Vivienne Roche belongs to a generation who transformed what sculpture could be. ‘I don’t consider myself an object-maker. I work with place and change’, she tells Brian McAvera while her exhibition continues at the Royal Hibernian Academy
Brian McAvera: You were born in Cork in 1953, a city whose ‘otherness’ has been well summed up by Seán O’Faoláin in his autobiography. Do you think that its distinctive ambience and history influenced your work?
Vivienne Roche: Even as a child I understood it to be a small city and I felt it to be a personal one. I was born in the house I grew up in: the only member of my family born there. The Edwardian house was on a road that formed a boundary between the city and the country even though it was only about a mile from the city centre.
My father was an engineer, my school a few doors from his office in the city centre. I often went on site visits with him. My own sense of the city was the physicality of it rather than the people: buildings, bridges, Sutton’s building going on fire and being let out of school to see it; a ship hitting a bridge, hearing the thud, and being allowed out to see that too!
I think, yes, the city’s industrial base has certainly influenced my work. Verolme Dockyard, where I made my first commissioned sculpture, and which functioned until the 1980s – Dunlop’s, Sunbeam’s, Ford’s, all had large workforces.
I was conscious of Cork as a port and of the industrial history of its hinterland. On Sunday mornings we used to see the ships that were moored, the bollards and cranes on the quays. The engineering, the industrial sense would have come through in my work. I had no major feeling about the cultural life of the city other than being aware of theatre. My father was involved in amateur drama and I would have gone to lots of shows, both amateur and professional. I remember the night the Opera House burned down, although I was only two.
BMcA: You have a preoccupation with sound; what is it that attracts you?
VR: What attracted me in the beginning was form. The bells came out of a series of pieces I had made based on the shapes of musical instruments, so I made sculptures in steel which, almost incidentally, could make a sound. I then became more interested in sound. The first bells were also made in steel; and my introduction to bronze was through sound. Leo Higgins suggested that I cast a piece in bell metal: I made a whole series of sculptures that were bells, though I never could anticipate what they would sound like. That was part of the excitement for me. Interestingly, I never felt part of the Sound Art Movement. The sound was incidental to the form, but nevertheless, it was a big aspect of the way people interacted with the work as they touched the bells and made them ring.
BMcA: I think that much Irish sculpture of the 1970s and 1980s was influenced by the ‘renaissance’ of English sculpture: Tucker, Caro, King and company, as well as by Americans like Calder and Smith. They are all concerned with finding resolutions to formal problems, and that seems to be true of yourself. Would you agree?
VR: I would now say that many of those later sculptors were place-makers, working in a formal way. I continued to look to the USA and to people like James Turrell, and Robert Irwin. Caro later moved into the space between architecture and sculpture. The late 1960s and 1970s was very important for the development of so much art – environmental art, for instance was moving away from object art. I don’t consider myself an object-maker. I work with place and change.
BMcA: As your father was an engineer, it’s perhaps no surprise that you have worked with large-scale steel and bronze sculpture. Was your father’s occupation formative, and if so, was this very male preserve offset in any way by a feminine principle?
VR: It was formative. There would have been a lot of discussions at home about projects that my father was involved in – bridges at Wexford, Youghal, New Ross; Cork Airport (he was consulting engineer) – it was so much a part of the family discourse that I didn’t even notice it. There was influence too from my mother, a home-maker. My mother was interested in fashion and was very glamorous. She liked architecture: as we walked we discussed the newly-built houses we passed. She had a set of furniture made to her design – a table and chairs: very contemporary with white leather. That was in the later 1960s. When I was making NC Iris I focused initially on the engineering side. But it was the engineering of flowers – my mother’s influence. She was a great gardener. Of all my works, NC Iris reflects the influence of both my parents.
BMcA: You went to the Crawford Municipal School of Art from 1970-74, and then spent a year in Boston in 1974-75 at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. What were the differences between the two establishments?
VR: The difference was one of scale. When I started in the School of Art in Cork there were fifty in our year, but there were only about sixteen in the other years. The school was just beginning to grow. John Burke came back to teach in my second year (he had been working with Bryan Kneale) and he brought with him all that was contemporary in British sculpture, so my formative figures were Caro, King, Tucker, Kneale et al. The Museum School was very established with a varied sculpture department where people worked in different materials and in all kinds of ways. At the time I chose to go to the States rather than to a British school as I didn’t want more British sculptural influences. I had previously been in the States working on a student visa and had become intrigued by architecture. I knew then that I wanted to investigate that too.
The School of Art in Cork was more like an atelier system, tutors had studios and we drifted towards those we knew could develop our work. I worked as an assistant to John Burke for one or two of his exhibitions, rather like an apprentice. It was a technical education too. We learnt to weld, amongst other skills. The American system was modular so I explored more, including painting in watercolours. For my first exhibition, I made many paintings of buildings so that experience shaped me.
The U.S experience? I was one of those children taken to Dublin for the first ROSC exhibition. That was my first experience of contemporary art. In the USA the sheer volume was astounding – Smith, Calder and Rickey were all sculptors with engineering backgrounds. Christo made the Rhode Island wrapped piece which I saw, and also a show of large-scale work at Rhode Island Mansions, which we visited from school in Boston. The scale of these projects amazed me. When I was in New York I went to see as many bridges as galleries, and reported back home! At that time there was no support at all for further education and I couldn’t afford to stay long. I was worked at two jobs while I was a student in the USA: a waitress in an Italian restaurant, and a framer, of small prints mostly, for Harvard students, framing prints of Wyeth, Rockwell and other popular American painters.
BMcA: One thinks, in relation to yourself of the machined aesthetic versus the figurative, the balance between urban and rural, between archaeology and the present. How do you see yourself?
VR: I see myself somewhere rooted in the built environment. My attachment is stronger to architecture and architects and to works in public places, and that’s because my interest is in place-making. In the early 1980s, I received an Arts Council travel grant which I used to get a rambling plane ticket in the US to look at the work of architects such as Kevin Roche. I also became interested in cor-ten steel, a material I had first seen in Kevin Roche’s Ford Foundation HQ in New York. I visited him in his studio in New Haven and also the office of I M Pei, who designed the National Gallery extension in Washington. Incidentally, Peter Rice, the Irish engineer, whose work I am currently drawing, engineered I M Pei’s inverted pyramid in the Louvre, among other major works. Much of the architecture which interests me has an engineering solution which influenced the final design. I tried to follow trends in new uses of materials and that interest continues today. When I came back to Ireland I made watercolour paintings of buildings I had visited in the U.S. and later of Irish buildings, including the Arts Building at TCD by Ahrends Burton Koralek.
BMcA: When an artist lives in a specific environment, it often seeps into the work: city, waterways, coastline. How important is the environment for you?
VR: Very important. I’ve been living by the coast for more than thirty years. It took a while for my environment to seep into the work. It’s not always obvious but it’s a constant, in the use of glass, for instance, which has a relationship to water. So many aspects of my work are influenced by the rhythm of the sea, like Flow in Fingal County Hall, Wave Shadow in Dublin Dental Hospital and Tidal Erotics at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane.
BMcA: Take us through the genesis of a work like NC Iris for the National College of Ireland. What kinds of problems did you have to surmount as opposed to the smaller scale ‘A Light Interlude from the Pulpit’ in 2011?
VR: NC Iris was a commission to mark the National College of Ireland’s relocation to a new square in Dublin city centre (see Irish Arts Review Winter 2006). My early ideas were for a tall, slim sculpture which would use light to make its mark. As the square was being built I felt what was needed was something to connect it with nature and so I settled on the idea of this gestural form, a flower within a flower: an iris with an arum lily.
With any commission, the key to its success is trust between artist and client. I was trusted with my ideas and I could discuss these freely while it became a buildable project and I was given the necessary resources for this research. There was a long research period with Arup Consulting Engineers. I started with a hand-formed sketch model which consisted of a stainless-steel mesh form and a bronze cast of a miniature iris. This was the basis of all subsequent computer models for NC Iris for visualisation and structural analysis and the sculpture was built from these – a new way of working for me, working with people of different skills coming together in a creative way to make it happen – engineering was key as we were using materials in a new way, the outer material was developed on the principle of medieval chainmail, but writ large. It had to stand up yet seem to be flowing. Vein-like structural elements make it stand. The outer form was made from more than a quarter of a million stainless steel links fabricated and welded together so that it would appear like a cloth of light. The Iris inside was a more straightforward construction formed in sheet metal. The look of NC Iris was designed to become much more versatile and dynamic by night. This was achieved by an easy-to-operate, computerized lighting system which bathed the sculpture in a palette of soft colours, and which slowly changed over each month of the year. Unfortunately, this key lighting feature has not been maintained and, sadly, NC Iris has lost its envisaged night-time presence in Mayor Square for quite some time now, and is proportionately diminished as a work of public art.
I worked on two projects at the same time and both over a number of years, NC Iris and White Light Garden were completed in 2006 (see also Irish Arts Review winter 2006) and each had a team of engineers, lighting designers and fabricators. When it came to Light Ensemble in 2008, I wanted to work in a more direct and hands-on way, in contrast to the two previous commissions. The three-part work, Light Ensemble is a sculptural bridge between music and architecture. The commission was a gift to CIT Cork School of Music from MOLA, architects of the new building and Sisk Building Contractors. After observing how light worked within the building, I chose reflections cast at a precise moment as being most in tune with the building. The plaster piece 15:35 is placed on the atrium wall below where the reflection occurs on the 5th of June each year; the painted piece 15:33 occupies the exact shape and place of its reflected source. The third part, Night is based on the play of light on a grand piano (Fig 8). The work began in the studio: modelling in clay for casting in plaster. The painted element was an in situ painting and was undertaken when the School of Music was already open and functioning. With ‘A Light Interlude from the Pulpit’, the inaugural exhibition at Christchurch/Triskel in 2011, the work wasn’t so much small scale as multi-locational (Fig 4). I engaged with the history of the church but in the context of it becoming a new kind of civic space/arts venue again through the medium of light.
BMcA: Your current work is in glass?
VR: The exhibition in the RHA, ‘Spirit and Light’ works with light in a number of ways and many of the pieces have glass as a subject or material. Quiet Monuments were made as a series of memorials to the passing of five loved people, whom I knew or knew about and each is titled by the month in which they died (Figs 3&7). Their stories are not my stories but I wanted to mark their lives and deaths for different reasons. Every life remembered is an act of commemoration. It’s the spirit of someone’s life that is held in other people’s memory. A related work is Well-water font/Sea-water font, which has as its genesis a life lost at sea and a life lost while saving at sea (Fig 6).
In Sunlines, the special quality of dichroic glass animates the space, as light reflects and plays on the sculpture (Figs 1&5). I’m interested in the way the glass reflects colour. It can be dynamic or meditative, depending on the quality of light. You cannot pin it down, as colour and shape change with your perspective and the time of day. This is achieved by the angles in which the glass is held, which varies the relationship of one colour to another. The configuration of the four-part work can also be changed to maximize the play of light. Ever-changing light makes an ever-changing sculpture.
Vivienne Roche ‘Spirit and Light’, RHA, Dublin until 28 April 2013.
Photography of figs 1 & 2, 5-7
Brian McAvera is an art critic.