His dark materials

Published 3 March 2014

War, terror and human conflict pervade the art of new RA sculptor Tim Shaw, whose first major solo show opens in Birmingham.

  • From the Spring 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    ‘Black smoke rising’ was the phrase that came to Tim Shaw’s lips when he was driving back to his native Belfast several years ago and recognised the familiar smoke of burning cars. This sight, combined with the news images then coming out of Iraq, inspired his dramatic sculpture of a figure aflame, Man on Fire (2007-08), now going on display in the new Academician’s first major public gallery solo show. So it is no surprise that the title of the exhibition, opening in April in Birmingham, is ‘Black Smoke Rising’.

    Shaw has been associated with images of conflict since his memorable installation Casting a Dark Democracy (2008) sent a collective shiver through the London art world. That powerful work, which resurrects the spectre of the hooded prisoner of Abu Ghraib as a hollow giant made of steel, black polythene, barbed wire and electrical cable, earned Shaw the reputation of a guerrilla war artist unafraid to speak truth to power. But his interest in the darker side of life goes deeper than that. Alongside a special reworking of Casting a Dark Democracy, the Birmingham show also includes the more recent installation Soul Snatcher Possession (2011-12), a nightmare scenario in which grotesque figures made of reclaimed rags appear to be enacting a barbaric ritual. It is, says Shaw, ‘a metaphor for the extraction of soul, the manipulation of mind and the taking of life by the powerful’.

  • Tim Shaw RA, Casting a Dark Democracy

    Tim Shaw RA, Casting a Dark Democracy, 2008.

    Courtesy the artist.

  • ‘Soul’ is a word you don’t often hear from contemporary artists, and Shaw’s insistence on using it declares his allegiance to an artistic tradition stretching back through Goya and Hieronymus Bosch into prehistory. His images make the hairs stand up on the back of our necks because, unlike vanitas themes that merely remind us of mortality, they revive those atavistic fears of a fate worse than death. ‘The reality of life is fantastical enough, and deep and dark and absurd and strange,’ Shaw says. ‘I think my work is about pointing those things out.’

    Black Smoke Rising is at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham from 12 April – 8 June 2014 and Aberystwyth Arts Centre from 1 October – 2 December 2014.