At the base of each of the columns in the Roundhouse’s circular Main Space is a number. From one to twenty-four, these form the arena into which Conrad Shawcross’ Timepiece casts its entrancing, yet exasperating, shadows. As a #watchnerd, I had hoped that these conveniently placed hour markers might somehow be used by Shawcross to denote, if not the measurement of time, at least the passing of it.
Shawcross, whose previous work includes Rehearsal Robot for Machina andLoop System Quintet, has built a large, three-armed device, each with a subsidiary and additional satellite arm, that hangs, suspended, from the galleried roof of the building. Each of these outermost arms is equipped with a downward-facing spotlight and revolves and rotates in concert (and often at odds) with its siblings. The pattern appears random, although repeating, and pauses regularly, each arm overlapping to form a stopped clock of sorts.
However, Shawcross hasn’t tried to create a time piece per se; rather, the slightly surreal combination of lights, arms and gears cast shadows that suggest, or merely hint at, the passing of time. The mechanics and gearing are based around the number three (three main, three subsidiary and three satellite arms) – presumably hours, minutes and seconds – and the number twelve. I am told that, at specific times such as midday, the shadows cast by Timepiece are more overtly “timely”, pointing outwardly, or aligning in a single direction.
It’s a fascinating piece, full of beauty, serenity, wonder and no little mechanical endeavour. I’m not sure how I feel about it, to be honest. Part of me – the romantic steampunk perhaps – wanted to see even more kinetic energy, another dimension to the arms, as seen previously in Quintet. I think I was hoping for something like the Joseph Cornell-style “boxmaker” in Count Zero – a suspended robotic timekeeper dancing around the central gnomon. The #watchnerd in me hoped for a functioning timepiece – a primstav for the 21st century or perhaps a kinetic version of a Will Andrewes sundial.
Regardless of my (probably unfair) preconceptions, Shawcross’ installation remains utterly charming, appearing to ask its audience to reconsider their attitude towards time. That it challenges our perceptions of the fixed nature of time, and timekeeping, is no bad thing; sometimes it’s good to be reminded of the artificial nature of our hobby.
Timepiece is free** to view at the Roundhouse, Camden Town until 25th August.
**Pay what you like