Sculptor Conrad Shawcross: ‘I’m too rational to ever be spontaneous’

As the youngest member of the Royal Academy of Arts, the sun is truly shining on the Clapton artist and his latest work, finds Alex Bellotti.

Take a wander around the Royal Academy of Arts this summer and you’ll encounter an enthrallingly chaotic fixture in its Annenberg Courtyard entitled The Dappled Light of the Sun.

Is it a series of clouds? Trees? Interconnecting neuro-pathways? For the artist who created it, Conrad Shawcross, no firm conclusions need to be drawn. At the very least, however, the sculpture’s twisting tendrils of adjoined tetrahedrons are yet another sign of increasing ambition from one of Britain’s most exciting young sculptors.

“It wasn’t an easy task,” says Shawcross. “There were about 12 years of welding that went into it. It’s taken a long time and it’s been quite a labour of love.”

Such dedication is thankfully appreciated in high places. Two years ago, Shawcross was invited into the Royal Academy, making him the youngest living member among their vaunted ranks.

Aged just 38, it’s a remarkable achievement for the Hackney resident, but one that he’s confident won’t alter his outlook. Having grown up in Kentish Town as the son of writers William Shawcross and Marina Warner, his grounding in art began at an early age and he’s merely keen to make the most of any new opportunities that come his way.

“Some people hold the Royal Academy in great regard and others don’t; that’s democracy,” the artist insists. “It was wonderful to be welcomed by them and made a member, but it’s important not to take it too seriously as well. It’s a huge honour, but it doesn’t mean I’ve arrived – it just means that someone’s endorsed the good work that I do.”

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Perhaps the first major endorsement Shawcross received came in 2004, when the Saatchi Gallery exhibited his breakthrough piece, The Nervous System. A giant, symmetrical, fully-functioning loom, the work confirmed Shawcross’s reputation as one of the country’s most scientific, mechanically-minded sculptors; a reputation since enhanced with projects including 2004’s Continuum at the National Maritime Museum and 2013’s Timepiece at the Roundhouse.

While the artist’s architectural philosophy has been evident since he was a child making Jenga-like towers in his bedroom, he admits it can sometimes be a testingly long-term approach.

“I think it’s always been more rational,” he says of his style. “I’m quite envious of people who work in that more spontaneous way because if I have an idea, it takes about six months of working out how to do it.”

Ultimately though, sheer graft is clearly part of the appeal for Shawcross. Having moved into his Clapton property in 2005, he has practically rebuilt the whole building as both a studio and home for his wife, son and two stepchildren.

When I put to him some enthusiastic comments his fellow sculptor, Marc Quinn, recently made in these pages about the benefits of 3D printing, Shawcross agrees, but is also tellingly measured about the role of technology versus traditional hard labour.

“3D printing is great when there are things that couldn’t be done any other way, but it has to be taken with a bit of caution as well. Sometimes you go to architectural studios and see people printing a cube in resin, but actually it’d be much easier to make it out of cardboard in a more soulful way.

“You could use the analogy of taxi drivers now. They used to have this incredible knowledge base of how London works, through all the one-way systems, road works, rush hour traffic; now a lot of cab drivers can just type in the address and there’s no thought process as to how to get there.

“Of course it’s easy, but your brain is going to sleep. It’s important to still have that thought process, of trying to work out where you are or where you want to go.”