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Conrad Shawcross: An Underground Sanctuary


Helen Nianias: Between rows of imposing grey buildings, beneath four lanes of traffic, behind a secure metal gate, after a few hundred yards of damp, unpaved walkway sit two spiders weaving a 162-coloured rope.

Conrad Shawcross’s Chord is the most exciting, and possibly the only, underground exhibition in London. Made up of 342 spools of bright cotton, Chord brightly dominates an impossibly gloomy subterranean landscape.

Shawcross’s installation is purpose-built for the abandoned tram subway, and as such, the journey to the piece is part of the work as a whole. Walking down a gated walkway, underneath a ceiling dripping with water, the change between Holborn’s multi-storey buildings and the insalubrious tunnel is marked.

Indeed, this installation is based on the idea of physical and linear process itself. The two enormous machines start together, and pull themselves backwards along wooden tracks, pushing back and spinning the rope. The installation will begin and end in completely different ways. The gentle hum of the motor, and the dulled creaking as the machine moves and slowly turns implies progress, activity. Chord seems like an independent life, quietly moving, growing and changing. Change is important here, as Shawcross’s artistic progression is marked. From typically using wood in his installation, he built Chord from metal, echoing the great metallic trams that used to live where his installation sits. The line of the chord suggests the extinct tram wires.

The idea of the human perception of time, as a cyclical and linear notion is explored by Shawcross, as it was in his previous works The Nervous System (2000) and Yarn (2001). Shawcross explains it himself: “duration becomes interchangeable with length, time with space, and hour becomes 20cm, a day five metres.” Scientific rationale is evident here.  Formulaic in the true sense of the word, the machine will slowly, rationally, carefully produce a predicted amount. Describing his piece as “neutral, diagrammatic, ethereal”, Shawcross allows for a great deal of individual interpretation of his unemotional creation. Eventually, the machine will weave over 100 metres of the thick rainbow chord.  Distance = Speed x Time.

In step with the idea of growth, the installation requires constant upkeep. Several minders are kept on hand to keep moving the spokes supporting the spun cotton rope, and as the rope becomes longer, the subway will need new lights, new tracks to accommodate the metal giant. As our marker of the progress of time is growth, change, renewal, it is with Chord as well.

When I visit Chord, people stand transfixed by it, unsure what to make of it, how to behave around it, pushing their faces right up to it. It’s like watching paint dry in the best way possible. Watching a slow, functional process carried out by a churning machine is calming and predictable. Away from the chaos of overground London, Shawcross has created a sanctuary.

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