British artist Conrad Shawcross is perhaps best known for his huge rope-making machines. Part Jean Tinguely contraption, part Erector Set, these enormous, slow-spinning sculptural devices are loaded with multicolored bobbins and are large enough to fill subway tunnels and museum atria. The rainbow ropes they create as a function of their operation are both a measure of time and sculptures in their own right. Galerie Gabriel Rolt, which is currently hosting Shawcross’s first Amsterdam solo show, From That Which It Came, is too small a gallery for such oversized endeavors. But never mind. The economical exhibition is a great introduction to the artist and opens onto ideas bigger than its modest-sized space.
The only allusion to the rope machines is a colorful segment of braided cord simply displayed in a narrow black box, meticulously labeled with descriptors of how it came to be. Shawcross’s practice is experimental in nature. His serial works are often the results of machines he’s engineered, and their variables and controls are well documented on tags and in their titles. Sometimes Shawcross reveals his process. Sometimes it’s up to us to puzzle it out – a giant fill-in-the-blank. What could have created this shape? Or, conversely, what does this shape create? Intangibles like sound and time are measured in rope, drawn lines, video, even empty space.
Conrad Shawcross, Pre-Retroscope VIII (Amsterdam Journey), 2012, ply, oak, mechanical system, projector, 2.5m x 2.5m x 2.0m; Courtesy of the artist and Gabriel Rolt.
The most ostensibly ambitious work in the show is Pre-Retroscope VIII (Amsterdam Journey), the latest in a series of performative paddles the artist has made in waterways in Europe and New York. Shawcross rigged a rowboat with a moving camera that records footage in circles around the rower. In the gallery, this footage is screened moving 360º along the same apparatus, offering real time panoramic views of the canals as captured during the artist’s outing. In tandem with this boat-cum-video installation is a collection of mismatched balls – tennis, soccer, all-purpose bouncy – in various sates of inflation. Shawcross encountered these during his row and they now exist as relics of the expedition.
The soccer balls are “spheres” comprised of many faces (if you want to get nerdy about it, they are actually “truncated icosahedrons”). They call back to Shawcross’s Perimeter Studies, a series of aluminum icosahedrons also on display. These twenty-sided Platonic solids are open forms described by their edges and vertices, and demonstrate Shawcross’s ability to bring complex mathematical concepts down to earth while making them visually palatable.
Some of the show’s smallest works are its most exciting. Set in vitrines on the wall are what appear to be wax cylinders alongside light, curly forms, reminiscent of the delicate folds of a shower loofah or perhaps tripe (excuse the unsavory comparison). It turns out that the cylinders are actually solid nylon, and the airy forms are the byproduct of negative cone-shaped spaces carved into them. Negative space and time are visualized through these physically transformed objects. The mutually constitutive objects are perfect little couplets that epitomize the oeuvre, both visually and conceptually.
Conrad Shawcross, From That Which it Came (Cabinet 1), 2012, glass, steel, nylon, MDF, 63 x 20 x 20 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Gabriel Rolt.
Perception is at the heart of the work. We mentally draw edges from fixed points to envision icosahedrons in space; we walk in circles around a stationary boat to experience the full panorama of the artist’s canal journey; we peer inside negative cone shapes to imagine how their emptiness forged new expanded forms; we consider the visualized shape of a musical chord transformed into tapered, squiggly drawings. Shawcross’s machines, actions, processes, and objects are not merely a means to an end. Both machine and product blur the edges of what is apparatus and what is artifact, indeed, what is art. They are all part of a holistic model that illuminates the world around us complicating the roles and values of products, waste, and the very machines from which they came.
(Image on top: Conrad Shawcross, Perimeter Studies (Icosahedron) Set 2, 2012, Aluminium, 50 x 50 x 50 cm each; Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Gabriel Rolt.)