Artworks ‘in disguise’ – the Conrad Shawcross showcase at MICAS

Eminent British contemporary artist Conrad Shawcross’s showcase What Is To Become Is Already Here marks a new high for MICAS ahead of its grand 2024 opening. Here the sculptor speaks to MaltaToday about his fascination with science and why his work takes the fast and hard rules of maths and physics to uncover a poetic core

Conrad Shawcross
Conrad Shawcross

Across the Msida Creek, the colourful rotating discs that announce the arrival of Conrad Shawcross’s MICAS Beacons elicit all kinds of expectations. Towering above the historic fortifications that house the Malta International Contemporary Art Space, this “signal” alerts the world to the imminent opening of MICAS. 

The august works that have marked the Malta International Art Festival – now in its fifth year – all seemed to have accompanied the patient completion of this impressive art space. First with Ugo Rondinone’s The Radiant when the MICAS works started in and around the Sa Maison gardens; then with Cristina Iglesias’s Sea Cave (Entrance) and Michelle Oka Doner’s The Palm Goddess located both in Valletta amid the pacing of the daily crowds. Now, an impressive showcase by the eminent British contemporary artist Conrad Shawcross brings us back to MICAS at the threshold of its grand opening in 2024, beckoned by the light reflected off Beacons’s colourful discs. 

Steel, glass, wood... and geometry. These attributes are the mark of Shawcross’s body of work over the last 18 years. Eager to talk about his fascination with scientific thought, Shawcross is heavily invested in the huge amount of time it takes to work out the geometries and proportions of his works, for as their scale expands, radiantly emerging out of the centre, he pushes the boundaries of these structures, until they might appear to be floating. 

The tetrahedron has become Shawcross’s key building block. “It’s the simplest of platonic solids,” he says of the 3D shapes where each face is the same as a regular polygon with the same number of faces meeting at each vertex. “So, it represents the atom in Greek philosophy,” Shawcross adds, which is why geometrically it allows him to find new pathways into interesting and potent works. “It just keeps on giving.” 

But underneath this very rationalist and indeed scientific approach to art – for what we see are machines crafted by these laws of science – is what Shawcross believes is a “quite poetic heart, a more metaphysical or undefinable kind at its core.” He calls them ‘artworks in disguise’, where the utilitarian exterior of these machines hide something more irrational beneath. 

Shawcross’s keen interest in the history of ideas has allowed the artist to employ the heavy materiality of his artworks to reveal conceptual fault lines. Paradigm, one of the tallest public sculptures in central London at 14 metres, appears to defy gravity as the twisting stack of tetrahedra grow in size, teetering right to the edge of collapse – for Shawcross, who wants to capture the epistemological drive of science as it progresses by ‘toppling the paradigm’, collapse is an essential part of this process or any life-cycle. 

It is hard to divorce Shawcross’s sculptures from the feats of engineering they represent, the tactile nature of the welded steel, and the physicality of their coming together, just like Beacons has to be finally erected with the necessary use of a crane. It is a process, Shawcross points out, also redolent of the science and graft present in many other art forms – the daily grind of the creative process. “In reality, being an artist involves processes that are very menial, repetitive and very hard work... the reality of what we do is tough and quite boring. Sometimes it’s arriving at the idea that involves a huge amount of toil. But it is rewarding, with wonderful, poetic results... they’re a struggle.” 

So Shawcross avers against ignoring the radicality of art as a scientific experiment in and of itself. “Renaissance painters at the time were at the vanguard of a sort of experimentation, mixing chemicals, finding rare pigments from all over the world... in Afghanistan, Venice... it was essentially alchemy,” he says of a time so distant from today’s convenience of acquiring paint in tubes and stretches of canvas. “But back then, this was a hugely radical medium with a scientific approach to a problem.” 

This innate mission, for Shawcross, is to create “reproducible, analogue experiences in an increasingly digital world.” It’s a statement in which he takes pride, suggesting that the complexity of his works could yet crash a computer attempting to digitally render its creation and movements. That’s a prospect that excites the artist who lauds the beholder’s eye as “such an incredible instrument”. For in admiring Shawcross’s work, one must take in the monumental space it occupies, a visceral experience that is also very important to him – as in Patterns of Absence (2021), whose two rotating discs still elicit a physical reaction in the artist himself (“it sends a tingle down my spine”). And Shawcross makes no judgement on how viewers receive his work – it’s all up to them, filtered through their individual histories, gender, politics, education, love or trauma. “The more diverse those interpretations, the better the artwork... if everyone sees the same thing, it’s probably not a good artwork.” 

Beacons is itself a challenging work, for from the views across the Creek, one is immediately faced by its colourful incongruity atop the deserted La Vittoria bastion’s limestone. Its stainless and galvanised steel masts, at 7.5 metres in height, support a pair of counter-rotating semaphoric, optic discs, powered by the light of the sun and sky – like a stained-glass window, as the light filters through a pattern of hundreds of thousands of non-repeating holes, the colours of the maritime flags’ semaphoric code spell out the word ‘NOW’. Part child’s playfulness, part naval warning system, Shawcross’s work needs ample ballast and counterweights to withstand the wind speeds; decked in hard-hat and yellow vest, Shawcross assists with the lifting. “I’m a bit of a big kid really... give me a crane and I’m happy.” 

Shawcross however likes to think that Beacons, in the way that its ‘NOW’ heralds the imminent opening of MICAS, also captures the concept of time that is represented by the storied past of the fortifications it is housed in. While we might be tempted to dismiss the fallow periods that followed the ebbing of the militaries that roamed these structures, Shawcross instead considers this arc of history with trepidation. Take the climate crisis, he says: “There is a lag between what we do now and what happens later... the new, extreme weather patterns and rise in temperatures are the consequence of things we did 10, or even 100 years ago. There are consequences to all our actions... and until then, there is a sense of what that consequence is. ‘What is to become is already here’,” he says, namedropping the foreboding title of his showcase. 

“There is a sort of sense, in seeing the world in such a mess, that we know something is here, but always about to happen. I don’t want to be too apocalyptic, but it does seem that one of the reasons the human race is so good at survival is that we’re so good at imagining all the ways we can die.” 

It is this evolutionary sort of imagination – “the crazy apocalypses we conjure up” – that pushes humans into developing so many ingenious ways to protect themselves from catastrophe. “It’s one of the reasons religion kind of came about, with moral systems and behaviours that are designed to prevent us from ‘dying’,” Shawcross says, unveiling the poetic heart of his towering, ‘early warning’ signal as we cast our eye onto the Floriana bastions. 

Shawcross’s other predominant work will be The Dappled Light of the Sun (Formation I), acquired by MICAS as part of its permanent collection. One of his significantly mature works, this composition – a floating, five-metre cloud-like structure of 6,000 welded triangles forming around 1,600 tetrahedrons – harnesses his fascination with the perpetual motion of the natural world. “It almost feels like it’s being held down, rather than held up,” he says. “In fact, it weighs five tonnes, but because of the sort of proportions of the tripods, it has this elegance...  it’s almost floating, tethered down rather than supported. So, it’s got this sort of lightness despite its weight.” 

The other works by Shawcross will be Slow Arc within a Cube (I, VI, VII, XI, XIII, XIV), Patterns of Absence, Limit of Everything and Paradigm Vex (Slender), all displayed in the series of barrel vaults at the base of the battlement walls. Installed in a reverse chronological order, they chronicle the sculptor’s journey in his work, from simple structures to his more visceral and complex works.