Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Esther Rolinson: I am British visual artist who explores the use of new media technology as well as long-established artistic languages such as drawing and sculpture. I studied Visual and Performing Arts at Brighton University graduating in 1993. At the start of my career, I largely conceived installations for dance performances and lightworks. These immersive environments were designed as theatrical scenes but expanded and gained autonomy. I then began to create large-scale installations, public artworks and sculptural structures that involve the viewer and I hope invites them to participate in an artistic experience.
I have an interest in bringing consciousness to our sensations and I think this has led me to work with light. It has an immediacy and potential to affect our senses and has become an important feature of my artistic production. However, it is only one amongst a wide range of materials I use. Another key element is computer programming and in my work the use of new media is as essential as pencil and paper. Most of my artworks have hand drawings as a starting point. I use this very direct method to develop complex systems and forms that I go on to extends into three dimensions in installations. In many ways I place simple manual processes and advanced digital solutions side by side.
Over the last 20 years, I have worked nationally and internationally, making permanent and temporary public space commissions. I’ve exhibited in museums, galleries, art centres and festivals and had solo and group shows. I have artworks in collections such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, London and in 2016 I won the Lumen Prize Sculpture and 3D Awards and the ArtChi First Prize San Jose California.
RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?
ER: It is hard to choose a particular influence as so many events, people and inspirations have steered my art practice. One key element is that I have always felt very passionately about public space, right from before my degree. Something that influences me is the ambition to experience the power and potential of art in everyday places.
Although I am not religious, I find cathedrals, churches/places of worship to be powerful environments. This is not necessarily because of art and craft they contain, but more because they are places people can take their deepest wants, fears and wishes to. They are like empty houses for the soul. Of course, they are not exclusive in this, but they are places that somehow legitimately contain the ephemeral and the purpose is intangible. I am curious how I might make moments of ‘being’ like this more widespread, outside of a context of worship. Places or objects that allow us to attune to ourselves and instinctively affirm our connection to life.
I have been thinking/acting as an artist for as long as I can remember. As I have evolved I have been very fortunate in counting on mentors who have challenged and steered me. They are people like Andrew Wheatley of Cabinet Gallery, London who guided me towards my first steps of making public artworks. In the 1990s I spent time working in the Creativity and Cognition studios at Loughborough University run by Linda Candy and Ernest Edmonds. In this setting, artists and computer scientists were brought together to share their process. Since then, I have continued the conversation with Linda Candy who, in more recent years, has been assisting me to build up reflective aspects of my practice.
Right now I am also working with curator Caroline Menezes to consider works and approaches to new projects. For me, it is very important to have this dimension to understand my art practice deeply through knowledgeable discussions. Being an artist requires that you tread your own path, and it helps to imagine where you want to go next.
RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?
ER: I am concerned with connections between things. In the process of making my artwork I essentially connect to my felt sensations. These are of course influenced by my own memory and experiences, but I am curious about how they may also be part of an unconscious language that is common to others. I am interested in how this physical connection allows us to let go of our thinking mind and act beyond the limits of our thoughts. In my artistic research I look for coherent structures and patterns that build up into more unfathomable systems, that are too complex for our thoughts to truly comprehend. This is the main focus, for instance, of my new artwork now on display at Anise Gallery, London, an immersive installation titled Ten Thousand Thoughts.
I aim that my artworks provoke not only an intellectual but also a physical response in the viewer. I feel strongly that any response they have is valid and that there is no discernable idea or answer that they need to look for in the artwork. The artwork is ‘about’ the response it has provoked.
RB: What is the relationship between your drawings and your sculptural works? Can you say something about your working process in the creation of your artworks?
ER: My sculptural works are systems that are developed through drawings. I consider them to be three-dimensional drawings and when they are interpreted in computer programming they also become drawings in real-time.
My practice begins through rule based and instinctive drawings that I make very freely. Gradually through the drawing process an underlying rhythm or structure emerges. I then lift this into 3 dimensions, experimenting with materials and scales. The drawings may be textural and extend indefinitely or be individual shapes that resolve in finite forms. Recently there has also been a more narrative element developing in which the drawings are becoming like an evocative landscape.
To build installations I sometimes make on a large scale by hand in a meditative process such as for Flown (2016) or Ten Thousand Thoughts (2019). In public settings the works may be manufactured by metal/glass workers etc. I research extensively to find the materials and manufacturers that can express the essentially qualities of the work. I do not feel bound to make the same type of drawings/sculptural forms each time. My practice is process based and I am always experimenting, changing methods and materials to find the right solution to the questions the work is posing.
RB: Light is an important element in your work. When did your fascination with light begin and how has its use in your work evolved?
ER: Light has always been a feature of my work in some way. I have used it in many different ways throughout my career from digital video and screen based works to large public light works. It has been a constant feature. Light brings life and change to objects. It feels as if light brings an energetic force into an artwork particularly when it is controlled with the subtle complexity of programming.
Light also creates a time frame in the work, so it has more of a quality of a living entity that continues to change. Also movement and actions are a fundamental part of my process and the finished outcome. I often feel that I am attempting to describe a motion rather than a static fixed entity. So we might see it as growing, blowing apart of condensing together – like something going up in smoke or a sound travelling through space.
The relationship between light and form is fundamental in my work. I find that I spend a great deal of time discovering the form. Then this has some action in it that determines the light movement. The works could often be successful in some sense without light, but that movement seems to bring the object a fluidity that I cannot think of another way to achieve.
RB: Is collaboration with others important to you?
ER: I have had many experiences working with choreographers, filmmakers, programmers, architects, engineers and academics, technologists and design teams. All of these encounters have been enriching. Also alongside these on a practical level as I make works that use many different materials and methods team work and the skills of other are an integral and important part of the process. These partnerships are very important and I value them greatly. However, in terms of the origins of my artwork and its conceptual evolution I work in a singular manner. The artwork is something that originates deep inside my own world in a way that is not really possible to share. Although I hope it can be related to. The processes of bringing it into the world means that other practitioner’s sometimes influence the nuances but my decisions on how the work brought to fruition are based on my own internal process.
RB: How do the notions of disturbance, movement, repetition and rhythm relate in your artistic practice?
ER: I find that often my works focus on states of transition. It is like the ‘disturbance’ that is created when we move from one sensation to another. For example, from something that is locked into tension followed by release, from tomb-like silence to the booming sound of a raised voice.
I consider the sensations we experience in ourselves as subtle and complex physical movements and activities taking place in us. When I am making my work I am connecting unconsciously to my own sensations and attempting to render them in the world. In a way I am laying bare my own sensations as an offer to the viewer to perhaps inspire them connect to their own.
To do this I sometimes develop actions that can be repeated. I might do these hundreds or thousands of times. Although these rhythmic actions follow the same formula the results are always slightly different. For me there is something in that process that reveals qualities of my humanness. It shows me that I am unable to repeat myself and that repetition is only a mathematical concept. On a detailed level it cannot exist in the organic world.
RB: Can you say something about your series Gravitate?
ER: Gravitate is a series of drawings that I began in 2015 and is still ongoing. There are around six key drawing works. I began with the notion of drawing my own structure that would act as a mandala. I was curious about why geometric mandalas are used as a way to quieten the mind. So I thought I would draw my own and that the process of drawing it would be my own act of quietening my mind. The Gravitate drawing use simple combinations of straight and curving lines and ways of shading/colouring. Some of the drawings have a ‘meta rule’ that they will be completed when the drawings actions conclude in a circle. Others are as if this rule has been released and the energy in the drawing is expanding rapidly.
The Gravitate works are contemplations on sensations I hold inside myself. They are like portraits of my experience and people I am close to. I am currently using them as a basis for a large-scale light work where all the simple principles inside the forms are taken to a giant scale.
RB: In your view, what are the lines that connect art and science?
ER: The connections between art and science are obviously huge and it is perhaps only in recent times that they have been perceived so separately. On a simple level many artworks employ scientific methods in their production and scientific explorations have artistic outcomes. But, for me the real connection is that they are both acts of enquiry into matters we don’t understand or cannot fully express. As we discover greater levels of complexity and ambiguity in our understanding of the world perhaps it is more difficult to define what information is artistic and without ‘practical value’ and what is purely scientific without any further conceptual depth. Essentially through common practice the connections between everything are be revealed.
RB: What projects are you currently working on?
ER: I was recently, appointed as lead artist for new a £80 million building in the Musgrove Park Hospital, in Taunton, England. In this project I am working with the design team and developing a number of works that will be embedded into the new building. I have also been commissioned to make a 700m light-work for Cleethorpes Promenade. I am currently showing an immersive installation work Ten Thousand Thoughts in a solo exhibition at the Anise Gallery in London that will be on show until January 2020.
All images copyright and courtesy of Esther Rolinson
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