Conrad Shawcross's Timepiece converts the Roundhouse into a colossal timekeeper

By Sarah Jackson | 31 July 2013

Exhibition Review: Conrad Shawcross: Timepiece, Roundhouse, London, until August 31 2013

A photo of two people looking at neon lights in a large ampitheatre
© Stephen White
Time rules our lives. Many of us could not imagine how we would run our lives without referring to a timepiece of some sort or other. It seems set and immutable, yet it is only in the last few hundred years that time, as we know it today, became fixed.

Conrad Shawcross’ latest work, Timepiece, explores the ways in which humans have sought to measure the passage of days for more than three millennia.

Walking into the vast space of the Roundhouse, the beautiful industrial Victorian ironwork is thrown into sharp relief before being shrouded back into darkness as the timepiece's three high intensity lights spin at the end of three mechanical arms.

In the centre of the space a four metre high spike known as a gnomon stands directly below Shawcross’ elaborate timepiece.

The mechanical arms turn gracefully in an eerie silence, its lights spinning through the air so brightly that it can be difficult to stare at them for too long; trails of blue and green remain hanging behind closed eyes.

Among the many changing shadows cast by the triple ‘suns’ are three cast by the gnomon. The fastest moving counts out seconds, the next longest the minutes and the shortest the hours.

The mechanism is designed to continually create alignments; at 12 o’clock, for a brief moment, both the shadows and the arms of the clock align in an inverse of a normal clock face.

After being approached by the Roundhouse, Shawcross was inspired to look into the history of timekeeping after realising that 24 columns supported the venue’s central space.

“There is not any known reason why we have 24 hours in a day,” Shawcross says. “It’s quite arbitrary.”

Various theories abound as to why a 24-hour day has stuck with us, including the discovery that the ancient Egyptians preferred using 12 as a base in counting rather than 10 as we do today.

It was only with the advent of mechanical clocks in Europe, during the 14th century, that time began to be fixed. That journey was completed in the UK when railway schedules needed to overcome the confusion caused by different towns having their own local times.

The engineering of Timepiece cannot fail to impress with its quiet elegance. Engineered by Shawcross and his team in Hackney, it has been designed to last for 20 years, even though the Roundhouse installation will only be open for three weeks. Shawcross has said he hopes to find it another home by the end of the summer.

Timepiece sets out to remind of us of time in its primeval sense, when it was variable, changing with the seasons; the shifting shadows themselves hark back to days when flickering candlelight and torches were the only means of illuminating the dark.

Although the piece has been constructed using modern techniques and technology, Shawcross has said that Timepiece could only be made as an analogue work. The binary precision of digital clocks means that the perfect ratios needed to keep the system in balance would not be possible

A far cry from the Roundhouse’s usual use as a music venue, Timepiece offers a meditative space to contemplate the mysteries of time. It takes us beyond the clock face and into the vast depths that have been and are still to come.

  • Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, London. Open 12pm-8pm (10pm Thursday, 10am-8pm Saturday and Sunday). Admission by donation. Book online. Follow the Roundhouse on Twitter @RoundhouseLDN‎.

Visit Sarah Jackson's blog and follow her on Twitter.
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