Architecture of Shadows: the sculptures of Caroline Rothwell
Caroline Rothwell, Blowback, Artspace, Sydney, 4 to 26 April 2008
Sculptures by Caroline Rothwell mostly take the form of filled volumes created by distending fabric and vinyl forms with air or molten metal. These volumes derive from borrowed images of plants, landscapes and other representations of the natural world. The artist starts with an outline or silhouette, modifies it and alters its scale, before using it to create her sculptural moulds. The relationship of a shadow to the form that cast it is a type of mirroring, but the mirror Rothwell employs has distortions built-in.
Her process ensures that her sculptures seldom retain direct reference to the original illustrations. Because some of these source images were produced during the colonial period of New Zealand and Australia, the two countries where she has most recently lived and worked, and involve representations of Nature with a capital ‘N’, there is a tendency for commentary on her work to focus on the way nature is conceptually framed within colonised territories.
I am told I was approached to write this piece because I was unlikely to give the work a postcolonial or ecological treatment and, happily, I can confirm it. Doing this would be attributing too literal a ‘subject’ to it, over-reading the work as commentary and assuming an undeserved fussiness for it in a case of can’t see the wood for the trees. Of course, there remains the issue of the very prominent sculpted bronze thylacine in Rothwell’s recent exhibition at Artspace that will be very hard for me to explain away, but I am going to do my best.
Instead I am interested in exploring the formal operations in Rothwell’s sculpture and how it symbolically engages with the idea of ’monument’. Her work exists as an architecture of shadows in a double sense: its formal devices give structure to what is ordinarily nebulous, and each sculpture functions symbolically as a monument, another name for that most shadowy of architectural forms, the tomb.
A feature of Rothwell’s work that goes unremarked in critical commentary is the fact that her sculptures are about sculpture. Her practice honours casting; she continually restages its logic in works that address casting’s procedures and methods as well as its products. The artist ordinarily stitches panels of cloth to together to create a mould into which she pours liquid metal. In the process of casting, a hollow form begets a solid one and the mould’s interior delimits the exterior of the sculpture. The textured warp and weft of Rothwell’s fabric moulds remains on the surface of the metal casts. This hints at the stripping away of cloth that has occurred and even gives the works an inside-outness that directly references their relationship to the moulds. It is as if the metal retains a memory of cloth. The sculpted form that emerges enshrines this material contact: the metal and cloth have touched, and both come away transformed.
Referring to the fact that many of his sculptures depict everyday objects that are old-fashioned, Claes Oldenburg has said ‘as time goes by and things they represent vanish from daily use, their purely formal characteristics will be more evident: Time will undress them.’1 Rothwell undresses her sculptures with rather more haste, stripping the cloth from their surfaces not long after they have turned cold.
The moulds typically occupy two-dimensions but, unusually, the pieces that emerge from them extend into the third. Because of the way they are created — by joining outlined shapes with a seam that becomes a sharply delineated edge on the final piece — the force and weight of the molten metal pushes the cloth out between the seams and the sculptures hat emerge resemble puffy silhouettes. This connection to silhouettes ensures that the works always retain a two-dimensional logic although they simultaneously operate in the round.
And despite this tension between two and three dimensions in the work, Rothwell’s sculptures do not operate as relief as they have no true frontality. Instead they function as improbable representations and impossible geometries. Representation ordinarily involves reductions or subtractions — diminution of the details or dimensions between the object and its depiction — as when three-dimensional space is expressed within a two-dimensional schema. This is not only the province of art but of representation in mathematics and the physical sciences too. In one sense, reduction is at work in Rothwell’s generalised silhouettes, which flatten all surface detail and are almost diagrammatic in their simplification. But at the same time, her work reverses this tendency towards reduction. She locates and claims a three-dimensional space within the verso and recto of a two-sided figure by pushing it open from within. In her work, shadows, normally understood as intangible, command serious mass and volume.
More recently, Rothwell has used a similar preparatory method but in place of liquid metal, she inflates the vinyl shapes with air using internal fans including, for example, two connected inflatable ‘islands’ in the exhibition Blowback at Artspace. Like the metal sculptures, these works are based on creating hollow forms then filling them, with the resultant object in this case operating symbolically as both mould and cast. In the relationship between the two, Rothwell finds a correlation with that existing between a form and its shadow: a kind of mirroring and reciprocity.
Rothwell’s artwork relates to natural history in the way its subjects include the dead and the near-dead. If I had to give her sculptures a taxonomy, I would classify them all according to the existence of a backbone. The small, heavy tin alloy sculptures displayed on tables or on plinth-tops and featuring branches coming off a central column would be designated vertebrates, while the invertebrates are the stuffed forms, and those filled with air. Through a kind of artificial respiration, Rothwell’s invertebrates participate in the life processes; the ballooning action of her inflatables models that of a bladder or a lung, and they tremble and shudder as if they are breathing. In Blowback, a ligature joined one large inflatable to another, but it was impossible to tell whether it was a tow rope, an umbilicus or some other form of life support.
By giving permanency to what is ephemeral, and in their relationship to the subjects of life, death and time, Rothwell’s works adopt the form and character of monuments, objects whose purpose is deliberately commemorative. The word ‘monument’ derives from monere, the Latin verb meaning to remember, and originally referred mainly to funerary architecture. A monument always commemorates something that is already dead, since an object that never dies has no need for its existence or its memory to be prolonged. If some of her invertebrates are undergoing resuscitation, all of Rothwell’s vertebrates are long dead and fossilised. A being on life support is something ephemeral trying hard to be eternal, while a fossil is of course its own tomb; between them, they represent two different means of perpetuation. The function of a monument is to ‘speak the past forward into the future’ according to a storage and retrieval model: it operates as an inexpendable stockpile of memory sent forth into the future to be drawn from continually without ever being depleted.
More than a representation of the past, a monument is a past form of representing the past — doubly past — because the building of monuments is now unfashionable. Instead of building deliberate structures for the purpose of commemoration, people now prefer to select their monuments from the world of readymades according to a process of nominalism, as is the case with Flanders Fields and concentration camps, sites whose original purpose was never commemorative. According to Deleuze and Guattari, however, all works of art are monuments. Moreover, in What is Philosophy?, they argue that ‘the monument is not something commemorating a past, it is a bloc of present sensations that owe their preservation only to themselves and that provide the event with the compound that celebrates it. The monument’s action is not memory but fabulation.’ 2 Symbolically, a monument operates not to keep something from the past but to set the stage for its potential return in the future, a return that is never entirely assured.
Of all Rothwell’s fossils, the bronze thylacine that appeared in Blowback at Artspace is a symbol of the most extreme posteriority. Not merely dead but extinct too: a kind of double death. This animal, however, seems far from it: in her installation, it stalked a strange metal portal as if about to walk through it, thereby staging its own dramatic return.
Blowback, the title Rothwell selected for her recent show, is a concept that belongs to the world of espionage and refers to unplanned consequences that emerge from covert operations. Often it refers to what happens when spies plant false stories in foreign media only to find the stories grow legs and are reported back elsewhere, including in the agent’s own country where they are repeated as if simple fact. These false stories gain a currency and, after being seeded by agents, circulate autonomously much like the ‘weeds’ Rothwell depicts in so many of her works. Blowback is not merely the problem of ‘the return of the repressed’, it is the problem of ephemera that does not disappear on cue but hangs around a little too long. Monuments too are a kind of blowback, a symbol planted in the future bringing with it fabulations from the past.
Rothwell’s bronze and tin alloy sculptures may endure the ravages of time largely unchanged. For the inflatable works, though, when the exhibition comes to a close, the plugs are pulled out, the fans turned off and the forms collapse back on to the floor where we always secretly expect shadows to remain. Time will undress them in the same way that time gives everything a dressing down — each island never more monumental than when it lies in ruin.
1. Claes Oldenburg, Object into monument, Pasadena Art
Museum, Pasadena, 1971, p. 9.
2. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy?,
Verso, London, 1994, pp. 167–8.Christine Morrow, Column 2, published by Artspace 2008