Psychologically Unknown


22 June 2017

“I conceived the piece before the referendum last year," notes the artist Conrad Shawcross. "I can’t claim to have taken it on board, but I am interested in an abstract machine having political potential.”

Nevertheless. Shawcross's The Interpretation of Movement (a 9:8 in blue) – the 2017 iteration of the Royal Academy’s annual Terrace Wires commission for St Pancras train station – may not be didactically or openly political in its outlook, but it undoubtedly gains in resonance from the political context in which it finds itself. Perhaps inadvertently, Shawcross has created a fine reflection on the political flux of Brexit Britain.

The Interpretation of Movement (Conrad toyed with, but ultimately rejected, The Freedom of Movement as a title), is a set of three mechanical oars that rotate about a central orbit point from a position high above the Eurostar platforms at St Pancras International. The arms open and contract, passing a series of blue mesh sheets over one another to form ripples of colour that, from afar, look like spasmodic distortions of the blue girders that make up the station’s single-span ceiling.

It offers a form of quiet visual uncertainty and flux in a space that is otherwise regimented, ordered and grid-like patterns. Prior to its installation, the work was subject to a psychological report assessing its likely impact on train drivers pulling in to St Pancras. “I was very pleased – but not surprised either – that the results came back as inconclusive,” notes Shawcross. "The results were ‘psychologically unknown’. I think every artwork should have the stamp of ‘psychologically unknown’."

Shawcross's visual disruption is particularly pertinent in a space that embodies the ongoing uncertainty regarding the UK’s relationship to Europe. “This [area of St Pancras] is technically the border of the EU,” says Shawcross, “and the machine hangs on either side of that border in this liminal space above the platform. It is currently just the border of the Schengen Zone, but it will become the border of the EU within the UK. It’s become quite a political position.”

Shawcross’s machine expands out to 16m and then contracts in on itself, shyly huddling up in its centre; it offers moments of resolution in the crossover of its patterns, before breaking up like waves on the shore. Somehow, in its mechanical movement – throwing out into ostentatious display before losing confidence and collapsing into shoulder-shrugging huddling – The Interpretation of Movement captures the manner in which the hubris of a “bloody difficult” island nation has collapsed in the face of EU negotiations that are unlikely to prove easy or, ultimately, beneficial.

At a time in which EU citizens in the UK are being asked to register their interest in acquiring documentation to stay in the country post-Brexit – with the UK government seemingly oblivious to or uncaring about the grotesque connotations of this act of chattel or cattle stocktaking – Shawcross’s work is a welcome reminder of the uncertainty that lies ahead. In its fluctuating, perpetually unresolved movements, it captures the rhythms of contemporary British politics.