Conrad Shawcross was preparing for his solo exhibition at Location One on the day I met him in his cramped studio, located deep in the bowels of the center's Greene Street building. "Control," as the show is provocatively titled, is the culmination of his residency as Location One's International Fellow, the very first in an ambitious new program designed to support the work of emerging and mid-career artists. While Shawcross is not quite the former -- his work was first shown in Europe in 2001 and came to prominence in 2004 as part of the Saatchi Gallery's "New Blood" exhibition -- he is relatively unknown to U.S. audiences. That is about to change in New York, however, as he unveils several new works that build on his previous investigations into the nature of time, space, and sound.
The son of famed British writers and intellectuals William Shawcross and Marina Warner, Shawcross holds degrees from the Chelsea School of Art, the University of Oxford, and the Slade School of Art. In person, he exudes an assuredness that reflects less his upbringing than his own keen interest in how the world functions as it does -- and moreover, why. As we spoke, Shawcross's expression vacillated between that of an erudite professor -- he wanted me to understand how his works work -- and that of a student, or even a precocious child whose fascination with the forces of nature has yet to abate.
While Shawcross claims to privilege ideas over aesthetics, his works are exquisitely rendered machines whose rigorous conceptual premises often lie in the realms of science and philosophy. The properties of light, for instance, play a conspicuous role in his projects, as do those of music. In the name of rationalism -- the exhibition's title refers to the benchmark, or ‘control,' employed in the scientific method -- Shawcross gives form to the inherent, yet oft-hidden beauty in the physical world. These revelations aren't without a sense of irony, however -- science has served up its share of fumbles and absurdities, after all.
SARAH HROMACK: I understand that one of the pieces you've developed at Location One is a continuation of a previous project?
CONRAD SHAWCROSS: There is a piece [in the show] that follows on an earlier work called "Slow Arc Inside Cube." It's just a very simple cube of mesh. Inside there is an articulated arm that decelerates towards one corner, stops for a second, and then falls back across the cage. There is a gravitational pull towards the center, and [the arm] throws an inverse shadow off of the cage and into space -- It moves in this kind of fixed cycle, in a straight line from one corner to the other. It's quite relaxing to watch. I've always made works with light and movement, but I was never very interested in the shadows -- they were just a byproduct. But once, when I was in a science museum in London that I go to a lot, I read a quotation from the late scientist [Dorothy] Hodgkin. She pioneered a process called crystal radiography through which she worked out the structure of pig insulin. Through this process, she extrapolated a three-dimensional shape. She described the process as similar to trying to work out the structure of a tree by only seeing its shadow -- a beautiful analogy. It's a metaphor for the discipline of science because we're always trying to see around that corner. We've got such limited information as to what's really there -- we'll never fully grasp it.
SH: You're working from a place of absence rather than presence -- or perhaps from the inside, rather than outside -- while building a physical object based on intangible phenomena.
CS: I really wanted to look at the shadow itself -- you've this cube and it's throwing out a distorted shadow of itself around the space. I liked the idea of putting that idea forward in a very simple way. I suppose it's also kind of similar to our condition in the universe, as we are looking from inside the self, outward towards the edges of space. So we're seeing space from within itself, rather than from an objective point of view. It's more subjective, our trying to account the shape of the universe and all these things. It's kind of like throwing dice in terms of randomness: The light is throwing itself out like the sun or the Big Bang, as this sort of radiant geometry that is quite profound.
SH: A computer algorithm controls these movements, right?
CS: Yes, it does. I have been trying to develop a cage that has a system inside it that allows light to travel anywhere inside that cage. It can stop and move in any way, by means of some kind of system. For the last year or so, I've been looking at different means to make that can happen; there are several options, but we decided to go for a pulley system that is controlled by a computer. It's a very complicated machine -- it's not something that I engineered myself, though I usually do. We built it, but we didn't engineer it.
SH: A lot of what you're saying here has to do with the idea of relinquishing control and the unattainability of knowledge. Software developers are quite logical, however, in programming the algorithms that produce ostensibly ‘random' effects. For most of us, a computer's back-end system may as well be a black hole in outer space.
CS: I don't pretend to know anything about how computer programming works. But when I first learned how to drive, I became incredibly obsessed with how an engine works. I found it very unsettling that I was driving and I had no idea how [the car] was moving itself forward. My mind works quite mechanically, so I took my engine apart -- I just stripped down an engine. I didn't rebuild it, just broke it down to every single component. It was a dead car, and I did it in my bedroom at my mom's house. She was wondering what a strange boy she had! That was how I learned, and it was a very important thing for me to have done at the time. I never had the same sense of zeal about figuring out how a computer -- it's just not how I work.
SH: The concept of ‘control' functions somewhat ironically in your practice. You make works that appear to be concerned with the regulation of given variables, and yet these machines are so intentionally overwrought. They highlight the absurdity in believing that one has true control over much of anything.
CS: I like ambiguity, but I definitely use the word ‘control' in the sense of an experiment. These drawings are all about the same ratio -- y ou have the ratio and then you're making extrapolations to add to that constant. I think of the cage -- and maybe this is a mistake -- as the control. The cage itself is the only thing that is constant. Everything else in the room is in flux -- the light is always moving and it's going in all these random directions. So it's not really about being a control freak, but you could easily see it that way. Our only real certainty is the speed of light. When you chip beneath the surface, you can't really measure anything, apart from light. A meter's length, for instance, can't really be proven. There have been attempts through history to create a basis on the circumference of the earth, epic attempts that have sort of failed, creating controls that might have been reassuring.
SH: Throughout history, so many so-called ‘scientific' crusades were based in belief -- in religious faith, even.
CS: Science is kind of romantic, because it is based in the imagination. These scientists are real poets, envisioning and seeing things in an incredible way. Einstein, Edgar Allan Poe -- even the terms that scientists use for new theories are just great. It's very romantic. Obviously things are backed up empirically, but the initial drive must come from an imaginative punch.
["Control" remains on view at Location One through July 31st, 2009. Above: Slow Arc Inside of a Cube I courtesy the artist and Location One.]