Eilís O’Connell is widely admired for expanding the language of sculpture; here she tells Brian McAvera ‘Gravity is my dearest enemy’ ahead of her participation in ‘Ark’ this summer at Chester Cathedral
Brian McAvera: Take us through the genesis of a work.
Eilís O’Connell: I’m tentative. At the moment I’m making a sculpture for a show called ‘Ark’ at Chester Cathedral. It’s fourteen meters long and will be shown in the grounds of the Cathedral. The theme ‘Ark’ suggests shelter and refuge so I decided given the current political climate in Europe and Brexit, it would be good to make something relevant.
Being safe today is almost a question of geography, politics, the randomness of where you happened to be born, or where you happened to be at a certain time of day. For some though the terms of existence result in a forced migration. The most horrific being the boats crossing the Libyan Sea and the desperate situations people find themselves in. These stories haunt me and that feeling of being unable to help has filtered into my work, so the focus of my sculpture in this exhibition is the need for refuge. Often I make inviting, hollowed-out spaces as part of a sculpture but this one is different. It’s called Capsules for Destinies Unknown and is made of corrugated, galvanised steel and polycarbonate sheeting, everyday materials that are often used to make temporary living spaces. From a distance, it looks like a missile or warhead.
BMcA: It was at Cork in 1970 that the sculptor and lecturer John Burke introduced you to the techniques of steel sculpture. How formative was this and how important were your peers at this point in your career?
EOC: At that point the only course in Cork was the ATC which was an art teaching course that covered all subjects. ‘Sculpture’ was modelling from life and therefore we needed steel armatures. John had been working with Anthony Caro and Brian Kneale in London and somehow convinced the college to set up a metal department with a welding room. With John, I saw what you could do with steel. One of the hardest things in sculpture is to make things stick together and not fall down, so I learned how to weld, which was fantastic….