The first thing that hits you, as you walk into the newest installation at Camden’s renowned Roundhouse, is a sense of void; a deafening silence envelops as your eyes accustom to the shadowy space. Suspended from the centre of the room is the only illuminating feature in an otherwise completely darkened room. This is British artist Conrad Shawcross’ newest kinetic artwork: Timepiece, a eight-metre wide rotating mechanism, glinting in the dark.
Set against the (post)industrial backdrop of the Roundhouse theatre – once a turntable engine shed – is the artist’s conceptual response to the ‘dogma of Western timekeeping’. Timepiece takes its inspiration from the historic building’s 24 interior columns; in its original function, twenty three train berths radiated around a central turntable, with the entrance track completing the twenty fourth set of rails. In this setting, the 24-hour day and the standardisation of time becomes the pivotal focus for a timekeeping narrative. Art and architecture come together in this installation, as an expression of working out our space and place in time.
Each of the machine’s three suspended aluminium arms represents hours, minutes and seconds, with the second arm rotating in fluid real time regulations. Each arm then has a further articulated extension, with a 1000-watt bulb on each point, playing to its spectacular architectural setting in dynamic nuances of light and shadow. As a result, three shadows (each moving at different speeds) are cast on the concrete floor, provoking ‘a parallel sense of reality’ – or at least a definite sense of the uncanny, as the concept of time is rendered wholly unstable. In the centre of the room, stands a 4-metre high gnomon or sundial – with which the suspended armatures above line up directly.
The machine was constructed ‘in house’ at the artist’s Hackney-based studio with the help of digital modelling and was installed in Camden over two days. Shawcross speaks enthusiastically of processes such as chamfering the machine’s aluminium edges, testifying to his emphasis on ‘tool determinism as well as linguistic determinism’ – the importance, in other words, of the physical act and processes of making, although he admits that his machine is not meant to be functional, even as it is designed according to rational principles. For more of Shawcross in his own words, check out several excellent short films on the Roundhouse website.
There is something pleasantly paradoxical about the precise geometry of Timepiece and its architectural surrounding, set against the absorbing sensual and contemplative experience of the installation as a whole. The architectural and historical references speak of a rational scientific purpose; meanwhile the 45-degree tilt of the aluminium armatures and their ghostly, wavering shadows suggest an art object to be experienced. Shawcross aims to challenge the ‘authority of the machine’ in its familiar, industrial context – instead conveying some of the wonder of ‘a primeval or celestial experience’ of timekeeping.
Shawcross’ silent exploration of celestial reality is a must see; make time for it.