is representing Ireland at this year’s Venice Biennale. The 47-year-old’s work is often a jumble of geometric forms rendered in steel, leather, plastic and resin – multiple, precarious layers all relying on each other for support. Rather appropriate for now, wouldn’t you say? The Gentlewoman’s contributing writer Sophie Hastings gets inside Eva’s studio – just please, don’t touch the work.

Eva Rothschild

Sophie: How do you start your days?

Eva: I get my three children to school and if it’s bright I try to run. But the main thing is to be at the studio as early as possible. I have a cup of coffee and go through my lists – I’m an obsessive list-writer. My team usually comes in a bit later than me, so I have that time just to be with the work and think things through. Being engaged and physically present with the work is what a studio practice is all about. The worst thing for me would be to jump on the computer so I try to avoid it. If I have emails, I’ll do them on my phone, but I really prefer calling people.

S: Do you have a work uniform?

E: Jeans and either an enormous hoodie, overalls or an apron covered in plaster. I’m big on aprons. They get heavier and heavier from the encrusted materials until you realise that you have a neck-ache.

S: Is your studio messy too?

E: The studio is quite small, 12 metres by 6. It’s clean and tidy in what I call “the office”: a narrow bench in front of the window with a computer and a printer. There are models on a table, as well as sketchpads, notebooks and various mugs of un-drunk coffee. Then everything gets progressively filthier. There’s the making space – at the moment I’m carving blocks of polystyrene. And then a dividing wall, behind which is a room for casting and spray-painting, with a sink. That’s the pit.

S: Are you a natural boss?

E: It’s like anyone who is running something: if you’re the chef, you write the menu, but it wouldn’t work if your team couldn’t make an omelette.

S: How do you hire?

E: You need creativity in your team and you need the right people to work with. All of them are artists, even the administrator. The broadness and discursiveness of art school is a really specific education and creates a commonality among the people who have gone there.

S: What was your own educational experience like?

E: I went to a high-achieving girls’ school in Dublin in the 1980s and we did nothing practical at all except for home economics. Then I went to art school at the University of Ulster in Belfast, aged 18, which was overwhelming at first. I’d only ever drawn oranges and bottles on a desk at school, and never held a saw. There was something terrifying about the masculinity of the workshop – the technicians, the guys in welding masks – and even though I liked it I felt it wasn’t for me, so I went into printmaking.

S: How was it living in Belfast, after growing up in Dublin?

E: Belfast was cut off from the rest of the world, which was very freeing. No one was watching, it was just you, your tutors and your 30 peers. Things do occur in my work and I wonder about connections with the past. I’m interested in “hazard architecture”, those supposedly temporary objects and barriers that are a very physical presence, and are about correction and control.

S: When did you begin to call yourself a sculptor?

E: I was making stuff on the side and thinking, “That looks great, I like that.” Then I did an exhibition in 1999 at The Modern Institute in Glasgow and for the first time somebody gave me a small amount of cash to make what I wanted. I was able to buy the materials and I thought, “Yes, this is where I live now.”

S: What was your childhood ambition?

E: I always wanted to be an artist. My parents weren’t artists – my mum worked at a hospital – but there was a sense that art had value. My uncle was an artist, as was my great-aunt, so it was a possibility. And if there were a big exhibition on at the National Gallery of Ireland we’d be taken to see it, in that upstanding sort of way.

S: How long do you spend working on an exhibition?

E: I tend to work very close to an exhibition. I mean, there’s the thinking that might have been going on for ages, at the back of my mind, but usually the work happens in the three-to-four months before the show.

S: Tell me about the furniture that accompanies your sculptures.

E: So much of looking is driven by narrative. With film-based art, there is always somewhere to sit, but not for painting or sculpture. Making the space more welcoming leads to a longer viewing and deeper experience of the work. So I’ve made this huge donut that is both a sculpture and seating for spectators. By creating seats out of the same material as the sculpture, I’m giving people access to the material.

S: And that stops people poking your actual sculptures?

E: Exactly. That’s not something I’m keen on.

May 2019. Interview by Sophie Hastings. Portrait by Anna Purkiss, courtesy of Sam Talbot. The Shrinking Universe is open from 11 May to 24 November 2019 at Artiglierie, Arsenale, Venice.