Conrad Shawcross is the British artist behind three of the most high-profile public works unveiled in London over the past 18 months:Three Perpetual Chords, 2015, a series of knot-like sculptures commissioned for Dulwich Park, which draws from the artist’s ongoing study of harmonic ratios; Paradigm, 2016, a permanent installation at the Francis Crick Institute’s biomedical research centre in King’s Cross, which is currently the tallest public sculpture in central London; and the 50-metre-high The Optic Cloak, 2016, a major architectural intervention for the Greenwich Peninsula low carbon Energy Centre, a synthesis of engineering and optical research that draws on subjects including maritime camouflage, Cubism and Op Art. Monolith (Optic), 2016, selected by Clare Lilley, Director of Programme at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, for Frieze Sculpture Park, is an entrancing addition to Regent’s Park, appearing to change endlessly according to shifting light conditions. Shawcross tells us about his ideas for the work and the technology behind its shimmering surface.
How did you achieve the optical effect of Monolith (Optic)?
‘Over the last few years I have spent a lot of time looking at interference patterns created by layering and repetition. A great deal of research and experimentation was put in to creating a new type of skin for the The Optic Cloak in Greenwich and Monolith (Optic) is a purified celebration of the understanding myself and the studio have gained into these optic phenomena.’
What is the connection to camouflage?
‘It was originally borne out of looking at camouflage – its history and where it is used both in nature and in the “made” world. Dazzle camouflage was of particular interest to me. Camouflage is paradoxical as it makes things disappear and harder to read, yet they are also more visually arresting.’
Do you think it will influence the development of your work?
‘It has opened up a whole new area of work that I think will be really exciting. There’s some really interesting potential with this to create a disruptive surface on sculpture that is very dynamic and optically alive. It’s just a very interesting technology, which I’ve learnt a lot about. I think it’s the beginning of a series of standing stones that face the sun and dissolve when the sun sets; also a new type of stained glass window is something I would like to explore.'
Just as works such as Paradigm contain an idea of movement in stasis, the surface of Monolith (Optic), which appears constantly to move and shift, plays with received ideas about the static and monumental.
‘I think that potential to convey movement through stasis is more interesting than using movement to talk about movement so hopefully the works have become more subtle yet more effective in their description of these sorts of phenomena – movement, entropy, disappearance…’
How does Monolith (Optic) relate to The Optic Cloak in Greenwich?
‘Monolith (Optic) is exciting because it’s very pure compared to The Optic Cloak, which is not a sculpture because it is subservient to so many things, like the chimneys, the flues, the staircases and the gantries. I think the way things are described is very important and the expectations of something as a sculpture are different from those of a building, for example. Obviously The Optic Cloak has sculptural qualities, and I’m really delighted with it, but I’ve been very strict about not calling it a sculpture, whereas Monolith (Optic) is purely about the form and how it appears according to different light conditions. At first the work appears to be very architectural, industrial, even brutal – a cowling for some type of utility out of place in a park. But as you move around it the skin begins to shift, oscillate, transform and even disappear. The primary assumptions are replaced with far more poetic and liminal interpretations. In some ways it’s a monument to disappearance.’
You’ve made some of the largest public works in recent times. Do you still like to get hands-on in the studio with small scale works.
‘Yes, of course. I like scale and I like tackling it, but scale is not just about making bigger work. There are all sorts of scales you work on; it doesn’t need to be monumental.’
The combination of science and poetry in your work seems key. Do you think of these as conflicting impulses, or do they come from a similar place?
‘I think artists that deploy rules and create sequences of work, the ones who work in a more scientific way, are the ones that I really understand. But I think you can say that about Monet, in terms of repeating the same experiment. I think a wonderful show would be with Monet and Carl Andre, it would just be very rigorous and systemic, going back again and again in a way of understanding something better. You’d get together audiences that don’t cross paths very often. I think it would break down some barriers.’
Interview by Martin Coomer
Photo: Marc Wilmot
Monolith (Optic), Frieze Sculpture Park, Regent’s Park, London, 6 October 2016 - 8 January 2017.