Man Of Parts
Wallpaper|July 2017

Conrad Shawcross’ new ‘crazy machine’ spins into St Pancras International

Nick Compton

The British artist Conrad Shawcross has a thing about harmony. And not some woolly idea of beauty in balance but harmony proper; the harmony of mathematical ratios and Pythagorean intervals, of chords, secret and otherwise. He sees this harmony, or rather finds it, with a sort of engineered synaesthesia, in the strange machines he invents or in particular swoops and curves he creates; in mostly large-scale, complex sculptures, often with moving parts that follow elegant, elliptical ways and paths generated, in part, by beautiful numbers. ‘The brain is activated by notes or certain chords in a way it isn’t by dissonance or discordancy,’ says Shawcross. ‘It triggers emotion and thought and enquiry. So I’m just using these ancient harmonies and transmogrifying them into ratios through machines to see what happens.’

As a young man he became obsessed with a little book called Harmonograph: A Visual Guide to the Mathematics of Music. The book is mostly a collection of remarkable diagrams: repeating swirls, loops, twists and sinusoids, a complex but elemental geometry that seems to exist in three dimensions, if not more, created by a Victorian scientific gizmo called the harmonograph. Initially a research tool designed to measure movement in buildings and then adopted as a parlour entertainment, the harmonograph uses swinging pendulums with moveable weights to push pens and create patterns based on different harmonic ratios. For Shawcross, these intervals and ratios, and the patterns they generate, are things to be pushed and played with but always to be respected. He has used them in many of his works, including a giant new piece to be installed at London’s St Pancras International terminal this summer.

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