On the surface, Conrad Shawcross’ sculpture retains the appearance of scientific rationality. However, the inherent geometry maintains a profoundly poetic and metaphysical core. His art raises many questions about what we take for granted and encourages us to see beyond the physical. Shawcross (b. 1977) studied at the Chelsea School of Art, the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, and the Slade School of Fine Art (University College London). Shawcross is the youngest living member of the (RA) Royal Academy of Arts.
PCR: How do you describe your practice?
CS: It’s very abstract. It’s concerned with geometry and a lot of analogue and ancient phenomena which gives it a very human non-digital experience. It is mathematical. I’m quite dubious of the term ‘Sacred Geometry’, but there is an essential element of space and time that predates us and will exist well after our demise. Sometimes the work looks like Platonic Solids, properties in space. We take these rules and profundities and exploit them in rule-based progressions in sculptures. The work has a cloke of rationality they appear to be mathematical and rational, but beneath them, they are quite metaphysical and poetic.
PCR: Is any of your work inspired by naturally occurring organic geometry?
CS: There is a lot of inspiration from the organic, but it is more from my discovery of the tetrahedron. When I put them together in sequences, they become reminiscent of natural formations like trees or brain stems, neurons or ice crystals, so they have a resonance of things that already exist, but they come from a pure mathematical place. It’s sort of tapping into a nature that already exists, but just with the experimentation of pure geometry. I want the work to oscillate so it will never be definable like a tree or a brain stem.
PCR: What do you consider to be the markers in your career?
CS: There are lots of series of events that have altered my work. Breakthrough moments, like the time I tied a lightbulb to the end of an articulated arm. I had bought these ratioed cogs in Shanghai and taken all of these beautiful numbers out of a book about harmony. I attached the cogs to the arm and it was flicking around violently. It was quite random, harsh and abrasive. I took a photograph of it. It was a perfect moot piece of light, the perimeter of a Pringle. It felt like a eureka moment like a scientist discovering something for the first time.
The shape that it made (using 2 to 1 then 3 to 2 ratios) with one arm being half the length of the second etc. has gone on to become the piece in Dulwich Park, for example. In this piece, you can see the beautiful smoothness in the pathway and the paradox between the particle and the wave. As a young man in his bedroom, it helped form my direction.
PCR: What drove you to become a maker?
CS: I was always taking things apart as a kid. I just had that sensibility. My parents were both writers and I was just drawn to this. My stepfather was a painter. He had a metal toolbox and I was always looking at the tools. In hindsight, it was one of the most impoverished toolbox ever. They weren’t very practical in that sense. I used to build precarious towers. My parents used to worry that I didn’t read enough. When I was old enough to drive, I took the engine apart of this old Leyland Camper Van stripped it down and put it back together. I learned how to convert reciprocal movement into linear movement. I got obsessed with the Haines manual. I loved all of the terms the pistons, spurs, all the different gears, and the crankshaft. It’s like I love all of the digital terms now. They all have beautiful analogies like cloud. They eventually become commonplace and taken for granted. Our generation thinks of the cloud as just a normal thing. There is such poetry in the words of new technology. Mechanics have always inspired me.
PCR: Do you see the future of fine art blurring the line between art and technology?
CS: Yes and no. I’m quite defensive of art being a non-professional medium in a way. There are a lot of groups of designers who call themselves artists some have hundreds of people working for them making immersive, virtual spaces that you can walkthrough. They are very popular in terms of museum footfall. But I still believe in the solitary and lonely endeavour of the artist and the lo-fi element to it. Technology is a different term to engineering. My work is about structure and gravity not necessarily about technology or a comment on technology, but we do utilise quite leading-edge technology in the process of the work. A lot of the work wouldn’t be achievable without 3D computer-aided design. The pyridines, the complex tetrahedral structures grow from rational numbers.
PCR: Do you work with computers? If so, do you think your practice could exist without computers?
We do work them downstairs, but it’s not something I do. I don’t spend eight hours a day using CAD. I spend more time doing sketches and the mathematical rule base along with the progressions. My work, however, would be different without computers. Some of the pieces look quite simple, but they couldn’t be made without computers. They may look primaeval, but they are very much of a digital age. In the end, my work is not about technology; it’s far more analogue. It just uses contemporary techniques to arrive at the finished work.
PCR: Have you considered working in VR or AR
We do use it downstairs but only to work out placements for work in a show before we go to a very tight install. Currently, we’re arranging the install of a show for Chateau Lacoste in France. Another example is this digitally printed maquette for a commission which is going outside Liverpool Street station if you can imagine were making one of these at 7.5 meters. The foreshortening and parallax of looking up at it’s hard to imagine without using VR. We’re using the VR in case we need to change the decay rate, or if a curve is coming down too far, we may need to compensate.
PCR: What have been the key challenges that you’ve had to overcome to enable you to continue being an artist?
CS: Obviously, I’ve been very fortunate, but finding a space in London to work in was monumentally important. I’ve been here in Hackney for about 14 years. This space was a derelict old barn of a space. This area was called murder mile and to many was terrifying. There were no restaurants or shops to speak of. We carved out the basement and without the luxury of this space, it would be problematic to achieve the scale of work I’m producing. It’s given me the liberty and time to explore my practice.
PCR: Which artists have inspired you?
A lot of the rule-based artists were inspirational. Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre come to mind. Monet as he produced obsessive repetition using the same subject, changing one variable each time. Duchamp when I was a student but more contemporary artists like Mike Nelson, his work takes my breath away every time I see a show. The pathos of his work the sadness of redundancy all of these emotions are achieved through the juxtaposition of mechanical objects. He actually has been a real supporter of mine. He was one of the judges of New Contemporaries the year I was included. I knew his work before and think he is a true master.
PCR: Which non-artists have inspired you?
There was a book by Sadie Plant called Zeros and Ones. It was about Ada Lovelace, daughter of mathematician Annabella Byron. It was a poetic treaty between Ada and Babbage (English mathematician and writer, chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage’s proposed mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine) It was an attempt to build a machine that failed. They died unacknowledged. It’s about the heavy price you pay for being ahead of your time.
PCR: If the timeline in Modern art splits at the junction of Duchamp and Picasso, which way do you naturally follow and why?
CS: My inclination would be to say Duchamp because he was a sculptor and a Conceptual sculptor, but there are so many interesting subtexts going on with Cubism like quantum mechanics dealing with time and space. Much has been written dealing with Einstein and theories of time-space and its influence on Cubism that it’s difficult to choose.
My instinct to make Conceptual sculptures draws me to Duchamp he currently has a piece in the Science Museum using three pieces of string that falls together randomly, plays on measurement. These pieces were massively influential on me as an artist. I love the playfulness. The ideas of conscienceless and perceptiveness in society as a result of things like quantum mechanics are unavoidable. It didn’t seem to affect Picasso who was coming up with his own way of painting.
PCR: If you could own two pieces of art, what would they be?
CS: I would love one of Mike Nelson’s Asset Stripper pieces at the Tate. One of the other pieces I love so much is Joseph Kosuth’s neons, Five Words In Blue Neon.’ It’s the intellectual playfulness, a chaotic system that by describing itself it is changing itself.
PCR: Tell me a bit about your sculpture ‘Bicameral’ that was recently unveiled at Chelsea Barracks
CS: It was inspired by a book I read 20 years ago called the Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Bicameral is a word in the book that I just loved the sound of. It is a word that comes from bi, meaning two and cameral meaning room. So a two-chambered room. It’s used to describe a part of the brain but also used in Parliament to describe the chamber of the house. The House of Lords and the Commons. Also, the left and right within the House of Commons, where you have the speaker in the middle. The symmetry of the room is very beautiful.
Bicameral is a mathematical work which has a stem that divides and subdivides with a beautiful capillary-like system. It’s a tough piece. I wanted to combat the toughness with something metaphysical or psychological.
PCR: On the eve of a General Election, what do feel about the state of politics in the UK today?
CS: I think it’s tragic to watch. All of the parties are tearing themselves apart, trying to come up with unobtainable objectives. If we had a referendum on let’s build a time machine and go back 50 years everyone would say, we can do it this way, trying to achieve this thing that’s chasing a unicorn. I don’t really know how you can go back. There were so many different names for this country when I was little it was called Great Britain then you have England. I don’t know what to call myself. British or English, United Kingdom? Many other people don’t know either. The fact that there are so many names shows how fragile the country is. There are 150 habitable islands that make up the UK. It’s a messy situation. We are a union of our own, aside from the EU. The EU has created a less tense situation for Northern Ireland and Gibraltar. Is this now going to return? There are huge paradoxes everywhere Scotland wants to become independent but part of Europe. If you think Brexit is bad, the breakup of the UK is ten times worse. The SNP are going to clean up in Scotland because the Tories don’t have a proper leader and Labour is incoherent. The SNP have a clear message. The rest of the UK will be more fractured and confused. I do believe Corbin is right that we do need to have another referendum.
PCR: What question would like an interviewer to ask but never seems to surface?
CS: Hans Ulrich Obrist always asks, What is your unfinished symphony? An unfinished project that will always be your legacy. I don’t know if I can answer this one now.
PCR: What’s in store for the upcoming year?
We’re going to start building this rope machine. It’s a project we’ve been working on for ten years now. It’s an asymmetric rope machine that’s inverted. Instead of having all the arms the same length it has one primary arm three secondary arms, nine tertiary arms twenty-seven quaternary arms and one hundred sixty-five spools which are all aperiodic. Kind of like a mobile as It’s suspended from the ceiling. I proposed it to David Walsh in Tazmania. It will be housed in a new extension that he has built for his museum.
PCR: How large will it be?
CS: It’s twelve metres across. This one has no arms the same length and all spools are varying thicknesses. The gearing is aperiodic so that it will create a predictable/unpredictable rope. A never-repeating umbilical cord. It’s being built to fit this eighteen-metre core in the bedrock. So you start at the bottom with this big pile of red rope which gets thicker and thicker. Were going to finish the design by February. David Walsh has permitted us to show it once before it gets packed up in boxes for five years. I’m hoping to show it in a cathedral in the UK.
Interview/Top Photo Paul Carter Robinson © Artlyst 2019
Conrad Shawcross’ latest work Bicameral can be seen at Whistler Square, Chelsea Barracks, London.