Tim Shaw works on multi-sensory installations that the Financial Times calls “politically charged yet poetically resonant”. His Casting a Dark Democracy, completed during his fellowship at the Kenneth Armitage Foundation, was an installation based on the mistreated prisoners of Abu Graihb in Baghdad. It looked shocking, smelt of petroleum and sounded like a thumping, heartbeat and drum. Shaw’s current art show Soul Snatcher Possession at Riflemaker, includes a couple high on Ketamine, a pregnant fairy and gang violence. Is he moving away from political themes? Shaw says that this show is his most political yet.
“Casting a Dark Democracy’ was about war, but also something more universal and timeless.” Shaw says “UK and America brought a sense of democracy and freedom to Iraq but at such a bloody price.” Soul Snatcher Possession‘ came from the idea that “if you don’t toe the line and go along with what is being said, in the end they’ll gang up on you,” Shaw explains, “And if reason and diplomacy doesn’t work, then violence will.” While making the work, Shaw listened to a radio interview given by the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann. Referring to the holocaust, Lanzmann spoke about a ‘dimension of barbarity that does not disappear from human nature.’”
The show is about political behaviour but it’s also applicable to friendship, business and gang culture. The result is a nightmarish installation where eight large figures loom. They are made from clothes, sacking and pillows with material that has been cut, slashed, stitched and manipulated into shape. One victim is hooded, in the corner stands a large blind man holding a stick and a woman slouches against a wall. It is life-sized and looks like it could be real people in the dim lighting. Shaw says that the installation doesn’t frighten him because it is already there in his own mind. Though he admits that there were times, particularly when he was working too hard to put the show together, when he found the man overlooking the woman in the corner a little depressing.
Born in Belfast in 1964, Shaw says growing up in Northern Ireland in the 70s was like growing up in a war zone with bombings and shootings. He describes the tarmac on the road as “boiling with anger” and he says that art is for: “taking you into a different world, taking your imagination somewhere, a place to be inspired, shocked, frightened, surprised, all of those things. That, to me, is what art should be about.”
Shaw remembers going to a famous hypnotist show as a child… “I volunteered to go on stage with six other people. He went from left to right. He clicked his hands and each person went out in a couple of seconds. I didn’t go out, nor did I pretend to, and there was a sort of uncomfortable second or two and he whispered in my ear “don’t fuck the act son,” he says, “What seemed like a lifetime later, I decided I’d better follow suit, so I pretended to go under. Making this piece of work I thought about that time. It’s sort of an insight into the powers of manipulation and I suppose most of us go along with what is demanded of us.” Perhaps Soul Snatcher Possession presents a little of that child’s disappointment. The hypnotist, a man supposed to be magical, turned out to be just an ordinary bully after all.
Shaw is happy to be transparent about the thought processes that lead to each sculpture. He says ‘Ketamine’ comes from going to The Big Chill music festival. “There were these two figures, a man and a woman, quite young, wearing tall pointed hats and dancing in this ridiculous way. One was holding out a large ladle and on the end of it was Ketamine. The girl was bending over and sniffing it, like a bee coming onto a plant with his proboscis. I found it ridiculous and hilarious and felt that this needed to be commemorated.”
‘Pregnant Fairy’ was cast in memory of a couple, whom Shaw called aunt and uncle. They used to tell him as a child about the fairies at the bottom of the garden, while he wondered how fairies could have been alive since the Victorian times. ‘Baby Jackdaw’ is a product of living and working in Cornwall, surrounded by buzzards and energetic cows. Though Shaw admits to knowing a thing or two about cattle handling, he says the cows surrounding his work studios are fairly dangerous.
“You do get charged. They have big horns and they can run quite fast and jump three or four foot over a fence”.
The bird that was the inspiration behind ‘Baby Jackdaw’ was found by Shaw’s chimney sweep. He had been mummified by soot and just like the ketamine couple, Shaw would see this discovery as something that deserved to be commemorated. When asked if he would consider becoming a filmmaker, Shaw is quick to say no. He does, however, seem interested in developing his installations, so that they actively involve the audience.
“The audience will be an unwilling participant and watch the door shut behind them!” he jokes. This a rather frightening prospect, given that he scrapped the sound of Soul Snatcher Possession, precisely because the natural, muffled, traffic sound were closer to real cases of being trapped. Although Shaw says he doesn’t know where his art fits into the bigger picture, his inspirations are: painter Mark Rothko , sculptor Giacometti and author George Orwell.
“What is great about Orwell’s 1984,” Shaw says, “is that it is very clear, easy to read and the message behind it is full of profundity. That’s what I want to do with my work.”
Soul Snatcher Possession by Tim Shaw in on at Riflemaker from April 23 to June 2, 2012