“The title of this show alludes to its nature: a prelude and a harkening of things to come at MICAS, which opens next year. This also stands as a direct reference to the fact that while MICAS is set to open imminently, the new building is contained within the historic fortifications which have existed for hundreds of years and have witnessed the most breathtaking of histories. The title suggests a sense of foreboding, of unknown, invisible things beginning to materialise, of unknown forces at play, or a predestined outcome.” —Conrad Shawcross
Given its international remit, MICAS has, since its inception, engaged with international artists and invested in giving greater visibility to the Maltese contemporary art idiom. This level of international engagement has increased as it moves towards its opening in 2024. The celebrated British artist Conrad Shawcross was one of the first artists to visit Malta as a guest of MICAS and he immediately connected with the history and geography of Malta, finding inspiration in the location of the MICAS site, its history, proximity to the sea and the marina, and the views it afforded from its high areas.
MICAS worked closely with Shawcross to curate a display of his works across the MICAS site, which is now in the final stages of construction. Working across several agreed principles, the three distinct bodies of work reflect Shawcross embrace of the possibilities of the physical space. The placing of the works serves to guide the visitor around the grounds, with the sculpture on the fortification walls overlooking the harbour, visible from many vantage points in the environs, signalling a clear message about the future mission of the site.
What is to become is already here was launched during the MICAS International Art Weekend 2023 and it is supported by the Ministry for Justice, Culture and Local Government, European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), Restoration Directorate, Visit Malta and Heritage Malta.
This is the first time that any works have been installed in the grounds of the MICAS site and access to the complex to view the show will be available to the public by appointment on the MICAS website – viewing dates will be announced shortly.
The Dappled Light of the Sun (Formation I) is constructed in welded weathered steel, measuring 475 x 792 x 792 cm. Made in 2015 and first shown in London, it was originally exhibited as a set of five unique clouds arranged as a vast canopy in the courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts. These other companion pieces are now all in international collections.
The sculpture is comprised of a large, floating, cloud-like structure, which is formed from thousands of bolted tetrahedrons propped nimbly on a set of three tripods. With a height of nearly five metres, its monumental scale enables the sculpture to be immersive, encouraging viewers to walk beneath and around it, experiencing the changing patterns created by dappled light passing through the complex, geometric canopy. The work embodies the artist’s deep fascination with mathematical theory, as well as his engagement with the natural world.
Taking on a form reminiscent of a large tree that offers beauty and shade, the branches and leaves are replaced by an intricate and complex series of bifurcating tendrils that cascade down in scale as they grow and stretch outwards. In total, the work is made of over 6,000 welded triangles, which in turn form around 1,600 tetrahedrons. The tetrahedrons themselves are organised into five generations of sizes which, like a plant, cascade down in scale as they radiate outwards toward the sky.
Shawcross noted in 2015:
“The Greeks considered the tetrahedron to represent the very essence of matter. In this huge work I have taken this form as my “brick”, growing these chaotic, diverging forms that will float above the heads of visitors.“
It is one of the most significant mature works of Shawcross’ career and although completely sentient in form, the composition harnesses the artist’s fascination with the perpetual motion of the natural world.
The Dappled Light of the Sun (Formation I) has been acquired by MICAS as part of its permanent collection.
MICAS Beacons, 2023 is a new ambitious site-specific triptych placed on the ancient historic battlements of La Vittoria Bastion. Standing at a height of seven and a half metres, each mast supports a pair of counter-rotating semaphoric disks, each with a diameter of nearly four metres.
These monumental and structurally complex sculptures, fabricated in stainless and galvanised steel, appear at first to be some kind of military device or early warning system, but they also express the playfulness of a child’s toy. Shawcross has visited the MICAS site over a number of years and found the island a great inspiration. With the help of the MICAS team, he determined the current site-specific and historic response of these Beacons.
Undaunted by the challenges of their location, Shawcross undertook to design these works so that they could withstand the extreme weather on the island. The three devices overlook the Marsamxett Harbour, and in keeping with their naval location and its rich maritime history, Shawcross has purposefully placed the works alongside, and in relation to, some of the remaining elements from past defensive weaponry.
The artist’s fascination with movement and engineering is revealed in these ambitious works; an inbuilt mechanical system powers the counter-rotation of the semaphoric optic discs. Like a stained glass window, the disks are activated by the light of the sun and sky, which is filtered through a pattern of hundreds of thousands of non-repeating holes. The playful, bright colours use maritime flags that reveal a message through semaphoric code, which will be visible across the bay and far out at sea. Akin to coastal early warning systems, the three disks spell out the word NOW. This refers directly to the artist’s fascination with the perception of time but more specifically acts as a beacon or precursor for what is unfolding and about to happen within the new MICAS site. The show is a prelude to what is to become: directly beneath these Beacons, construction is underway to allow for the imminent opening of the MICAS galleries next autumn.
This group of related works will be displayed in the series of barrel vaults at the base of the battlement walls, where the MICAS Beacons are located. These dark cells, with their arched ceilings, are all of similar size, some interconnected, some discrete. Installed in a reverse chronological order, this is the largest display of these related light works by Shawcross to date, and they reveal the experimental approach the artist takes to exploring concepts such as time, space, and human perception.
The earliest work here dates from 2008 and encapsulates the artist’s desire to harness aspects of science and translate them into a sculptural expression. In the case of the Slow Arc inside a Cube, the impetus comes from a discovery of a quotation by the late scientist Dorothy Hodgkin, who pioneered the process of crystal radiography. She compared the task of deciphering chromatographic grids to trying to work out the structure of a tree from only its shadow. All the Slow Arc works utilise the sharp radiant shadow of a moving halogen light nested inside a cage. The works over the years increase in their complexity and subtlety. However, although this earliest version is by far the crudest, it is also the most primal and visceral. Mounted on an articulated arm, the light is driven from one diagonal corner of the cage to the other. The result of this is that the surfaces of the room, normally stable, are plunged into flux, the ceiling descending as the floor sinks and the walls recede and fall in. This series culminates in Slow Arc inside a Cube XIV, which contains two lights and a triple cage. These later works, while slower and subtler, still have the same intention to undermine our stability and preconceptions, in order to challenge the perceived completeness of our perception envelopes by obliterating the illusion of the present. All of the displayed works develop this theme of exploring light and pattern.
As well as these Slow Arcs, another one of these spaces houses Patterns of Absence with a mirrored front panel and back panel spelling the letter ‘W’ in a nod to the Beacons on the battlements. The back-lit disks are each peppered with a complex layering of holes and colours that interact and react as they slowly counter rotate over each other. As each viewer gazes upon the shifting surface, strange patterns seem to appear and vanish, new thoughts are triggered and memories recollected, all while neural pathways and connections are forged for the first time.
One of the only spaces with a window contains a continuation of Shawcross’ Paradigm series, extrapolated into further expansions, lit by the spinning lights of his Limit of Everything overhead.
Note: The vaulted spaces where this series of works is displayed have been designated for artist-in-residency spaces in the next phase of the MICAS site development.