Recently I attended the first public event at the Francis Crick Institute’s new building next to St Pancras. Ironically the event was not about science but was a conversation with an artist, sculptor Conrad Shawcross. He created the enormous sculpture outside the new Crick building. The sculpture is called Paradigm, and was inspired by the thought of the ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting science that the Crick was created for.
In conversation with Ken Arnold, Creative Director at the Wellcome Trust, Conrad revealed something about his inspirations and reasons for creating Paradigm. By the end of the evening we had learnt something about the artist and something about the sculpture. And possibly something about science as well.
Katie Matthews, the Crick’s Director of Engagement, introduced the event and reminded us that the Crick is all about collaboration. Hence featuring a collaboration between a science institute and a sculptor is par for the course for Crick.
Ken Arnold continued by reminding us that we have now had 20 years of the sciart phenomenon. Wellcome’s Sciart funding programme was launched in 1996 and concluded in 2006 but lives on in spirit. It was originally aimed “to fund visual arts projects which involved an artist and a scientist in collaboration to research, develop and produce work which explored contemporary biological and medical science”. Science and art are getting closer together again after a long separation.
Ken Arnold did a good job of leading the interview/conversation with Conrad Shawcross. He continually probed Conrad with questions, extracting interesting comments from the artist and generating new lines of thought. At intervals Ken opened up the floor to questions from the audience which ensured a varied pace and style of conversation and kept the flow of ideas going.
At the start Ken asked for a show of hands whether most people in the audience came to the event because they were primarily interested in science (a few) or primarily interested in art (a majority) or because they were equally interested in both (quite a few, including me). For completeness he also asked whether there was anyone not really interested in either art or science. No-one put their hand up to that!
Conrad Shawcross has worked with tetrahedral shapes before – experimenting with many wooden tetrahedra and exploring how they fit together. They do not tesselate (i.e. can’t stack neatly). Instead if you join them together they can become a bit chaotic or can form a 3-sided helix. He talks about this in a recent New Scientist article about another recent work of his.
This is the basis of Paradigm – a series of tetrahedra in which each succeeding one is 10% bigger than the one below so that although the base is only 80 centimetres across, the top spans 5 metres. It is a twisting helix that looks balanced, but only just. This precariousness is intended to be a metaphor for a scientific paradigm. An idea in science may be accepted but it’s quite possible that a new idea will come along one day and topple the old one. Hopefully the Crick will upset a few paradigms in the future (but I think that Paradigm the sculpture will remain standing).
Conrad revealed that his original plan was for the sculpture to be just 8m high, and in stainless steel. But Paul Nurse suggested that maybe it should be bigger, and Conrad agreed. The only trouble was, it wasn’t possible to make it that high with stainless steel (for cost reasons, I think). The solution was to use rusty iron instead, which allowed him to add some height to make it 14 metres high. Conrad also talked about the complexity of having to meet the brief of a commission such as this whilst also producing something artistically valuable that would work on a site in a very public space. He said that working within such constraints helps him to address problems that he wouldn’t otherwise have thought about.
Conrad Shawcross has been a sculptor for 15 years, since leaving art school. He noted that he had attended Ruskin and Slade art schools, both situated within broad-based Universities not specialist art institutions. He had appreciated the mixing with medics, scientist etc, and he preferred to place himself within the history of ideas, rather than just in an art history milieu.
He has always been interested in machines, and had enjoyed taking apart and fixing his old Leyland van. He was in awe of the complexity of the motor, and also enjoyed the terminology: pinion, crank, cam were all words that he found interesting.
He noted that one similarity between art and science was the way they help people to visualise things. Science lets you visualise, or create a representation of, things that are smaller than the wavelength of light – things you cannot see. Artists also visualise things that can’t be seen – things that are invisible or inconceivable.
My favourite quote from Conrad Shawcross came towards the end of the event. He said:
With any ‘good’ piece of art, the artist has to surrender control of its meaning
I like the humility of that statement, and the acknowledgement that the viewer of an artwork is an active player in the process. It also struck me as having a further resonance with science – in a similar vein a piece of scientific research is sent out into the world to be understood and used in ways that the original researcher cannot control. Both artists and scientists have to relinquish control of their intellectual offspring and hope that they are not toppled by a shift of taste or paradigm.
I walk past Paradigm nearly every day now. I’m not sure what meaning I put on it, but as I left the building after the event I gazed up at the sculpture lit up against the night sky and saw a beauty and elegance that I hadn’t noticed before. I’ll keep my eye on it in future, searching out meanings.