Pre-retroscope V

© (c) Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London


Conrad Shawcross (1977 – )


Accession number


The starting point for the ‘Pre-retroscope’ project was the phenomenon of holidaymakers wanting to capture special moments on camera. Conrad Shawcross goes to some lengths to show that experiences are impossible to fully record, by channelling his engineering prowess into a kit for recording the view from a rowing boat in 360 degrees. Pre-retroscope V serves to pre-empt the traveller’s retrospective impulse, and while it is a quant contraption, it is only semi-satirical.

In summer 2003 Shawcross used the kit to sail down a stretch of the River Lea, the source of the Thames in London. A camcorder was attached to a circular track on the boat and the artist sat in the central hole, like some foolhardy Victorian explorer. Presented in the gallery are the tools and trawl of the trip, except the camcorder is replaced by a projector, showing the film of the journey in real time on the wall. Panning around, tennis balls and footballs are mounted on the walls like buoys bobbing along a horizon line, or a row of planets in orbit; they escaped from sports grounds along the river and miraculously survived the toxic water. The route is drawn onto the wall above, like a cloud scooting across the sky. Two photographs of the artist in situ by photographer David Birkin give an extra vantage point on the expedition.

The phrase ‘messing about in boats’, from the bucolic children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows (1908), touches on the bitter-sweetness of experience bleeding into nostalgia. Shawcross’ collection of evidence recasts that carefree activity in a polluted urban setting, and assesses the experience as fractured and far from picturesque. The River Lea was formerly the lifeblood of the city but is now a neglected, back way: the film shows housing estates and warehouses, corporate billboards, shipping containers, backing onto the water in a state of eerie quiet. (Ironically, the film has accrued an archival value since the industrial vestiges of northeast London have been demolished to make way for the 2012 Olympics.)

Text by Dorothy Feaver