Yesterday evening I went to see a new installation at the gorgeous Roundhouse venue in Camden Town.
Since the Roundhouse started out as a Victorian steam-engine shed, it is perhaps very fitting that the directors decided to engage with the mechanical sculptor Conrad Shawcross to construct an installation that responds to the interior of the building. Shawcross is becoming increasingly famous for his kinetic machines that intersect the boundaries of geometry, philosophy and physics and his new installation, Time Piece, certainly illustrates how these disciplines overlap.
The installation itself is a giant humming machine, which is suspended well above the main floor of the Roundhouse. Upon entering the hall, one of the first things that you will notice is the stark contrast between the rotating lights and the vast dark emptiness that surrounds them – the rounded roof of the hall forming an arena-like nights sky with the arms of Shawcross’ dancing clock manipulating space and time. The chosen concept of time is a direct response to the 24 pillars that orbit the floor.
The piece itself is carefully constructed. Built with the help of professional engineers it is designed to last twenty years. Three main arms behave purely in an instrumental fashion and form the faceless clock. The artistic content comes from the extensions of the clock hands enticed into new orbits, capped by the star-like lights.
In fact, John Heilbron – the science historian – termed the sculpture as ‘descriptive astronomy’. The lights can be the sun, the moon or the stars, guiding us around the gallery space like the true components of the sky did for people on earth centuries before us. The discs of light move in and out of phase at varying speeds – all multiples of 24 – constrained by choice to keep the motion neat and tidy. Every so often the arms fully align in a grand gesture, but most of the time their relative motion appears semi-chaotic. Prograde and retrograde motion are woven together – mimicking our experience of the planets from earth.
After lying under the sculpture for sometime, I entered a meditative-like state as one would when gazing into a clear nights sky. The arms then take on an almost lifelike quality, stretching out wide and then stroking or caressing themselves as they journey back towards the centre – a heavenly dancer, complex, yet totally at ease.
And while the stars and planets are sampling the space above, there is an impressive shadow show playing-out underneath. A point-like feature rises majestically from the hall’s floor – the sundial’s nodus modulates the shadows across the floor. The sundial again pays homage to the many generations before us that relied on crude Time Pieces to structure their days: to the Egyptian’s who first set out the twelve hour day and night and to the French who tried to decimalize time. We are forced to question why we compartmentalize time in the way we do. This was a nice reawakening for me, because as a physicist I would tend to theorize the concept of time and miss out the human element.
The last time I saw a large scale installation was Ann Hamilton’s Event of a Thread, at Park Avenue Armoury in NYC last December. While her installation differed to this one, it also dealt with the nature of space and time, albeit implicitly (perhaps large scale venues such as the Roundhouse and Park Avenue Armoury coerce artists into thinking about grand themes such as time and space). Hamilton transformed the hanger-like space into a giant loom, weaving together precious moments via various methods: people playing on swings; bodies in space; voices in a room; a reading and birds flying etc. The elements interacted with each other randomly at every instance, creating an ergodic motion. Like in Shawcross’ Time Piece, the giant swings of Event of a Thread move in and out of phase with each other, a break from the monotony of the real world outside.
Certainly, there is a lot to explore in the realm of art that forces us to question the common notions we use in everyday life. Notions of time and space and everything in between. More importantly, what they mean to us and what concepts we are willing to abandon to explore others. Especially installations of such grand proportions, where we can step into, lay under, and let it calmly take over our senses.
Although Hamiltons and Shawcross’s installations are very different, the former being more playful while the latter had more of a meditative effect, both had in common the ability to force me out of my perceiving self, where what I took unquestionably as the concept of time is the very thing that I can explore. As a scientist and an artist, the effect on me is deeply intriguing and I am now more convinced that to explain, or even to appreciate, the depth of human experience, we must be able to look at things both scientifically and artistically.