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With Mechanisms in Mind - An Interview with Conrad Shawcross by Francesca Goodwin

For the month of August 2013 the central space of The Roundhouse will be turned into a twilight world of dancing shadow by the leading British artist Conrad Shawcross, complimented by a programme of dance, music and spoken word from collaborators including Wayne McGregor, Siobhan Davies, and the London Contemporary Orchestra.

‘Timepiece’ is a specially commissioned, large-scale light installation, as part of Bloomberg’s Summer at the Roundhouse. In response to the twenty four columns of the space, Shawcross has constructed a vast suspended work that will allow visitors to investigate our perception and measurement of time.

As they orientate themselves within real time the visual spectacle will turn the concept of the clock back to its celestial origins.

Shawcross’ sculptures lie on the borders between geometry and philosophy, physics and metaphysics. Although imbued with the appearance of scientific rationality, it is the failed quest for knowledge of that which is beyond language, which attracts the artist.

Working on an epic scale his work resonates with the sublime while still retaining an evident sense of craft and humanity. Ostensibly mysterious and inexplicable they are in fact an invitation to the viewer to interact and to embrace what we cannot know.

Francesca Goodwin spoke to him in a brief pause amidst frantically bringing the project together before the show’s opening on 1st August 2013.

Here he discusses how (ironically) time is just a concept when you break open the clocks.

Francesca: Those who are unfamiliar with your work or, who see it outside a gallery context, could be forgiven for interpreting it as a product of science rather than aesthetics. You are, however, clearly identified as an artist. Where did your interest in the sciences begin and how do you achieve the balance that keeps the work in the creative domain?
My interest in the sciences really started when I was studying at The Ruskin at Oxford, visits to the morgue and looking at anatomy really sparked my interest. I’m also lucky to come from a very creative family environment [his father is William Shawcross, the biographer of Rupert Murdoch and the Queen Mother. His mother is Marina Warner, the novelist, mythographer and cultural historian].

In terms of whether my work is art or science, none of the models actually have a utility. The structures look rational but they are actually very metaphysical. They don’t have a function and can not actually perform the theories that they reference. Where the models fail as machines they succeed as artworks.

I think of science as an aesthetic device- a cloak, which then leads you down a conceptual path. As an artist I’m more concerned with what we can’t understand- the limitations in our language and perception and the problems we have in conceiving it.

Francesca: Time is something that has occupied much of your previous work. Here, time is literally evoked with the presence of the clock, what is it about time that so intrigues you?
In 1999 I visited Greenwich and saw a show on time. I didn’t understand it and that intrigued me. This concept that we can’t directly describe is what whole layers of our existence is built around- from the earth’s rotation on its axis to the whole universe yet we only really relate to it in terms of days of the week.

For this show at the Roundhouse I’m challenging the familiar way that we index time on a daily basis- the hours, the minutes and the seconds. This in turn challenges the stability of the things that we take for granted as being real and certain. I think a lot of my creative ideas have come from moments when the things that I’ve held onto as being permanent have been undermined…

Saying that, although there are personal influences, this is something we all experience this. The journey from a child to adulthood for example is about realising that our experience of the world is subjective. Everything is not as it seems.

I’m always looking for ways new ways of peering around corners in my work, to look beyond the real and imagine the impossible.

Francesca: How do these broader concepts of time relate to the structure of the theatre and how will the installation interact with the space?
It’s very much about the building as much as the piece. The clock will fill the space and hopefully pay homage to its beautiful circularity and gradations of light.  

The key to developing the concept was the discovery that there are 24 columns in the central atrium of the theatre.  Once I found this out, I started researching the history of timekeeping, starting with the Mayans and the Egyptians.

The Mayans for example were the first civilisation to give time the circular ‘face’ that we now associate it with. They were obsessed with the passage of time and developed exceptionally accurate calendars from studying astrology. They saw 360 as being a perfect and beautiful number. Hence they had 360 days in a year and 360 degrees in a circle. 364 and a quarter isn’t quite so beautiful…the Mayans would counter this by having a five day festival at the end of the year where they would basically just get drunk- kind of annihilating time.

So we can look back and justify years, months and days as a proven cosmological process but, in terms of the hour and there being 24 hours in a day, the reasoning is arbitrary. In Ancient Rome they split the twenty four hours into a twelve hour day and a twelve hour night but, the length of the hours varied between summer and winter, day and night. It must have been a nightmare.

When you look at it like this, you see that time is not the stable quantity that we suppose it to be- our lives are constructed around an illusion of constancy.

The piece itself echoes this. The rules of the clock drive the installation- the face hangs like a downturned sunflower over the central space and, the sunlight streaming into the theatre then casts a triple shadow effect from the three articulated arms.

The arms move at different speeds making our familiar sense of time suddenly peculiar. The ubiquitous clock is turned back to a more primeval, cosmic state that questions the social myths we use to structure our lives.

Francesca: You have a very hands attitude to the construction of your work which, also seems to echo this deconstruction of ideals, in favour of a more ‘human’ approach. Is this still of importance to you as your projects increase in scale and your pool of expertise to draw upon grows?
Yes definitely. I have a bigger team now but they’re all highly trained engineers and the work is very labour intensive. In fact, the more ambitious the project the more important it is for us to cut the costs down by making them ourselves- otherwise the price would be astronomical.  It also means that I keep control of the execution of the pieces- something that’s  very important for me.

Just as I believe in a linguistic determinism I also believe in a kind of tool determinism- if you really understand processes then you can imagine how to apply them and that informs the work. I really enjoy the making process and it’s the main reason that we do everything in house and, why I became an artist in the first place.

Francesca: There is clearly a very direct relationship between yourself and the work and, this  also seems to be reflected in the open invitation for people to engage with the installation on a ‘pay what you can’ basis. Would you say that the interaction of the viewer completes the installation?
Interaction is certainly important but, how that interaction comes about is not dictated by me. I don’t try to affect the way that people behave- the point is that you don’t have to understand the piece to engage with it.

When they enter the space, visitors will become shadows in a kind of giant chess game. Instead of suspending their disbelief people are absorbed into the experience. I wanted to create a space for soundless contemplation where there is usually the echoes of music and performance and the noise of the crowds.

I’m certainly not trying to trick people but rather to evoke the sense of quiet perplexity that astronomers must have felt when first looking at the universe- the difficulty at looking at the unknown. I’m certainly not a magician!

Timepiece will be shown at the Roundhouse NW1 8EH
1st- 25th August
Entry is on a pay-what-you-can basis

For further information about ‘TimePiece’ and the special events and talks please see the Roundhouse website roundhouse.org.uk

For more works by the artist: conradshawcross.com