Studio visit: Conrad Shawcross

The artist describes ‘envisioning the invisible on the back of envelopes’ and wrestling with the challenges of geometry, proportion and engineering in bringing to life a monumental new public sculpture in south London

‘I was always constructing and taking things apart in my bedroom,’ says Conrad Shawcross, recalling the ‘horror’ his mother felt when she found her son was making things, rather than devouring books.

Today Shawcross’s unconventional interests have, quite literally, become something bigger: launching this autumn, The Optic Cloak  is a major new installation on London’s Greenwich Peninsula, and the artist’s most ambitious public commission to date. 

Measuring 49 metres high and 20 metres wide, the monumental structure is made from an intricate network of triangular panels clad in perforated aluminium. Overlaid at different angles, these create a moiré effect, giving the impression of a constantly shifting surface.

The Optic Cloak, part of the new low-carbon Energy Centre on Greenwich Peninsula, photograph by Marc Wilmot, courtesy of the Greenwich Peninsula

The Optic Cloak, part of the new low-carbon Energy Centre on Greenwich Peninsula, photograph by Marc Wilmot, courtesy of the Greenwich Peninsula

‘The idea is to break up the surface of the object, creating false perspectives and vanishing points,’ comments Shawcross, who became particularly interested in the ‘dazzle camouflage’ used on British and American ships during the First World War — a form of camouflage which, paradoxically, can make the object it disguises more interesting. 

Commissioned to hide the flue of an energy centre, Shawcross’s tower draws upon the technical skill that has underpinned much of his work to date. ‘I work with really gifted structural and mechanical engineers,’ he explains, describing the process of translating drawn ideas into physically viable structures.

The artist goes on to explain how his work ‘always involves quite a lot of mathematics and geometry’. As his most recent project demonstrates, this technical complexity is integral to his personal vision of what art can be. ‘Hopefully my works end up being poetic, beautiful objects,’ he says.