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Media Partnership / Art

Conrad Shawcross explores the “riddle and mystery” of objects in new light work for the Barbican

Artist Conrad Shawcross’ sculptural works often blur the lines between geometry and philosophy, physics and metaphysics, and he uses science and rationale to create mind-bending objects that look other-worldly. “I studied maths and physics at school and I was at university studying art, but I was always surrounded by other subjects. I spent a lot of my youth in the Science Museum, every month I’d go there and look at the maths department,” Conrad says of where his approach stems from. “I just really love objects that seem to be rational but then they contain a lot of irrationality. They have a cloak of the rational mind which has conceived and constructed them, but beyond that they are misguided.”

Conrad’s past artworks include The Dappled Light of the Sun from 2015 which was a large-scale immersive work consisting of five steel, cloud-like forms, a permanent public art piece for the Francis Crick Institute last year called Paradigm and an ongoing series called The Ada Project, which takes the form of musical commissions between Conrad and contemporary composers, where each piece of music has been developed using a bespoke, choreographic light robot, developed by Conrad and his team in his London studio.

This robotic technology has informed Conrad’s new artwork for the Barbican’s summer spectacular, Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction, which is an exploration of one of popular culture’s most celebrated realms. Conrad’s installation, titled In Light of the Machine takes over the Barbican’s Pit, which is usually a theatre space.

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Conrad Shawcross: In Light of the Machine. Image: Tristan Fewings / Getty images

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Conrad Shawcross: In Light of the Machine, sketchbook drawings

It’s a very black room and the artist’s challenge was to overcome this darkness: “They wanted a light work but all the floors and walls are black, which is difficult for shadows to appear and to create an immersive space,” he explains. “The room partly led the piece but it was also fed by my research and ongoing use of this robotic arm that I’ve developed and used in a myriad of different projects.”

The artist describes the arm as a “light instrument”, made out of aluminium and steel parts on a low-slung tripod and the arm allows Conrad to move light anywhere within a space. “You can control the speed, the profile and curvature of the movement. So you can create quite complex, non-repeating patterns,” explains Conrad. “Previously my machines have always had a cycle to them where they would repeat quite frequently. But this robot has given me an ability to much more adaptable.”

When visitors enter the space Conrad says they will enter a very dark space with a single light source which will emanate from the centre of a series of concentric circles. “Almost like a henge,” says Conrad. “But not made of stone, rather these ethereal, vertical forms made from this luminous plastic material which has specific holes perforated throughout it to form an eroded henge.”

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Conrad Shawcross: In Light of the Machine. Image: Tristan Fewings / Getty images

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This reference to prehistoric monuments is a recurring idea throughout the piece and it’s something Conrad has become fascinated by. “If you look at the history of science there’s this sort of chronology of objects that at the time were considered to be purposeful. For instance, with Stone Henge there was probably a very specific and logical reason why it was built, but that’s somehow been lost and this thing has an incredible energy, potential and ambiguity of what it was for,” he explains.

The “riddle and mystery” is what drives Conrad and the ambiguity within the project has remained with it all the way through to installation with the design mostly being created on screen, and parts of it made in Conrad’s studio. “[The piece] will change when it’s in the space as we won’t be able to test it until then. It will very much be born in the space, which is exciting,” says Conrad. Visitors will also play a role in the piece visually: “The interplay of the people in the space will then create more shadows, so they will effect the space in itself. It will be a reciprocal thing between them and the artwork – it won’t just be about absorbing it, everyone will play a certain part in it,” he explains. 

Similar to previous works, the scale of this sculpture is huge but Conrad has considered the reasoning behind this. “This project is about walking underneath and through the artwork. So if you made each part too small it becomes a very different object. So it’s about the body and it’s about the relationship of the body with the sculpture, so that’s an important aspect.”

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Conrad Shawcross: In Light of the Machine, sketchbook drawings

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Conrad Shawcross: In Light of the Machine. Image: Tristan Fewings / Getty images

Within the context of the show, Conrad’s installation offers up a different interpretation of science fiction than the obvious aliens and space travel stories, and the artist sees his work as embodying science fiction’s sense of discovery rather than fantasy. “I make an effort to make real objects that really work and when you go round the back of them they’re not made of cardboard. These are objects that exist in the real world,” the artist explains. “I supposed there’s fiction in the way they are playfully trying to emulate something. But the issue I have with the word ‘fiction’ is that it suggests it’s not real. If the piece was to lose the context of an exhibition, people would interpret it in a way that treats it as a real object.”

“You have to surrender some of your ego, and you have to work in a more architectural way and really consider the people who use the building and the conceptual context."

– Conrad Shawcross

This need to create something real, extends to how it appears aesthetically in the space. “I was worried it was going to be too beautiful, like a lampshade. I don’t want to rely on beauty to make it good, so we’ve found a nice solution to cut the holes in the thin plastic material the light bounces off of, to combat this and it’ll have a resonance with galaxies.”

Creating a commission for a specific organisation, show or space is always a challenge and it’s different than creating a personal artwork. “You have to surrender some of your ego, and you have to work in a more architectural way and really consider the people who use the building, the conceptual context and the client’s logic and reasoning,” explains Conrad. “These things all play into it, so for it to be successful, you really have to think about those complex dynamics and the longevity, which at first feel really annoying but actually they end up creating a much more enhanced sculpture that you wouldn’t have been able to conceive without those restrictions.”

Conrad’s sculpture, In Light of the Machine will be on show at Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction at The Barbican, from Saturday 3 June – Friday 1 September 2017. For more information about the programme of events and exhibition, click here.

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Conrad Shawcross: In Light of the Machine. Image: Tristan Fewings / Getty images

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Conrad Shawcross: In Light of the Machine. Image: Tristan Fewings / Getty images