My first memory of consciously thinking about a hole was when I was five and watched Yellow Submarine. The Fab Four are trying to think of a way of freeing Sgt Pepper from inside a frozen glass sphere which the Blue Meanies have dropped over his bandstand. Ringo announces in glorious deadpan Liverpudlian that he has a hole in his pocket, which he promptly pulls out and uses to puncture the surface of the sphere. This then collapses and the musician is freed. I was amazed and thrilled by this. A hole was actually a thing. I have been thinking about holes ever since.
A hole is distinct from an absence or a void in that it needs to be contained by something. A hole requires a host.
Holes are ubiquitous essential aspects of our lives but very misunderstood. A hole is distinct from an absence or a void in that it needs to be contained by something. A hole requires a host. Within the vast, problematic world of holes there are many subcategories – cracks, tunnels, caves and bubbles. There are holes that cannot be seen, the bubbles inside a piece of Swiss cheese or a loaf of bread. Then there are the gaps inside atomic structures too small ever to be perceived, or the largest ultimate hole, the black hole in which everything and nothing can exist.
Nineteen thirty-three was the year of the hole, when Henry Moore claimed to have pierced his forms before Barbara Hepworth circumscribed an absence or presence in hers. I see these works not as forms with holes, but as descriptions of holes; the form is in a way the by-product of the absence. But when does the external surface end and the internal begin? The works that draw a clear line between these two, either with colour or an edge, to me are not as effective as the ones that allow the surface to flow and contain the form. So there is no beginning, middle or end to the hole or its host. Without a boundary they become entangled as one.
I see these works not as forms with holes, but as descriptions of holes; the form is in a way the by-product of the absence.
I spent many days in my twenties in the old maths gallery of the Science Museum in London. There were a number of exquisite Victorian models of immense beauty there, many rendered in plaster, each describing mathematical parabolas, algorithms and ideas. In my mind there are so many startling similarities between these and Hepworth’s forms. For her work touches on topology – the study of surface. After the Möbius strip the most famous example of a topological/philosophical problem is the Klein bottle – a paradoxical object, three dimensional and yet comprising only one side. This is due to the clever use of a hole punching through and doubling back through the surface. It would be fascinating to know if there was any record of Hepworth having links with the museum then and its collection.
In topological terms the human body is equivalent to a doughnut, an amorphous blob with a long thin hole running through is from mouth to arse. In geometry the doughnut shape is called the Torus. Many of Hepworth’s works contain this same property, and it is perhaps why they are so immensely compelling to us. In essence, our bodies are just like this.
My three works subtlety nod to Hepworth and are in some ways I hope also descriptions of holes.
In 2014, I was lucky enough to win a commission for a new sculpture in Dulwich Park to replace the much-loved Hepworth sculpture that had been stolen three years earlier. Titled Three Perpetual Chords my three works subtlety nod to her and are in some ways I hope also descriptions of holes. They are meant to be the opposite of a civic sculpture in that they invite visitors to approach them, to play with them and to enter inside them, and in this respect are not dissimilar to Hepworth’s Three Obliques (Walk In), 1968, and Four-Square (Walk Through), 1966. I think that if it were not for her untimely death Hepworth would have been credited with much more. She really was on the cusp of something revolutionary and is perhaps the unsung mother of installation art and the immersive experience.
Another piece of mine that plays homage to both Hepworth and the hole is one I made in the months before my son Hartley was conceived. Called From That Which It Came, it is a process-based work that can be seen as a mother and child – two distinct entities that have come from one. The ‘child’ is essentially swarf – the shavings from a lathe – the ‘mother’ the block from which he/she has come. To create it, I developed a bespoke tool that allowed me to slowly carve a conical hole in a block of nylon. Usually the swarf is a waste product from boring a hole, but in this case it became part of the object itself.
A more recent aspect of my work has been investigating optics and achieving disrupted dynamic sculptural surfaces though the juxtaposition of hole patterns.
A more recent aspect of my work has been investigating optics and achieving disrupted dynamic sculptural surfaces though the juxtaposition of hole patterns. In essence this can be described as the Moiré effect but we have tried over the past seven years to create a very empirical understanding of the variables and constraints that creates such varied effects. While I love the complex visuals I’m drawn also by the philosophical and perceptual implications; that combinations of absences can create pattern, complexity, even illusion. A new work, The Patterns of Absence, 2020, has just been created for my current exhibition, Escalations, at Château La Coste in Provence, France. The suspended work is four metres across and comprises two slowly counter-rotating discs, both perforated using a mathematical algorithm. The sum effect allows shifting dappled light to permeate through the voids within their surfaces.
In trying to extrapolate the depth and layered complexity of space from a single vantage point with very limited information, there are associations to the activity of studying the sky and stars. I have also introduced colour into the work, creating further tonal shifts and complexity between the composite layers. Colours form before the eyes which are not actually present, appearing as a combination of separate layers to create an illusion, or a series of false positives.
Colours form before the eyes which are not actually present, appearing as a combination of separate layers to create an illusion, or a series of false positives.
The viewer can see the work straight on, from the position of the scientist on earth, ingeniously trying 'to see’ beyond the perception envelope and understand that which is real and that which is not. Equally, they can view the work from other vantages, akin to a 'God’s eye view’, to understand how this shift in complexity is, in fact, the sum and interaction of simple components.
I am reminded of these lines from Allen Ginsberg's Howl. I first came across this as old recordings of the poet performing to New York crowds in the late ’50s. In spoken word the difference between 'holy' and 'holey' is non-existent, so there is much double meaning exploited by the poet.
Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy!
The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand
and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody's holy! everywhere is
holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman's an
The bum's as holy as the seraphim! the madman is
holy as you my soul are holy!
The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is
holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy!
Holy Peter holy Allen holy Solomon holy Lucien holy
Kerouac holy Huncke holy Burroughs holy Cas-
sady holy the unknown buggered and suffering
beggars holy the hideous human angels!
Holy my mother in the insane asylum! Holy the cocks
of the grandfathers of Kansas!
Holy the groaning saxophone! Holy the bop
apocalypse! Holy the jazzbands marijuana
hipsters peace & junk & drums!…
An earlier version of this essay appears in issue 34, Summer 2015 edition of Tate Etc in which artists, writers and curators respond to aspects of Barbara Hepworth's work on the occasion of a major exhibiton held that year at Tate Britain.
Watch a film of Conrad Shawcross discussing the process of creating his work Three Perpetual Chords for Dulwich Park. The work was installed on 18 April 2015 and was commissioned by Southwark Council in partnership with the Contemporary Art Society as a public art legacy to the Barbara Hepworth sculpture Two Forms (Divided Circle), stolen from the park in 2011.
For a broader discussion of Shawcross' work, see a film of his HENI Talk in which he discusses recent work and the influence of Moiré interference patterns.
About Conrad Shawcross
Conrad Shawcross creates sculptures and installations that, imbued with an appearance of scientific rationality, explore subjects that lie on the borders of geometry and philosophy, physics and metaphysics. He has gained a global reputation for extending the possibilities of art in the public realm, with recent commissions including the Comcast Technology Center building, designed by Foster + Partners in Philadelphia, where Exploded Paradigm, 2018, occupies the lobby of the building, its complex mirrored surfaces enhancing the visitor’s experience of the surrounding architecture.
Images from top
Conrad Shawcross, The Patterns of Absence, 2020 (detail)
Conrad Shawcross, Study For The Patterns of Absence, 2020
Barbara Hepworth, Two Forms, Divided Circle, 1969, installed in Dulwich Park. Image © Southwark Council
Klein bottle, made by Alan Bennett, 1995–96. Object number 1996-545. Science Museum Group Collection Online. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum
Conrad Shawcross, Three Perpetual Chords, 2015, Dulwich Park, London, curated and managed by the Contemporary Art Society for Southwark Council. Photography © Philip Vile
Conrad Shawcross, From That Which It Came (One), 2012
Conrad Shawcross, The Patterns of Absence, 2020
Conrad Shawcross, The Patterns of Absence, 2020 (detail)
Conrad Shawcross, Exploded Paradigm, 2018, installed at the Comcast Technology Center building, designed by Foster + Partners, in Philadelphia. Photography: Chuck Choi.
All Conrad Shawcross works © the artist
Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro