Maths, Alchemy, Art: The Sculptural Practice of Conrad Shawcross

Conrad Shawcross

Conrad Shawcross is critically acclaimed for his sculptural practice which probes the intersections of art, science, maths and philosophy. In his early career, he became renowned for his vast mechanical works, often made in homage to great scientists but in recent years, he has ‘matured’ into the making of static works. Could stasis offer greater possibility for reflection and engagement than movement?

In this HENI Talk, Shawcross tells us about his recent inspiration: moiré. This dazzling mathematical phenomenon, also known as an interference pattern, is something that many creators – from filmmakers to engineers – seek to avoid. Yet Shawcross has harnessed and honed this beguiling phenomenon – at once still and shifting – into sculptures which make us doubt our visual experience. Indeed, Shawcross’s art questions what we may take for granted, encouraging us to see beyond the everyday.

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There’s a lot of links to science in the sense that there are huge struggles within science to represent things we will never see; to convey ideas and communicate ideas. And similarly, artists – we are trying to represent complex conceptual ideas, or abstract ideas, visually. And that is our challenge that we are trying to deal with every day, and I think that’s very similar to what a scientist does. But the good thing about an artist it that you don’t really have to prove anything or justify your sources you can just sort of mix things up and just use a bit of alchemy, put a bit of philosophy in maths and art.

I’m a sculptor. This is my studio, I’ve been here for the last sort of 12 years. A very purpose-built resourceful space with cranes and removable floors. I work in abstract mediums really; a lot of metal and steel, a lot of geometry.

While it appears quite rational and mathematical there are underlying philosophical ideas. Really sort of trying to chisel away at the perception of time and preconceptions about what is real. And those things have driven my work for a couple of decades. Try and tackle it from very different angles.

I would go to the science museum a lot when I was a student, and I would go there for inspiration, particularly the maths gallery. The maths got quite quickly complex for me but one of my best teachers was a maths teacher called Mr Jones-Parry. He was quite eccentric but brilliant with lots of interesting stories and ideas like the shape of the universe and what the fifth dimension looked like. How these scientific ideas impart on our sense of reality and sort of lead to quite philosophical questions. It was sort of the beginning of my interest in maths and art.

I’m always very keen to keep this research and this knowledge base alive by kind of feeding them into artwork which become more sophisticated and more elaborate.

So, the Interpretation of Movement, at St Pancras station, is one of the biggest mechanical pieces that I’ve ever made. It was really immensely challenging because it was above the railways, so the health and safety concerns were really monumental.

We created these three carbon fibre panels, which overlapped each other in the middle and created the interference pattern of three of three discs, that would sort of overlap completely at one point and move apart.

The mathematics is meaningful, and it’s all driven by maths but there is this meaning in movement and what I realised was that there are so many potential meanings of this. But it’s quite elusive.

One of the things that I’ve learnt, is that creating a static object is much more dynamic in that actually we are moving, and we are dynamic. There’s ironically much more movement in stasis. A few years ago, I won a competition to design a cladding system for a chimney.

The Low Carbon Energy Centre in Greenwich, wanted to transform it somehow. So, what me and my engineer did was to allow the wind to pass through it. And we made the frame much lighter as a consequence, so it felt really good because it was contributing to energy efficiency. And we then set about this radical path to develop the skin which would react dynamically to the changing light levels and the arc of the sun. It sort-of captures the light in very different ways at different times of day.

We sort of had to do all of these analogue tests of different hole sizes, different opacity levels, the orientation, the angle of incidence, the distance away, and we were very nervous it wouldn’t work.

I was always imagining people in their cars or someone doing the washing up every evening, looking out the window at the same thing, and wanting to create this change through different weather patterns, different seasons, and it not to be a boring view.

I actually find holidays the best time to sort-of actually come up with new ideas because I’m sort of away from all the intensity of all the problems with production and making stuff. Actually, I find it the most sort-of inventive time.

So, in February I was on holiday and was sketching this idea for a labyrinth. And then it’s all really rapidly accelerated and become a thing.

My studio is now, at the moment, filled to the brim with all these perforated cells which we are about to assemble into these walls, and they’ll stack up to different heights, but they get larger and taller towards the middle. It’s like a little small city or something.

The cells, even though they all look identical, they’re all slightly different. There’s very, very subtle ways we’ve exploited and tried to enhance the moiré pattern, which is essentially an interference pattern created by two similar skins, which basically interfere with each other. And so, they create surprising, almost holographic, effects.

Historically it’s something that people have tried to avoid and to get away from in film, and in TV work, and in architecture; it’s often seen as a real problem. But with this we’re really trying to actually exploit it and use the sun as our light source, and the changing light of the day, so it will be very dynamic.

Well, I was interested in doing something in the park that was immersive. Trying to do something that’s quite playful, inviting; not just an austere civic monument.

I’m a rule-based artist, I’m not that into just doing things intuitively. The actual way that we go about realising ideas is very rigorous, very architectural, driven by mathematical proportions, equations and algorithms. But the intent is to do something that’s just artistic, but it cloaks itself in these aesthetics of sort-of rational design, or engineering, but yet beneath that it’s irrational or metaphysical.

The hope it that people see it and run towards it and want to go inside it.

Of course, there are lots of references in the history of art, particularly the last century. Pointillism and things, which is one of the first times where images are composed with dots, which make up an illusion. The constituent parts are more than the sum of their parts, and there is this sort of disruptive surface. The whole thing will ripple and oscillate.

One of the useful things about the moiré is it’s a mathematical phenomenon, but it feels like an illusion. It’s so sensitive to movement, this surface that’s not there, or is holographic, or is a window into another world. The minute you look at something of moiré you think: ‘am I imagining that?’, chiselling away at people’s sense of what’s real.

The piece has also got references to henges and ideas of the unobtainable function of these prehistoric stone monuments, they’re imbued with this function that we can never unravel.

And this one, I suppose, will also feel very purposeful, but there will be no function to it other than a place that you enter into and contemplate. But it again it will still have this sense that there is some sort of purpose, or there is some sort of… maybe some sort of sacrifice happens in the middle, or some sort of event, or some sort of ceremony. But there is no function actually, and at the end of the day I’ll never know what it actually means but I’m confident it does mean something.

Sometimes I yearn for the days when I was just making things on my own. But, at the same time, that learning curve of making has evolved into ideas now of taking things to much more extreme levels, which means I have to conceive, and have to direct a project. And so, the things that are of interest have shifted but they’ve evolved over time to other things.

So, it’s constantly learning… but it’s in different frontiers.

With thanks to…

Bloomberg

Mira Calix / The Vinyl Factory

Digital Wasp

Dulwich Park / Southwark Council

Frieze, London

Victoria Miro

Northern Town

The Regent’s Park / Royal Parks

Royal Academy of Arts, London

Science Museum, London

Conrad Shawcross Studio

Terrace Wires

 

Archive

The Barnes Foundation

Getty Images

 

Music

9 Lives

Audio Network

 

Core Works

All works © Conrad Shawcross and Victoria Miro – London / Venice

 

Optic Cloak

Conrad Shawcross, 2016

Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro – London / Venice

Footage by Digital Wasp

 

Optic Labyrinth (Arrangement I)

Conrad Shawcross, 2018

Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro – London / Venice

Footage by Digital Wasp

 

The Interpretation of Movement (a 9:8 in blue)

Conrad Shawcross, 2017

Courtesy of the Artist, Victoria Miro – London / Venice

and Terrace Wires in partnership with the Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Murmuration Sequence

Conrad Shawcross, 2018

Courtesy of the Artist, Victoria Miro – London / Venice

Footage by Richard Ivey

 

Additional Images

Models (Poseuses)

Georges Seurat, 1886-1888

Barnes Foundation

Public Domain

 

Prehistoric Stonehenge monument in the morning

Raimund Linke / Getty Images

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