BY Martin Herbert in Reviews | 05 APR 03
Featured in
Issue 74

Conrad Shawcross

Entwistle, London, UK

BY Martin Herbert in Reviews | 05 APR 03

Successful modern machines, as everybody knows, are mass-produced and get smaller and speedier as time marches on. So it's hard to have confidence in a recently built mechanized contraption that is primarily hand-fashioned from beautifully burnished lengths of oak, fills a large room and operates extremely slowly. Not only is Conrad Shawcross' The Nervous Systems (2003) precisely such an anachronism, but it was also designed to deliver a representation of the shape of time - an issue that philosophers, scientists and mathematicians have pondered fruitlessly for millennia. Let's just go home now, shall we? But while the whirring centrepiece of this young Slade graduate's first solo show may have looked like a throwback to cranky Victorian pseudo-science, it actually worked - albeit not in any empirical sense.

A motorized, symmetrical, loom-like device, The Nervous Systems organized itself around two large, floor-based wooden crosses, reinforced with diagonal oaken interstices and rotating on axles at a 30-degree angle, like de luxe windmills knocked flat and cantilevered up. At the four outermost points of each cross was another, smaller, rotating cross shape, which in turn bore on each of its four extremities two unwinding spools of colourful thread. These fed towards a line of pulleys on the ceiling. As the larger crosses rolled around, mirroring each other, their smaller siblings spun too, the bobbins unreeled their colourful cargo, and the 64 threads were gathered upwards while the wheels' movement twirled them around each other. The pulleys brought them together into a single, thick braid in the centre of the ceiling; they were then hauled down to the floor and into a rotating horizontal tube before finally emerging at the other end as a bulky rope in the form of a multicoloured double helix.

While producing this haberdashery DNA continuously, thereby generating a physical embodiment of moments and hours passing and a poetical, many-stranded evocation of the evolutionary process, Shawcross' structure also fused the two classical paradigms of temporality: the cycle and Time's Arrow. A parade of cyclical motion culminating in an inexorable line, The Nervous Systems seemingly favoured the former model while wearily accepting our cultural tendency to privilege the latter. Although Shawcross apparently wasn't sure whether the piece would function when he installed it - and, indeed, on my first visit a string-tension glitch had virtually shut down the system - it couldn't quite be called experimental since it clearly proceeded from a given form to the means necessary to produce it. A backward spin on science's determination to capture the unknown, it could be called absurdist. Had the discovery of DNA been made 70 years earlier, one could imagine a mutton-chopped inventor presenting this clever device as proof of cosmic harmony.

Downstairs was another expository pairing of timbered loops: two iterations of Shawcross' Pre-Retroscope (2002), which he devised as a means of filming and subsequently replaying a 360-degree view of one's surroundings. Pre-Retroscope (Marine) was, again, a demonstration of fretsaw finesse, a one-seater rowing boat to the top of which was affixed a circular, horizontal wooden runner. Its motor and small, mobile platform allow a 16mm camera to move around this track, recording an all-round panorama of the cameraman's surroundings: a video in the gallery showed tenebrous nocturnal footage taken from the middle of a canal. Pre-Retroscope (Terrestrial) operated on the same principle, except that the ring surmounted an octet of oak tripods - a system that allowed Shawcross to film a circumferential view of the beach at Birling Gap on the Sussex coast. This footage was played back via a DVD projector and screen attached to the camera's platform, which spun at the velocity of the camera's original movement. Ideally one strode around the hoop at the speed of its motion, looking at the screen as if it were a window on to a passing reality - as if the filmed moment were unfolding in front of you.

More like a diagram showing how one might capture something infinitely subtle than a manifestation of the thing itself, Pre-Retroscope (Terrestrial) appeared again in Untitled (2002), a photograph that featured Shawcross alone inside his construction, beneath lowering skies on the wind-swept beach. Moved out of the gallery into a functional realm, the madcap machine changed shape. It suddenly looked deadly serious, and suggested that - despite his work's prevalent tone of gentle irrationality - Shawcross may really believe that going round in circles is a way forward.

Martin Herbert is a critic based in Berlin, Germany.