David Chipperfield RA meets Conrad Shawcross RA

On fertile ground

Published 21 May 2015

RA Magazine’s Guest Editor David Chipperfield RA meets Conrad Shawcross RA in Green Park to talk trees and tetrahedrons, ahead of the sculptor’s spectacular work that greets visitors to the Summer Exhibition.

  • From the Summer 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    David Chipperfield The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is obviously a slightly idiosyncratic English event, and like the RA, its tradition is its strength, but it could also be seen as a weakness. What is your attitude towards it?

    Conrad Shawcross When I was made a Royal Academician last year the courtyard was something I knew I wanted to tackle, and amazingly I have been given this chance for the Summer Exhibition. I’m enjoying responding to this specific environment.

    DC Was the Summer Show something you visited before you became an Academician?

    CS I hadn’t come to many. It wasn’t a pilgrimage I made every year as, to me, it didn’t represent the vanguard of contemporary art.

    DC I think that’s an interesting issue for the Royal Academy. Over time I’ve become very fond of the RA, and realised that while it is an idiosyncratic show, there is something interesting about the way the Summer Exhibition tries to deal with contemporary art.

    CS Yes, it’s completely of its own – it’s unique, in that it doesn’t take itself that seriously, and it’s eclectic. You have to rate something that has survived and continues to survive, and its uniqueness should be celebrated.

    DC You’re creating a canopy of metal trees for the courtyard. Did you conceive this work only in the context of the courtyard’s architecture, or did the context of the Summer Exhibition play any role?

    CS The Summer Show is the best time of year to use the courtyard, because of the light and human traffic. I’ve called the piece The Dappled Light of the Sun, which doesn’t reflect what the work actually looks like, because in reality it’s quite a hardcore, industrial piece. But I hope beyond this it will be a romantic experience for visitors. At first, it could look like a sort of First World War, anti- tank barrier, but, on further observation, it will reveal itself as a complex rule-based piece full of feral, chaotic, beautiful, flowing energy, juxtaposed against this very ordered courtyard.

    DC So is it less about the work, more about the experience that the work generates?

    CS The piece is very much a response to the order of this classical courtyard. In both its materiality and form the work offers a startling contrast. I hope that it also affects how people move through the courtyard, the way they congregate, the way they see the space, not just the sculpture. I’m not working on a blank canvas, and I’m sure that is the same for you and your work as an architect, David, which is so subtly sensitive to surrounding and pre-existing conditions. But I wouldn’t presume this piece to be as subtle – there is a proper polarization of the work and the courtyard.

  • Courtyard installation

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    The Dappled Light of the Sun by Conrad Shawcross RA

    Consisting of five steel “clouds”, this new immersive work by Royal Academician Conrad Shawcross will inhabit the courtyard’s central space during the Summer Exhibition. Standing at over six metres high and weighing five tonnes each, the branching forms will be made up of thousands of tetrahedrons. We visited the artist as he set about creating them.

  • DC Well, an artist is expected to provoke, while an architect is not. Artists are licensed by the rest of us to do things on our behalf. But going back to our experience of this work, the way the trees block and reflect light will presumably have a strong role.

    CS It will. As the title suggests, there will be dappled light and strong shadows. I am not quite sure how blanket the coverage will be – the sculptures won’t provide any screening from the rain. But they will provide, like real trees, a place to which people might gravitate and then sit.

    DC There is a tradition of sculpture that does not involve the viewer. Barnett Newman once said sculpture was something ‘you bump into when you stand back to look at a painting’. But your work turns paintings into things that you might bump into when you stand back to look at your sculpture. Your work tries to engage the audience, often by mechanical elements, by the fact that the work moves and fascinates us. It creates empathy with its audience by reaching out, or allowing the audience to reach in.

    CS With commissions I have become increasingly interested in the way sculpture affects how people navigate space. I’ve made a series of sculptures (Three Perpetual Chords, 2015) that have been installed in Dulwich Park in south London, to replace a Barbara Hepworth sculpture that was stolen. There wasn’t a playground in the park, so kids would run around the Hepworth, then every time they saw a lamppost they would run around that too – they were making do for the basics of play. So I wanted to create something that could be climbable and immersive, the opposite of a civic sculpture. The works are a series of toroidal loops that represent musical chords – you can climb inside them or monkey along them, you could even meet people inside them.

    DC So your works are not finite as things in themselves. They are elaborated by engagement and participation.

    CS Yes, I think my works have this sort of cloak, which is the aesthetic of the machine. They are machines and we have worked carefully to make them feel very authoritative as machines, but they have also been designed with an irrational intent.

    DC Are you hiding their purpose?

    CS I like the word cloak because it suggests a playful, intelligent device of concealment towards an end. If you already know something is an artwork you can be quite lazy when you encounter it – you can almost immediately dismiss it. But if you think it’s a machine, you might? engage with it in a fuller way.

    DC My practice designed the Turner Contemporary in Margate, and you produced two pieces for the first show there. There were two objects, one light piece that was moving and one bronze that was static, drilled into our very nice floor – which, of course, is exactly what the floor is there for. I actually thought the static sculpture was very beautiful, and I wondered then whether you would consider presenting the static sculpture alone. It was a more conventional sculpture in a way, but very beautiful for it.

    CS Yes, I really appreciated your work first-hand during that show. I saw how much thought you gave to the function and needs of the artist.

    DC This interview is about you.

    CS But your work has a consideration of function that I have to say is rare. It’s rare to be so thoughtful about the intention of a building.

  • The piece will be full of feral, chaotic, beautiful, flowing energy, juxtaposed against this very ordered courtyard.

    Conrad Shawcross RA

  • DC Would you like to have been an architect?

    CS No, I don’t think I have the patience.

    DC It sounds like you’re treading on our territory already.

    CS Well, maybe a little bit! But back to Margate, there were actually three of my pieces in the show – there were the two sculptures but also drawings along the wall. The three were completely disparate in their manifest state, but they were actually driven by the same thing, which was a number, the ratio of five to four. So the light piece on the wall rotated five times, but every time it rotated five times it moved in and out four times. The bronze was produced by an algorithm based on the same ratio, and the drawings on the wall, which were quite faint, were created by a pendulum-driven machine, like a harmonograph, that moved according to that ratio.

    DC Clearly, works such as these have a great beauty. But you use a sort of determinism to achieve them, as if you’re frightened of just doing something for its own sake.

    CS Well, I don’t like, or do, arbitrary things. I’m not an instinctive artist.

    DC But there must be arbitrary elements in your work

    CS Not arbitrary as such. Art is not necessarily arbitrary. My work has a relationship to science, and actually visual representation in science can be as arbitrary as some art can. The scientific community represents things that will never actually be seen by the naked eye, such as a model of an atom, and the decisions that are made about these representations are quite arbitrary. The physicist will omit some information and the chemist some other – both will create a full model in their eyes but both may laugh at each other’s depiction. They exaggerate elements and create clout for invisible things, in order to convey what’s important to them.

    DC Their representations are not quite as “scientific” as the word suggests.

    CS They are scientific, but we do not consider the role of imagination and artistic impression that is in play.

    DC How much of your point of departure is nature Is nature behind your interest in proportions and harmonies? Do you think there is beauty within the natural world that is innate, that is not subjective and personal but somehow to do with a larger order? This is a question that concerned modernists in the last century.

    CS My works aren’t necessarily meant to be manifestations of beautiful, natural phenomena, because they are not just supposed to be beautiful – they are supposed to create more problems than answers. I am not trying to demonstrate the beauty of fractions. For example, these sculptures in the courtyard could be seen as clouds or crystals rather than trees, and I want to resist calling them anything at all because I don’t want people to come with preconceptions.

    DC So what was your point of departure?

    CS The shapes of the canopy are based on a system of tetrahedrons in a cascade of five sizes. There are over 6,000 tetrahedrons in all. There are a number of primary tetrahedrons that form a kind of armature from which the next generations of tetrahedrons bifurcate. One of our rules was for these shapes to move out in every direction, almost like an explosion. The shapes can’t overlap or touch each other, so they must move out equally in all directions. Another rule has been set to make the branches move upwards towards the light, to let people pass underneath them.

  • DC Do you enjoying giving yourself these rules?

    CS Yes, and at the very essence of this project is my interest in the tetrahedron itself, in the same way that, say, an artist like Sol LeWitt was interested in the cube. In Greek philosophy, the tetrahedron is the symbol of an idea – the indivisible unit of matter. Two centuries ago scientists believed they had found the indivisible unit of matter, this holy grail, with the atom. But within a generation it had been sub-divided to include the electron, the proton and the neutron, and today it includes quarks.

    One can put tetrahedrons together to form something called a tetrahelix, a term coined by Buckminster Fuller. It is a continuous triple helical spiral that never repeats itself. The geometry of the tetrahedron is such that it does not tessellate with itself and so it can never join to itself – instead stacks of tetrahedrons have to form these tendril-like branches that keep going radiantly outwards forever. So the tetrahedron shape is fascinating, and it almost creates its own rules for itself. You can’t really control it – it has to go along with its own idiosyncrasies. The shape has almost led our way with this work.

    DC When I think of your early sculptures there was a very strong sense of the hand – the presence of an inventor, like a Heath Robinson. But in this piece for the courtyard, clearly the hand is not there any more. You’ve given over the piece to the logic of the tetrahedron. Does this mark a different phase of your creative life?

    CS The welds along the edge of each tetrahedron in this work were done by hand. But yes, in my 20s I was immersed more in the making process, making these very handmade rickety machines, sawing down planks of oak, waxing them and stringing them together.

    DC So that process became part of the aesthetic.

    CS But I then realised that I wanted to make things better, and that I couldn’t do it all on my own. I was exhausted and I was working too much. This way of working became very demanding, and it has now become a real balance between working like that and delegating. One of the saddest things for me is becoming more of a director of things and people. It is my ideal or vision, but potentially you can lose your hands-on fluency. It’s a real battle, as you risk becoming a bit lazy, and it’s not very good for the brain just to say, “I’ve got a problem, can you solve that for me?” And one of the problems of hiring a welder is that after eight hours a day working for you they weld much better than you – you were once the master of everything, and suddenly you are not.

    DC And you don’t enjoy the physical interaction in the same way, I expect?

    CS Yes, some of my happiest, most therapeutic days were spent working at the table, sawing 100 pieces of wood in half or something like that. I could retreat into my own thoughts, and I found that menial work incredibly satisfying.

  • DC Can I go back a few steps and ask how your interest in art began? Your parents are writers, William Shawcross and Marina Warner, so you came from a very literary background. Where did your interest in the visual come from?

    CS I always thanked my lucky stars that I was dyslexic, so that I couldn’t try to be a writer in my parents’ footsteps. To my mum’s horror I never really picked up a book when I was young. I was always building towers and deconstructing things. I remember being given a gas meter from my grandmother’s house – it was just an old carcass, but it had a great complexity and you could put fifty-pence pieces in it. I was obsessed by it, and I remember being constantly in awe of it when I was three or four, just trying to work it out, but never really succeeding.

    DC Your parents were always interested in art.

    CS Yes, completely, so I was always very cultured, but I just wanted to get on and make things.

    DC Has the literary background fed an interest in narrative?

    CS Yes, and there is narrative in my work. But I also want there to be no sense of a repetition or similarity. There is a real attempt to make the narratives at Dulwich and the RA and other sites completely different from each other.

    DC Do you make physical models as part of your process? Or is it more computerised?

    CS Yes, we do make physical models, and they are very handmade. The edges of the forms in the models are beautifully stitched together. But my finished works are dependent on computer-aided design. For example, the cast-iron elements in the Dulwich Park sculptures get fatter and thinner as they go around, and it wouldn’t be easy to design them without computer technology. I also have a wonderful team, including a structural engineer called Pete Laidler of Structure Workshop who I have worked with for ten years and who engineered The Dappled Light of the Sun.

    DC You’re now working on a larger scale, which seems to be related to presenting work outdoors. You’re showing work in a more public way. Is that something you wanted to happen?

    CS Yes, and I get real pleasure from a challenging brief. My largest project to date is a tower I’ve designed for an energy centre in Greenwich, which is part of the redevelopment of Greenwich Peninsula. The brief on paper looked like a bit of a nightmare. I couldn’t solve the problem at first and I became quite determined not to turn down the commission because of precisely that. I think I have now solved it, and it’s a credit to them for letting me take it on. But it has been immensely complicated – sometimes you have these meetings with 30 people around a table, and nobody knows who anyone is.

    DC So are you enjoying that engagement as opposed to the more solitary role of the artist?

    CS I enjoy the collaboration, and the commissions provide a stable, guaranteed income. There is the possibility with an exhibition that nothing will sell and you’ll be in famine for the next six months. The commissions can give an income for the next 12 months to live and pay your staff – it can be heartbreaking not to win them, as they do give you stability. In that sense my studio is very similar to an architecture practice.

    The Dappled Light of the Sun by Conrad Shawcross RA is on show in the Annenburg Courtyard at the RA as part of the Summer Exhibition 2015, from 8 June –16 August 2015.

    Hear Conrad Shawcross talk on 19 June at the RA.

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