Man on Fire, 2009/2014–15. Black-painted foam, polythene, and steel armature, 4 x 4.5 x 2 meters.

The Narrative is in the Unknowing: A Conversation with Tim Shaw

Tim Shaw, who was born in Belfast, has lived in the south of England for the past 25 years, on a farm that serves as both his home and studio. In 2013, he was elected to the Royal Academy and to the Royal British Society of Sculptors. Widely traveled, he has had residencies in Greece, Spain, Ireland, and Germany. In addition to numerous solo exhibitions, Shaw has produced major commissions, including The Minotaur for the Royal Opera House in London and The Rites of Dionysus for The Eden Project in Cornwall. A monograph on his work was published earlier this year, and the San Diego Museum of Art will host his first major U.S. museum exhibition in the near future.

Brian McAvera: Last year you were working in Bonn, Germany. What was the project?

Tim Shaw: I was a fellow at the Käte Hamburger Center for Advanced Study in the Humanities “Law as Culture.” The piece I did for the one-year program is called The Birth of Breakdown Clown. I was working with a robot-maker in Bonn, who is developing artificial intelligence. Breakdown Clown is an outsider, a bit like a priest or a shaman or a therapist. The program malfunctions, data gets mixed up, and out of the mouth of the clown come wonderful nuggets of truth mixed up with verbal madness. 

The clown doesn’t look like a clown, and that’s OK—clown imagery is not for me, it’s too decorative. I’d intended a large, perhaps asexual figure, but in its present form, it’s quite masculine, although that might change. I wrote about 10,000 words and an actor voiced them, and I became interested in seeing things from the robot’s point of view—such as the weather. It has enough information to know, for example, the sound of wind and rain. Why can’t it hear the sound of the sun? Being created in winter, what is summer like? 

The Birth of Breakdown Clown, 2016. Foam modeled onto robotic structure, 214 cm. high.

Sometimes it makes grand and untrue claims. For example, it asks a visitor how many children he or she has and then claims to have fathered one of them. It warps the truth, pretty much like the media. So, I’ve created a system: artificial intelligence and sculptural robotics with the aim of producing a vessel for thinking and expressing ideas as to who and what we are, and connecting that with time past, present, and future. 

BM: Soul Snatcher Possession recalls the installations of Ed Kienholz, and to a degree those of George Segal and Red Grooms. It’s a torture chamber that resembles a series of stills taken from an American TV series, like “Homeland.” How did it develop?

TS: Nearly everyone who’s seen the piece has drawn the comparison to Kienholz. We’ve seen little of his work in the U.K., though I did look at his and Segal’s work at art school. When I create, I work instinctively. I tend not to look at other artists. 

I was living at Kenneth Armitage’s studio (at the Kenneth Armitage Foundation, London), and I was woken up one night by a scream, got up, and looked out the window. Later, I went to the newspaper shop to see if anyone had been killed. At that time, I was listening to what was being said about my work in the gallery that was handling it [Riflemaker in London]. In order to sell it, there were lies and untruths. I was very, very uncomfortable about this. All of this was happening at the time that I had heard the scream. 

Here I was, meeting major operators, but I wasn’t comfortable with how the truth as I knew it was being twisted. I created a maquette: eight figures, with a closing in on one, a figure on his knees, a woman submitting to some weird psychosexual act—you’re not sure whether or not she is consenting or about to be raped. It’s an oppressive atmosphere. I wanted to create a feeling of intimidation and fear. People in power can do what they like. If intimidation doesn’t work, violence will. It goes back to our beginnings in Northern Ireland. With this particular piece, well, one night I got very drunk. I said to a friend, “I feel that the center’s being taken out of me.” In the morning, in red writing, I saw the words “Soul Snatcher Possession” written down on paper. 

BM: Casting a Dark Democracy seems to have originated in a 2004 photograph of a hooded figure, standing on a box, arms outstretched, tortured by American forces in Iraq. Your sculpture, three times life-size, was part of a theatrical installation at the Mac Gallery in Birmingham: there was mist, atmospheric lighting, a pool of black oil at the foot of the figure, and a slow, almost deafening drumbeat. How did this work take shape? And why did you use materials such as black plastic (of the kind that farmers use) and barbed wire?

TS: The source for many of the materials was the west of Ireland. In 2005, I was invited to take part in a two-week residency at Cill Rialaig’s artist retreat at the tip of County Kerry. It’s a bleak part of the world. I had been in Greece for two months. Now I went out, drawing rooks and crows, and I noted how black plastic snagged on barbed wire and how bits of fence configured into crows.

Back in Cornwall, I had the image of the tortured prisoner on the wall. I had first seen it in the Daily Mail, and it had a visceral effect, speaking to me of universal torture or brutality. This figure looked as if it could have been dug out of the ground thousands of years ago. I made the first maquettes in steel, barbed wire, and black plastic. The binding plastic seemed fitting. It was black, and when you ripped it, it had a brutality and a life force. I could manipulate it, stretch it, and model it. Using barbed wire tangled around the steel meant that the barbs would grip and stretch the plastic. It was appropriate because I was putting the figure on a box with live electrical wires coming out of his hands and a pool of water below.

Oil was a factor in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and so the pool of water became a pool of oil. In the maquettes, I created a thin, shallow pool of plaster with the outline of a figure, about 24 inches high. Then the plaster pool was built into the steel structure and placed directly beneath the figure. When I saw the reflection in the pool, it made me think about the reasons why people go to war and why there is this time-old struggle for power, along with the loss or gain of land.

Middle World, 1987–present. Cement, steel, lead, and small figures in bronze and terra cotta, 280 x 215 x 150 cm.

I’m very aware that there’s a fine line between immersive installation and something theatrical. I wanted to see the piece in a dark room. I knew that I’d be creating a large figure for the installation. I used a 40-watt light bulb above the figure, with a dimmer switch to take it down to 20 watts. Then I felt that sand was important to reference the deserts of the Middle East, and using a “haze” as a way of thickening the air would give a presence. I was also thinking of a smokescreen—of what governments say when they are going to war.

I’ve been working in installation since 1996. Rodin liked to look at things in candlelight, and I’m always interested in how my work is lit. In London, I had to get a big barrel of sump oil. It was of legbreaking weight. There was a revelatory moment when we placed the barrel at the edge of the pool, unscrewed the tap, and a glug of oil began to pour out. We were watching it spread across the pool, when all of a sudden, the image of the figure came into view. The glug-glug-glug of the oil pouring out sounded a bit like the beat of a heart or a drumbeat—a hollow, resonating sound. That’s when I decided that I needed this noise in the installation. It was a happy accident.

BM: Tank on Fire, a much smaller work, is also based on a photograph— this time of a British soldier on fire, leaping off a tank—and you again used black plastic and barbed wire. You zeroed in on the same burning soldier in Man on Fire, initially constructed using wax and polythene, which escalated into a twice life-size figure. Why the change of scale?

TS: Around September 2005, I saw images of Basra in the Daily Mail. There were three or four pages on the incident, with very good photos of something quite horrific. Here was a person balanced between life and death, and I felt compelled to create a piece of work. The APC warrior vehicle, which looks like a small tank, was an army personnel carrier. With all its armor, it looked like an object from the Middle Ages. I was intrigued by that. In the first version, I had telegraph poles stuck into it. I created the terror and the drama of it and how an object looked ancient. War is ancient.

Petrol had gone down the hatch, and the flames were coming off the soldier like a swarm of bees consuming him. It took my imagination to a place of horror and shock. Man on Fire developed out of that. I also began to think about stripping the figure down so that it didn’t belong to any particular age. I’d visited Pompeii the year before and saw the plaster casts. One of them is of a dog caught in writhing pain. The essence of that horror was what I wanted to portray. At that particular time, there was the terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport. People were doing things in the name of God. 

BM: You were born in Belfast in 1964, when there were prefigurations of the Troubles, which erupted in 1969. In retrospect, what, if anything, did Belfast, Dublin, and Enniskillen, where you later went to school, contribute to your work?

TS: Growing up in Belfast at the beginning of the Troubles inevitably affects one, but it has taken years for that to come out and be processed, and it’s only recently that I have done so. The work of the past 10 years is very much about world conflict and growing up in Belfast with things going on around you every day; it became a part of normality. Humans are great at adapting to their circumstances. On the surface, everybody went about their daily business, but you absorb the bombings, the shootings, the gangs, the religious divides. That’s fundamental to what I’ve been working on.

BM: Do you have any formative memories?

TS: I have an early memory of my fathertaking me to the Masonic Hall. It was fascinating, strange, and esoteric. There were candles placed on the table, a bible, and images of the sun, moon, and stars, black and-white checkered floors. It probably instilled a sense of mystery that fed into my work. It wasn’t like the Presbyterian church we went to every week, which was stripped bare. It was dark, ancient, and mysterious. At the Masonic school, there were images of set square, compass, and the all-seeing eye—images everywhere. These images later came out in Middle World. At the Presbyterian church, all we had were images of the burning bush and of Christ and Mary. 

The first time I went into a High Church in England, my imagination ran riot. The great medieval cathedrals define European art history, but I didn’t see any of them until 1987, when I spent 12 weeks in France. I was particularly struck by the façades, which I found frightening—being confronted with your own mortality. That was the beginning of my interest in the art of the Middle Ages.

The Drummer, 2011. Bronze, 4.6 meters high. Work installed at Lemon Quay, Truro.

BM:You studied first at Manchester Polytechnic and then at the Falmouth School of Art. What made you select Manchester, a city not unlike Belfast? Were you interested in the art collections there? And how aware were you of contemporary galleries, like the Cornerhouse, and of the various studio complexes?

TS: My choice of Manchester was nothing to do with museums and galleries; I wasn’t even aware of the existence of the Cornerhouse. It was more the opportunity to travel to the exotic shores of England. I remember getting onto the Liverpool boat, buying some cigars, waving goodbye to my mother, hanging out with Manchester United supporters, and then seeing the gray docks of Liverpool. Manchester had a good reputation for its foundation course. The tutors were excellent. There was a real buzz. They broke down your preconceptions of what good art might be. No, it’s not a drawing of a pepper or a shell. You start again. 

For the first three weeks, I produced very little of any worth. Then I asked for clay and produced three hands, which were really well formed, and that shut my tutor up. Then Don McKinley came in, looked at them, and said, “I’m going to get you a model.” He taught me the rudiments of modeling the human figure, as well as the rudiments of casting. His ethos was work, work, work. 

Manchester taught me to work hard, to look at the classics as well as the contemporary, and to draw well. When I was applying for degree places, London seemed the obvious place, but McKinley suggested Falmouth, which had a good reputation, so I arrived on a bus in Falmouth and worked in a very different world. It had palm trees. I fell in love with it. There were only 120 or 130 students. It felt like a way of life. The school opened from eight to eight and for six hours at the weekend. It was outside of the London “ring.” St Ives was nearby. Barbara Hepworth had died. Tutors came down from London. Falmouth was difficult though, because the abstract/conceptual aspect was dominant there and I was strongly figurative.

I was working from the model, and that seemed archaic to people. I took a year off and came back to Belfast. I didn’t know what to do with myself and started Middle World. The first seven figures I called The Dance of Middle World. I went to St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast, where there was a tramp asking God for help. I did too. A week later, there was an advertisement in the Belfast Telegraph. The advertiser wanted a sculptor to create life-size figures of cartoon characters. I wrote to the guy (Bob Armstrong), he came to visit me, and as a result, he commissioned me to create life-size models of the Flintstones. It was my way back to art school. I’m someone who’s always been on the edge and not in the mainstream.

BM:You clearly like the work of Medardo Rosso, Germaine Richier, Christian Boltanski, and Annette Messager. What do you see as the connections between them?

TS: Messager and Boltanski are more closely related. For me, the whole awareness of sculpture started with Rodin, a great innovator; and there’s a relationship between him and Rosso, Richier, and even Carpeaux, right up to Giacometti. They are all innovators—Rosso, for instance, putting wax over plaster and reversing the idea of looking at sculpture in the round, the viewpoint might be only 180 degrees. He’s very much about impressionism, the impression of light on form. Giacometti was very aware of the figure existing in the space and in the aura, the essence of what it is to be human.

Soul Snatcher Possession (detail), 2014.

BM: It seems to me that you seize on source material with considerable narrative potential, yet perversely opt not to use it. Would you agree?

TS: In many ways, things come to me through pictures. Often you’re not sure of the narrative, but with Middle World or Bullfight, there is a series of images, and then it gathers momentum and you learn what it is about. Casting a Dark Democracy was made through shared outrage, but it became multifaceted in meaning. To an extent, the narrative is in the unknowing. It’s not going to tell the story straight. Movies have had an influence—Bergman, Tarkovsky, and David Lynch. In all of these filmmakers, narrative is not straightforward.

BM: What about your commissioned work? How far do you feel restrained by the requirements of the client?

TS:The Drummer, which is in Truro, was created for the people of Cornwall, but it ended up being very controversial because the figure was naked and had copper balls. I’m really out of sorts with how people perceive things in the public domain. I was trying to get to grips with what Cornwall is about. There are all sorts of symbols. People talk of the place as being timeless, as being different from the rest of England. What is the basis for this otherness? I went around asking. My conclusion was that Cornwall was the furthest from the country’s administration, and it’s out in the Atlantic where the weather fronts first hit. It’s quite impoverished but resilient, which I felt was reflected in the festivities, such as the May Dance in which drums are beaten to celebrate the coming of summer. The balls related to the sea—sea buoys. It also relates to the demise of the tin industry; the figure beats a drum, which has the symbol of a pagan-looking flag stamped into ingots of tin.

The Rites of Dionysus, 2000–04. Life-size figures made of beaten copper, installation view.

The Green Man was about “the other” in a National Trust house. It was shown in an eerie part of the woods. It’s about the feeling of a presence: you are being watched by “the other.” The Rites of Dionysus (2000–04) was inspired by Euripides’s Bacchae. The brief was to portray mankind’s relationship with the vine, a journey into what Dionysus is about. With these last two, the environment was safer, more controlled, in terms of how things could be perceived. Toward the end of The Rites of Dionysus, when I put the disembodied head in, there was an element of cruelty. Some people didn’t like that, but I was simply following the Dionysian ritual. This was the time of the first beheadings in Iraq, and it started to look contemporary. There were complaints, I was asked to explain myself, and the head had to be removed.

BM: Mother, the Air is Blue, the Air is Dangerous is another installation that uses mist, lighting, and sound. I gather that it’s based on a childhood memory of being caught up in a bomb explosion.

TS: All through my art education and career, I’ve been reticent about creating work about the Troubles, and maybe it’s about moving on. There’s been a lot of interpretatively based work in Northern Ireland that treats the Troubles, but I felt it was a bit insular. I wanted to be far away from it. About four years ago, it came to me that I needed to make this piece. There was a strong image in my mind of a bomb going off, trays flying through the air, smoke coming up stairs, and making a run for it and getting out. You set your mind in another place: it’s frozen and hypnotic. Everything becomes still.

In the book, I related it to Bloody Friday—the wording is ambiguous. I think the explosion happened in Anderson and Macaulay’s [a shopping complex with a restaurant], but there’s nothing on the Internet about that happening on Bloody Friday. I was seven years old. Maybe I’ve merged the two incidents in my mind.

After I had finished Black Smoke Rising, which is about the Middle East, I wanted to work on this. I had been invited to do a residency at the Kappatos Gallery in Athens. When I arrived, I sketched out some ideas, and they liked the one about the restaurant experience. They brought in designers and sound engineers. The “picture” was that of a restaurant with chairs and tables in disarray, trays revolving slowly, suspended in mid-air, shadows running around two walls, and all of it bound together by the sounds of sirens. 

Watch these videos on Tim Shaw

Tim Shaw ‘The Origins of The Drummer’ – Artist Interview Film from Anima-Mundi on Vimeo.
Tim Shaw ‘Awaken from the Dream of Reality’ – Artist Interview Film from Anima-Mundi on Vimeo.