Artist Conrad Shawcross was amazed by the 2,000-year-old building he stumbled on in Rome one day
I went to the Pantheon in Rome for the first time about five years ago. I was wandering down a side street on my own when I stumbled across this incredible room. The building has a formal, north-facing façade – the only remnants of Marcus Agrippa's original temple, built during the reign of Augustus. If you approach the building from any other angle, you could easily mistake the 21ft-thick concrete walls of the drum for an old warehouse. The exterior walls are dilapidated, exposed, and raw.
You expect the inside to be crumbling as much as the outside, but within that industrial exterior is a hidden gem, a pristine 135ft-wide dome made possible by a feat of engineering.
That this room is roughly 2,000 years old, completed (as we see it today) by Emperor Hadrian around AD 120, is astonishing. A great deal of complex engineering would have been required to achieve what is a deceptively simple rotunda. Just as extraordinary as the design is what that design conveys: some of the philosophical issues that the space raises are the same as those we grapple with in art today. It's a place that leads you along complex paths of enquiry, just like a contemporary art installation should.
When I visit the Pantheon, I watch the circle of sunlight which shines through the oculus (the 30ft opening at the dome's apex that acts as the room's light source). I try to perceive the progress of that circle across the grid of squares (coffers) set into the dome. But the speed of my cognition can't keep up with the movement of the sun.
I wonder how life would be if we could slow down time sufficiently to be able to experience the moments between the seconds. That's what much of my work is connected with – the human perception of time. I can't think of a room that more powerfully interacts with that subject matter.
I have stood in the Pantheon in the quiet of early morning, before the tourists descend, but it's when it is full of people that it comes alive, with the visitors becoming part of the orchestra of light. When I made Timepiece, I engaged the audience as gnomons: the piece had a light clock above a central spike, which formed the principal gnomon, and the people below became their own gnomons, their shadows a personalised projection of time.
I'm working with light projection again for a piece that will be shown at the Barbican. It's a huge exhibition, with a sci-fi theme, and I've been given The Pit theatre all to myself. I'm grappling with creating a Stonehenge-like space, with a robotic arm at its centre, casting light around the room. The whole thing is very much connected with my experience of the Pantheon.
Conrad Shawcross has created a piece for Cure3, an exhibition of 50 artists' work – each contained in a 20cm3 Perspex box – at Bonhams, 101 New Bond Street, London W1 from 13 to 15 March; bonhams.com/cure3
Pantheon, Piazza della Rotonda, Rome; turismoroma.it