Henry Moore once said that a sculptor is a person “who is interested in the shape of things.”
In Conrad Shawcross’s case you could also add metaphysics, geometry, philosophy, poetry and mechanics. “I was always taking things apart and building things when I was younger,” he says. “I used to construct towers in my bedroom so it was always something I gravitated towards.”
After learning to drive he decided to take his car apart in order to understand how it worked.
“I bought a camper van and it was quite unreliable so there was a necessity to take it apart. I bought a very unreliable, late 1970s’ Leyland Sherpa that was always breaking down and blowing a gasket. I owe a debt to this badly engineered vehicle because it taught me a lot,” he says.
“Even without that I was very interested in how it moved and the level of complexity and the mechanics behind it and how anyone could dream up these things.”
He started reading, and learning, about all manner of machines and how they worked. “The language of the engine, the different words used to describe things like the crankshaft, I found very beautiful and it had meaning to me.”
Today, Shawcross is one of the biggest names in sculpture and has won a string of awards. He enjoyed a stint as an artist in Residence at the Science Museum in London, and along with Chris Ofili and Mark Wallinger, was invited to create works inspired by Titian’s masterpieces for an ambitious collaboration with the National Gallery and the Royal Ballet for the Cultural Olympiad in 2012.
He has exhibited his work around the world, including at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, the Berwaldhallen in Stockholm and the National Gallery in London. And now he can add Halifax to this list.
One of his most remarkable, and intriguing, installations – Chord – is on show at Dean Clough’s jute shed (built to house the jute used for backing carpets) and ties in with an exhibition of some of his other work at Dean Clough.
Chord consists of two identical machines that carry 324 spools of coloured cord that retreat from each other down a track, while suspended in the air a few metres above them, a multicoloured rope is woven together.
“I’m really pleased that it’s been brought out of retirement. I was groaning slightly at my youthful endeavour as I’ve been putting it back together because the engineering and the complexity of it involved a huge amount of work,” says Shawcross.
“I’d made a couple of rope machines before but nothing on this scale or out of metal. It’s essentially two identical machines facing each other on a track system and they both start to weave the same piece of rope from both ends. It’s almost like two spiders that recede away from each other down this track.
“It’s a very incremental and inefficient process and it’s about slowing down these very functional machines. They look very rational and industrial and yet they’re doing this task incredibly slowly so it’s quite strange to observe, because machines are normally used to either do things more expediently than a human can, or more accurately, and while there’s all this rational design to it, it’s actually quite an irrational machine.”
Chord is also about the way we perceive time. “This rope machine has always been about the perception of time and a metaphor of time,” he says. “Time is either a line or a cycle and this thing with all the spools is almost trying to slowly come together, but at the same time they’re also rowing back so you’ve got this sense of expanding space.”
The installation was originally commissioned in 2009 and shown in a disused tram tunnel in London, and this is the first time it’s been seen by the public since. “You couldn’t really appreciate it because it was very dark and dusty down there. Here people can walk around it and scrutinise it which is really exciting,” says Shawcross.
The exhibition at Dean Clough and the Piece Hall has funding from the Arts Council and coincides with Yorkshire Sculpture International, a summer festival that centres around Yorkshire Sculpture Park, The Hepworth, Leeds Art Gallery and the Henry Moore Institute. “These organisations and their success is great for Yorkshire and their popularity and I’m delighted to be part of it.”
Perceptions of time and the lag time in an environmental sense are recurring themes in his work. “The more we learn about change the more terrified we become. For instance how the fossil fuels burned during the Victorian era are only having an effect on us now, and the consequences of our actions and how time can be elongated.”
The 42-year-old also pays tribute to some of the great pioneers and scientists from the past in his work. Paradigm (Ode to the Difference Engine), references the life of Charles Babbage, while Slow Arc Inside a Cube takes its inspiration from the scientist Dorothy Hodgkin’s discovery of the structure of pig insulin; and most recently, his 2013 creation ADA, is named after Ada Lovelace, credited by many as the world’s first computer programmer.
But even though his creations are sometimes underpinned by solid engineering principles, they are, he insists, still art works. “I use a cloak of rational design to hide quite metaphysical, poetic ideas, but I don’t want them to look all whimsical, I want them to look very real, so if there was an apocalypse and they were discovered in the future by an archaeologist I’d like them to be assumed to be some sort of functional object. But then when you try and analyse what the function is it defies logic, so you’re left with these conundrums of interpretation. So yes, there is engineering in there but they are primarily artworks – they’re artworks disguised as machines.”
They are deliberately created to make us question what we think we know. “My machines are not useful. If anyone wanted to make rope this would be the worst way to do it because it’s so slow and inefficient. Their only uses are to ask questions on a cultural level, they have no practical value,” he says.
“I’m trying to ask questions rather than answer them. I’m not trying to make a product, I’m trying to create conceptual questions and challenge our notion of what’s real and create something visually arresting that’s complex and creates new thoughts in people’s minds. But I’m not trying to control that, I’m really excited by their interpretation.”
Something he’s keen to see when visitors head to Dean Clough. “Some people might see it as a homage to Halifax’s past and others will have different ideas. Hopefully there will be some new ideas I haven’t heard before, because if everyone looks at it and sees the same thing then that’s not the sign of a good artwork.”
Chord is at the jute shed at Dean Clough Mills, Halifax. It is open to the public between 10am and 4pm until July 19. For more information go to www.deanclough.com
The Conrad Shawcross exhibition is on at The Piece Hall, Halifax, until July 21.