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Tim Shaw R.A. : Black Smoke Rising

Curated by Indra Khanna and produced in partnership with mac birmingham and Aberystwyth Art Centre

mac birmingham 12th April - 8th June, and Abersytwyth Art Centre 4th October - 18th November 2014

'I remember coming into Belfast on the Westlink a few years ago, seeing columns of black smoke rising over the city…The tarmac had melted, cars were burnt out. In front of me were about a hundred men. I thought, What am I doing going into this? I turned round and drove out of there as quickly as I could.' - Tim Shaw

The title of the exhibition suggested a signal, an attempt to communicate directly. We hoped this exhibition will linger for many years in the memories of all who view it, provoking thought and discussion on the political and spiritual.

Born in Belfast in 1964, Shaw has spent most of his working career in rural Cornwall. Themes of ecstasy, the cycle of nature, communal ritual and mythology are prominent in his work, but presented here are three works concerned with the nature of human violence. All were re-worked and developed especially for this exhibition.

view of installation 'sould Snatcher Possession' by Tim Shaw Detail of 'soul Snatcher Possession' by Tim Shaw
Detail of Soul Snatcher Possession. Photo by Chris Keenan Photo by Steve Bailey


Like an abrupt edit in a feature film, Soul Snatcher Possession thrust us unexpectedly into uncomfortable proximity with the over-sized inhabitants of a hellish room carrying out their dread business. It is not exactly clear what was about to happen in this windowless, stinking space, or even to confidently categorise each figure as either victim or perpetrator. Shaw has said ‘The figures are inter-related; the strong do not exist without the weak’, and also that ‘it relates to the corridors of power equally as it does to the street.’

view of 'Casting a Dark Democracy' byTim Shaw view of oilpool, 'Casting a Dark Democracy' by Tim Shaw
Casting a Dark Democracy. Photo by Steve Bailey Photo by Chris Keenan


The monumental installation Casting a Dark Democracy has as its central figure an incarnation of an ancient form. This shape is detectable, for example, in archaic Mediterranean statuettes, the paintings of Goya, and the costumes of the Ku Klux Klan. Shaw’s faceless giant intimidated, but closer inspection revealed it to be literally a hollow threat. It is a raggedy nameless man, constructed of the same cables that torment him, scourged with barbed wire. Low lighting, fumes from the oil pool, sand underfoot, a giant’s heartbeat, or our own hammering in our ears, oil glugging from a barrel, or drums approaching. In 2004 the photograph of a hooded man being tortured in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was first revealed to the world. Ten years on, the original photograph remains potent, stirring our inherent primitive fears, fear of being the victim, or fear of being the abuser.

'Man on Fire' by Tim Shaw detail of 'Man on Fire' by Tim Shaw
Casting a Dark Democracy. Photos by Chris Keenan  


In Man on Fire Shaw attempts an act of emotional empathy, partly prompted by a photograph of British soldiers fleeing a burning tank in Iraq, a visit to Pompeii, the terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport. Originally conceived as an idea for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, a public space filled with monuments to the victorious, he evokes the terror of a person caught between life and death.


Reflecting on his work, Shaw has said: ‘There is an attempt to understand the nature of who we are through a process of reduction, a stripping down of the human condition to its primordial bare bones. I am interested in aspects of humanity that do not change. The need to shape and form material into something that expresses meaning and emotion is an instinctive one that fundamentally underpins my art practice. It is an activity that connects contemporary life with prehistoric existence. It mirrors the ideas and beliefs of humanity over thousands of years. This is something that I find profoundly moving and important.’

Curatorial Events :-

Friday 3rd October 2014, Indra Khanna in conversation withTim Shaw, Aberystwyth Art Centre.

Friday 18th April – talk and gallery tour by the Curator - Art informed by photography : Exploring the Tim Shaw exhibition, mac, birmingham.

Associated Events during the exhibition included a programme of educational workshops and Artist's Talks.

Click here to download Exhibition Guide written by Indra Khanna

Click here to download extract of interview between artist and Indra Khanna, curator and editor of the monograph Tim Shaw

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