Conrad Shawcross is 25. The Nervous Systems is his first show out of art school (2001, Slade School M.F.A.) and it is at Entwistle, a very posh gallery on the poshest of streets (Cork). The show is good. In fact, I would go so far as to say it’s more than good; it’s remarkable. It’s innovative, and daring, and cocky in a sweetly self-deprecating way, and although it’s feel-good art, it’s neither kitschy nor simple. It’s dynamic and it propels a kinetic energy into the space, both literally and figuratively, so that upon entering the building you’re absorbed in Shawcross’s world. It’s a fun place to be.
In the street level gallery is a giant wooden construction, a brilliant behemoth of a machine, bound together with loads of gears and bolts and it’s moving. Titled “The Nervous System,” this hand-crafted spinner is abundantly absurd in scope, cranking and creaking away in ceaseless production. A pair of giant spindles rotates four sets of smaller spindles with eight bobbins apiece. In the process thin threads morph into a fat rope as the 32 individual spools weave together a single giant cord that piles up on the gallery floor. The end result looks kind of like a ship’s rope hurled in a pile on a pier, and the machine’s raw mechanics recall a kind of pre-industrial, hand-crafted world. The shadows it plays on the wall are mesmerizing and evoke the type of unexpected beauty found in the soapy water of a Charles and Ray Eames film. And best of all, every few minutes the gallery attendant has to get up and pull more thread from the final lever so it doesn’t get jammed, proving perhaps that we are even enslaved by our art machines.
A projector’s buzzing leads the way downstairs where, to my sheer delight, two more mad constructions reside. In the foreground is a boat, replete with oars and nautical equipment, from which a circular track is attached so that it floats, about waist-level, above the ground. Spinning on the track is a spoke with a projector at the center and a small plywood display at the end. The projection is a film taken in a canal, and shot from the very vessel that now displays it—as upstairs, this thing works too! The journey is an industrial canal and Shawcross’ lens has captured zooming cars, scruffy beautiful people, warehouses, and generally gritty, industrial landscapes. As the arm rockets in circles, the boat bumps a bit and the screen with it, provoking a haptic response to the waterborne image.
Behind it is another film, a quiet peaceful counterpoise of ocean and big sky. Also on a track, this one is a smooth and even circle of interconnected tripods, the spoke moving at half-tempo. Shawcross filmed 360 degrees around (a still photograph upstairs shows the process) and watching the glorious Turner-like sky float round is hypnotic and dream-inducing.
The greatest success in these works is not the imagery, which is average. The remarkable aspect is the experience of seeing them; rarely has my space in a gallery been so challenged. I was nearly hit twice by the rickety screens as I ran round in circles trying to capture the image in its entirety. The pieces are collectively called “Pre-retroscope (terrestrial)” and I suspect that Shawcross is trying to provoke some kind of primal experience of looking. Our postmodern world is such a barrage of gloss and shine: slick images abound and we take them in without even a second glance. Moreover, watching video installations in galleries has become rote, and we engage them with the same pensive gaze we were taught to look at paintings. Shawcross’s whizzing screens recall the zoetrope and film’s early days, when seeing moving images was a wild and unpredictable ride.
As with “The Nervous System” upstairs, “Pre-retroscope (terrestrial)” seems to search for a place that doesn’t really exist right now, at least not in the mainstream. They are about the sheer joy of making things, about labor, about looking, about thinking. They challenge the relationship we have with the machines we live amidst, reminding us to look inside them, to figure out what they’re really doing, and to consider how they may be affecting our perceptions and how necessary they really are. This is no naïve return to a bygone era however; it is rather a detour into the world of a dreamer who considers how today’s technology (like the DVD playing his videos) can collaborate with yesterday’s machinery. A previous work was entitled “Soulcather” and involved a souped-up Ford Capri, fishing equipment, and Shawcross driving around Hackney in search of lost souls. Like all stories, his demand a leap of faith. But by grounding them in the real world, he offers just the kind of inspired detour from the day-to-day that feels pretty damn important right now.
144 New Bond St. // London, U.K.