Machine Yearning: An Interview with Conrad Shawcross

Machine Yearning: An Interview with Conrad Shawcross

Celebrated contemporary British artist Conrad Shawcross navigates the intricate nexus of art, science, and philosophy, consistently pushing the boundaries of artistic expression through his unique mechanical sculptures. Shawcross's intellectual rigor is palpable in his exploration of mathematical concepts including geometry, symmetry, and chaos theory, resulting in visually captivating installations that challenge our perception of space and time, and invite us to connect with the profound questions of the universe. It was a pleasure to catch up with him recently at his studio in East London and chat about his work, his influences, and rope, but not any old rope… 

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Bradwell Jacket
Faye Indigo Blue

Treviscoe Shirt Hudson Cord Tan

Treviscoe Shirt
Hudson Cord Tan

Oliver Spencer: Hi Conrad. So straight off the bat, I'd love to know a bit more about how science and mathematics influences your sculptures and why you are drawn to these disciplines.

Conrad Shawcross: Well, I studied art at the Ruskin at the University of Oxford and so I was always surrounded by these other subjects, and always been intrigued by the meaning of number, rule-based art, and creating systems that appear to be rational, but in fact are quite metaphysical or poetic. So I've been using maths and scientific ideas within my work consistently, going on 20 years now. 

OS: One of your best known works to Londoners is the tree-like sculpture, Bicameral, at the Chelsea Barracks, and that for me, is really striking, because we often think of Nature as this very fluid and chaotic thing, and yet aspects of it are very mathematical. 

CS: Yeah, and it's human nature to try and find the pattern or the rules within everything we observe. And sometimes there are patterns there, and sometimes they elude us, or there are no patterns at all. We have an innate desire to find patterns in everything. I mean, the solar system's a good example of that. We spent hundreds of years trying to work out these platonic ideas of how the heavenly bodies rotated. But actually it was all just through a series of catastrophic events that caused our solar system. There is no inherent design behind it, but we often desire and yearn for it, this underlying design within things.

OS: The exploration of the universe and creation, it all seems quite fractal in the sense that the more answers we find, the more new questions follow

CS: Absolutely. There's so much yet to be explained. And I've been studying the early universe at Nottingham University in residency there, researching black holes and black hole mergers,  the gravitational waves, false vacuum decay, and all sorts of really fascinating stuff. There are all of these really interesting physical experiments going on to try and work out the early conditions of the universe. It has been so fascinating. 

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Bradwell Jacket
Birkbeck Charcoal

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Belted Trousers
Birkbeck Charcoal

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Heavy Long Sleeve Plain
T-Shirt Tavistock White

OS: Ideas involving space and time have long been a preoccupation in your art.

CS: Definitely, and I've got a show in Malta opening in about a month that's very much about space and time. It's called “What Is to Become is Already Here”, and it's going to be about 12 light works that all deal with space and time and relativity, and this erosion of the idea of ‘now’. The illusion of there being a ‘present’ is obliterated with these sculptures, hopefully. 

OS: With regards science and technology, we seem to be at quite a pivotal place at the moment, and I wanted to get your thoughts on how you see this collision of art and emerging AI, and what you think the role of the artist is going to be as we develop these incredibly smart systems. 

CS: I mean, I think that artists have always responded to technology. There's a mistake when we often look at the past and see it with the eyes of the present. Take Renaissance painters, we think of oils as this very safe medium in which they were working, but they were essentially radical experimenters who were mixing different pigments from all over the world, and different chemicals to try and get them to adhere to the canvas. There were no paint shops, it was just serious chemistry mixed with experimentation. Now we just see it as ‘traditional’, but it was anything but. And just like today, with the invention of the camera, artists and painters have to radically shift their way of approaching their work. Similarly with AI and the digital augmented reality and virtual reality, we are going to have to respond to remain relevant. 

OS: What are you currently working on Conrad? 

CS: Well, we're about to test this huge rope machine that we've been constructing. It’s this vast 12m by 12m rope machine that I’ve been working on for a really long time. It has been 10 years of planning and engineering. It’s a non-repeating rope machine that once it starts, it will never stop, but also, never repeat. So it will make this irrational rope, like an umbilical cord, of which every cross section is unique. It's going to be delivered to Tasmania next year, but we're going to test it in hopefully in Chatham Docks in the spring, because they have a big enough space for it, but also they have the history of rope making there, so the context is very relevant. We don't know what the rope is going to be like yet. It has been a huge labour of love. A very complex challenge. 

OS: Looking back through your career, would you say there has been a defining moment or an experience that perhaps galvanized or solidified your passion for art? 

CS: I mean, the science museum has been a huge inspiration for me. I used to go to the math gallery there at least a few times a term when I was a student, and pore over all these Victorian models and strange contraptions. The actual department doesn't exist anymore, but 20 years ago or 10 years ago even, there was quite a 1960s take on the Victorian era, all these psychedelic cabinets with paisley wallpaper in them describing the Victorian times. So it's in a way, a kind of a unique insight of the past, into the past. The 1960s perspective on the Victorian era was really interesting in itself. But yeah, I used to get a lot of inspiration from that, which still informs some of the work I'm making today.

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