“The weird thing about Venice,” says Eva Rothschild, sitting in her Hackney studio, surrounded by crated sculptural components ready to ship to the Biennale, “is that it’s the shiniest show in the world, and everyone else has done it before, except for the artists.” It’s true: most of the 87 national pavilions at the Biennale are run by teams who set up the same space every two years like a carnival on tour. But for the artists, it’s a once in a lifetime deal.
Not that the artist, who is representing Ireland, is an ingenue. Born in Dublin in 1972, Rothschild grew up near the seafront in Dún Laoghaire. There’s something of the harbour to her sculpture, which often incorporates boldly striped poles, spindly metal frameworks, cabling and casually spray-painted boulder forms that recall improvised portside infrastructure. It should look right at home in Venice, where the Irish pavilion exits on to old industrial docks.
Rothschild became best known for sculptures that I secretly think of as her “bad boyfriend” works: all glossy black, in slim angular metal, woven leather, latex and gaffer tape. They are fearsomely seductive, curiously suggestive. It was in this mode that she occupied the Duveen Galleries of Tate Britain in 2009 with Cold Corners, in which 1.8 tonnes of aluminium box tubing leaped through the space like the trajectory of an ever-bouncing ball. She had the opening exhibition of the Hepworth Wakefield in 2011, where regular visitors will know her Wandering Palm – a black, bowing tree with glossy PVC leaves and a trunk cast from stacked rolls of gaffer tape – that greets you in the window of the central gallery.
“I think my work started out quite glamorous and it’s got more and more scruffy as I got older,” she laughs. “I was definitely afraid of colour earlier on.”
Recently, Rothschild has been making cloth-covered geometric forms that recall objects from a children’s soft play area – cones, triangles, squares – and suspended punchbags. They’re stitched from red, green and purple canvas printed with a blocky, stonewall pattern. What look like the ruined remains of fluted classical columns are cast from corrugated cardboard, lovingly painted and polished smooth as marble. There are also walls of cast-concrete blocks painted with disorienting geometric patterns that don’t meet up, like a giant, unsolvable version of a toddler’s 3D block puzzle.
Rothschild has a horror of the phenomenon she calls “the look from the door”: snow-blind Biennalists glaring from the entrance then swooping past, as though they’d taken in everything at a glance. Interspersed with her sculptures are seats made from similar materials, inviting you to sit, drink coffee or check your phone. The audience become part of the composition.
She discusses sculptures as though they were family members. She arranges works for a show “like a conversation: you want to have things that go along with each other, things that interrupt each other and things that disagree with each other. You have to think about the room.” Like Lego bricks or “gone-wrong Ikea”, there are many ways the pieces can be put together.
There are also many ways they can come apart, as a group of primary-school-aged boys discover in Rothschild’s sweet, joyous film Boys and Sculpture (2012). Released into a gallery filled with copies of her work, the children progressively lay waste to it: her vertical sculptures end up as sticks and shards covering the floor.
The emergence of a very diverse body of work, and the possibility of clashes within it is one of the nice things about having “a longer practice” says Rothschild (we’re the same age, so we’ve agreed not to use the phrase “getting older”). Over time, “you see how things that seem anomalous in your work have their place. It’s like somebody you were really good friends with for a year: maybe you never see that person any more, but you know they brought something to you, and you to them.”
One of Rothschild’s geometric walls will be installed directly inside the entrance of the show in Venice. The Irish “pavilion” is actually the final chamber in a gargantuan sequence of interconnected spaces. By the time visitors reach it “they will probably have been walking for over two hours”, she says. “People will have been through a lot by the time they get there. I really wanted not to allow the space to become a corridor.” Instead, visitors will be forced to walk around the low wall, one way or the other, which physically casts them in among the sculptures. “Coercive control, yes: that’s my grand master plan,” she jokes. “Obviously, you can leave: it’s not like the European Union.”
Eva Rothschild: The Shrinking Universe is at the 58th Venice Biennale, 11 May to 24 November.