Is site-specific the new collaboration? What I mean by this is that where it was once the fashion for artists and dancers (think Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham) or film directors and opera houses (Anthony Minghella and the ENO) to mix art forms, now it is fashionable to have work inspired by and installed in a particular place.
Take Punchdrunk with their Faust, which nightmarishly overran a Wapping warehouse, or Turner Prize nominee Roger Hiorns: his Seizure featured a flat in South London whose walls were daubed with liquid copper sulphate, eventually producing a blue crystalline cave. The latest in this line is Chord by Conrad Shawcross, who has installed a rope machine in an abandoned tunnel in Holborn.
The tunnel itself, opened in 1906 by Edward VII, is of historical interest: through it used to run the Kingsway Tram from Southampton Row to Aldwych; it closed in 1952 as tubes and buses took over. Now it is soaked in an aura of mystery: its entrance gates at the surface are locked and in even the least curious passer-by this is bound to stoke an interest, a question about such a public yet abandoned space. It is, in fact, used by Camden Council to store things, such as timber and recalcitrant workers.
Conrad Shawcross, the young sculptor of abstract scientific ideas, was offered the space and returned to an abandoned technique of his, rope-making: here there are two machines spinning thick thread into a omni-hued cable, retreating along a track as the rope gets longer. “I haven’t made anything with rope for about seven years,” Shawcross says. “It just seemed that the linear structure of the tunnel [suggested] this work. It gradually recedes backwards and will eventually make about 100 metres of rope each run.” As he speaks, the whining and creaking of the machines echo down the tunnel.
The machines fit in quite elegantly. You have to descend far into the tunnel, past the former platform, with its Union Street signs and contemporary posters in tatters on the walls, until you reach a level stretch, where Shawcross has laid down a wooden track. They are beautiful objects: both specially made by Shawcross, from a distance they look like flowers in a Japanese print, a thick stem and regular petals. They whir round rhythmically and the cable produced echoes the tunnel’s shape.
Shawcross is quite keen for visitors to devise their own interpretation of the work: “It’s whatever you want it to be – hopefully it’s quite a conceptually open piece. It is essentially a rope machine and it’s been made in a very neutral, diagrammatic, ethereal way.”
He does concede that it is space-time and visions of time which inspired him: “My original interest in it is to do with space and time and the linear perception of time – whether it’s a line or a cycle. This rope being a linear structure formed from a rotational system, it has quite a good reference to that.” In line with this, when the rope is finished, it will be cut into editions whose length is not measured by metres but by minutes.
Time certainly plays a role, but to me it seems that these machines have been here eternally and we have only just discovered them – they are the spinners of the threads of fate (as the Greeks knew them), churning away as they programme human action. We are observers who cannot interfere. This is in the abandonment of the location too: it is a place untouched now by humans, a melancholy place for a melancholy contemplation of free will.
Bottom three pictures by Josh Spero
Chord, Kingsway Tram Subway, until Sunday 8 November. Book free tickets here