Truth is a largely subjective and challenging aspect of human existence, especially in these politically divisive times. Physical objects present a shared reality and an external point of reference, to which we can relate (though not always agree). Consider the artist Sophie Eisner, who creates an armature for the kinds of connections that are usually intangible.
Sometimes Eisner’s work looks like dramatic sculptures comprised entirely of coil-welded steel. These vessels might become instruments, activated through performance. She also enjoys casting common objects — tubs, sinks, funnels, and blocks — into some of her favorite materials, like silicon and concrete, manipulating them into abstract echoes of their former functions. Other times, she draws other people interacting with these forms, playing silicon tubs like a row of drums or hanging silicon sheets over their heads.
A recent photo series captures images of artist Beatrize Escobar in a performance in the Hundred Mile Wilderness region in Maine’s Piscataquis County, throwing nets made by Eisner with a set of self-made tools into the air. Literally and figuratively, Eisner casts a wide net.
A fair number of the objects produced by Eisner could be taken for readymades, but with the rare exception, the artist laboriously fabricates the majority of her works from components such as silicon, concrete, or steel solder. “The material comes in through how function and intimacy connect to bodies, memory, place, and relationships,” she told Hyperallergic.
As a post-graduation evolution of her MFA work at Cranbrook Academy of Art, Eisner developed “Sound is Touch at a Distance” (2016), a work that began as a practical attempt to build a giant coil pot entirely out of steel solder. She held the welding torch head in one hand and a piece of fine rod with the other hand and melted the wire into itself. This process continues to be prominent in her practice today. The piece soon evolved from an exploration of function to one of metaphor.
“At that time, I was thinking a lot about scars,” she said. “And how welding is like a scar; it’s a place where there’s a rupture and coming together, stitched back together. What if I make something that’s all scar tissue?”
The artist transformed the sculpture into a performance when she discovered that the fine metal strands in the work’s interior, a byproduct of the welding process, could be strummed to create a musical effect amplified by the wide-mouthed bowl shape of the piece, producing an instrument somewhere between harp, steel drum, and kalimba.
These welded forms also appear in her 2015 Cranbrook thesis, “This Definitely Happened,” (2015) which employs them as scar-riddled proxies in an abstract composition with the impression of a charred door and an undefined, sooty sheet of foldable silicon. The variable tableau seeks, in part, to unpack the emotional reality of a series of two house fires in the Berkshires that Eisner and her family experienced when she was three and five years old.
“I really felt most me when I was there,” she said. “My sense of family and love is very much connected to that house and that small bit of land.” Eisner grew up holding the trauma of that incident, laying clothing out every night so she could grab them in case of another emergency. The first fire was declared an electrical accident, but further inquiry revealed that both incidents were part of a pattern of anti-Semitic arson in the area. The piece grapples with the nature of memory and the evolving understanding of the event as an intentional, menacing, and direct attack on her family.
“There isn’t an absolute truth,” she said. “This definitely happened, but also this other thing happened, or I experienced it this way … this other person experienced it that way.”
This statement applies broadly to many of Eisner’s subsequent works, including the ironically named “Absolute Truth” (2019) at Simone DeSousa Gallery in Detroit, which further explores silicon poured to create a series of interconnected tubs that at once emulate the newborn ward of a hospital, a row of sinks, or troughs of food at a soup kitchen. Eisner also pours concrete into shapes that roughly emulate the torso of stand-mounted phone booths, a shape that Eisner affectionately calls “roundy rectangles.”
“It’s sort of ubiquitous, it’s the shape of an iPhone, it’s the shape of road signs, of a computer ,” she said. “I’m curious about how in different orientations and at different scales it means it is different things. And it’s also like a sink or a bathtub, which for me is the quintessential object of intimacy and utility.”
Most recently, Eisner employed an electric guitar readymade as the centerpiece of a new work encompassing ideas about the shared experience in isolation that is related, but not limited to, the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than porting into a speaker to amplify the sound, music played on the guitar can only be heard in a circle of “listening stations,” created by stethoscope-like headphones that jack directly into the instrument.
“I like that the direct connection between musician and listener, how intense the communication is,” said Eisner. “You’re hearing those physical vibrations of their fingers on the strings funneled right to your eardrums. You’re all sharing an experience and hearing the same music, but because of the way acoustics work, each person is hearing something different.”
The piece contemplates the years of pandemic isolation that have impeded global society and opportunities to gather. As we exercise the scar tissue of the past and reckon with the lasting impact of COVID-19 on our perceptions of time, space, and memory, it’s the best time for an artist like Eisner to highlight the connective force between people.