Tim Shaw, “What Remains” at The Exchange Gallery, Penzance (10 Feb-12 May 2018)

Mother the air is blue

I was left shell-shocked, speechless for a few minutes; I felt blocked. This was the powerful and unexpected effect that Tim Shaw’s exhibition had on me at The Exchange in Penzance. No evading reality here, no joy or soothing landscapes. What a sharp contrast to what usually takes place when I look at a painting in Cornwall.
After walking through a winding wooden construction-site structure, I entered a dark room with around 20 other people, where visibility was limited. Tim talked about his work amid his haunting forms that seemed to come to life, while the people watching were mostly motionless almost like statues, as if part of the installation. A statue lying on the floor by me, representing an anorexic woman after being raped and killed, a group of large men surrounding a man with his head covered in a black sack, torn jackets and monstrous looking heads in front of me made me feel a bit threatened and on the alert; it felt eerie. Tim Shaw can incite these powerful feelings in a brief time space.
Outside the installation in a brightly illuminated room Shaw displayed the resource materials of his second installation. These paintings and drawings of the Belfast bombing scene with objects flying about had a haunting beauty of motion and form. Tim told of his childhood in Belfast and Bloody Friday and of the 26 bombs going off unexpectedly all over, paralysing the city and its people.
He set the scene. Entering the next room on our own, six at a time, we witnessed the after-effects of a bombing, with the background noise whistling in our ears. Trays were flying off tables; chairs were overturned; coats, handbags and other objects were left skewed on tables and on the floor. On the walls in the background were shadows of people running, clutching each other, people of all sizes and ages. It was very moving, while also frightening. Tim Shaw had a profound effect on me and led me to think even more of the fear people experience during and after a terrorist attack, life shaping events in all senses, that is if they don’t lose their lives in the process. I wondered about the construction of these installations, especially the second part, as there was so much to control, the movement of the trays flying through the air, more than twenty of them, rotating at angles, perhaps attached to transparent strings from the ceiling, the shadows running around the room, the background sound, the positioning of the objects people had left; all must have taken a great deal of coordination to create this very effective installation.
Listening to Tim speak and talking to him showed me his greatness, not only in his artwork, but in the depths of his feelings. He is someone you can talk to, who also knows how to listen, but when he speaks he does not scream violently at you, nor harshly. He gently tells his story, as a father to a child, trying to help the child see through a different lens and help understand how violence is not the way. He talks of the bombing when he was only 7 years old, of the effect on his life and of his not beginning to paint what he had experienced until 30 years later.
Tim Shaw’s work left me troubled and full of anxiety, anxiety for the truth that he displays, for the issues I cannot face, nor does our society seem to want to face. His works are like out of a nightmare but are also a reminder of what we must confront and not forget. How difficult it is to accept his work – haunting, disturbing, but also very vibrant and alive. However, I ask myself, what is this exhibition doing in Penzance at the bottom of Cornwall, cut off from the rest of the world, with its barely 21,000 inhabitants? How many souls can this installation possibly touch? I am very grateful to the New Art Examiner for agreeing to run this short but important review to bring his work to an international audience.

Pendery Weekes

Pendery Weekes is the Managing Editor, UK and a writer.

volume 32 no 5 May / June 2018 p 32

10 thoughts on “Tim Shaw and the Side of Life I Don’t Want to See

  1. Hi Pendery,
    When I saw Tim Shaw’s installations, I couldn’t understand what they were doing “hiding” all the way down in southwest Cornwall in Penzance, giving very few people the possibility to see his exhibiti. Was it desired that nobody see his work? When I went on a Saturday morning, I was the only one visiting The Exchange and I was surprised. How can something with such a powerful message be so ignored? I seriously doubt if the sale of tickets out-balanced the cost of the 2 installations, and even if there was some sort of grant to cover the costs, why was Penzance selected for the venue? Hopefully, it was just a testing ground for future exhibitions in the major cities of the world, as his work merits much more attention.

    1. Hi Paul,
      I think an installation about a bombing event might be seen as a security risk by the authorities due to the current situation. It probably necessarily had to be shown in a small city where terrorism risks are at a minimum, but even then a certain amount of risk was involved. More power to Penzance for taking this risk! I doubt that we will see these works in London, Paris, Manchester, New York or Las Vegas, though it would be important to display them there and give people the opportunity to see Shaw’s fine work and vision.

    2. There are lots of people in Cornwall. Admittedly the Exchange might try harder to get visitors but the show had publicity. Its a pity they have decided to charge for entrance.

      1. Hi Anonymous,
        I was wondering if you knew why the Exchange thought it would be better to charge for entrance and not leave Tim Shaw’s installation open to the public at no cost? Didn’t the exhibition perhaps have some sort of grant to cover its costs? Do you know anything about this?

  2. Cornwall is home to many artists, such as Tim Shaw RA. The absence of visitors to The Exchange may be a problem, which is either a problem of the organiser or one of Contemporary Art. I agree Tim Shaw deserves a greater audience. The New Art Examiner has written on Tim Shaw a number of times, including an interview.

    Derek Guthrie, Co-founder and Publisher of the New Art Examiner

  3. Thanks to Tim Shaw’s newsletter, I just discovered he has 2 exhibitions, one in London at the Royal Academy of Arts that opened in June and another at the San Diego Museum of Art in October 2018.

  4. Hi Pendery, you’re an amazing writer so I’m not arguing with you but I disagree with Tim Shaw’s paradigm. There is a kind of activist who hijacks a cause to accuse, guilt, and dominate others; this is not social activism but tyranny. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is a Latin phrase found in the work of the Roman poet Juvenal from his Satires (Satire VI, lines 347, 8). It is literally translated as “Who will guard the guards themselves?”

    Should artists be journalists? Are journalists failing at their job so we must take over, beat the drum in Cornwall and promote the self-loathing of Western culture? Shaw’s work is postmodern, which means denying art and focusing on the ugly and unwanted. As a writer I always check my position on the privilege spectrum; there’s nothing so hot as to stand on a pedestal and point the finger while wearing a halo. As an artist, do I get brownie points if I show a man or woman who was raped? Will it help make me famous? Art is in danger of being hijacked by the professional justice warrior, masking their ego while preening in virtue. I am not impressed with Tim Shaw.

    1. Hi Miklos,
      I appreciate your comments and also thought somewhat like you before I saw Tim Shaw’s installation in Penzance. I had seen photos of his work online and read about him; I wasn’t impressed. Instead, it was like the difference between listening to music at home and going to a concert live. It was an experience that gave me much more than just a visit to an exhibition of someone, anyone – he left me totally surprised and in awe. It was perhaps one of the most interactive exhibitions I have ever seen – interactive physically and emotionally. It was also very beautiful, and even though it touched bombing events and other acts of terrorism and violence that we all prefer to forget and no longer hear about, it was also an aesthetic experience. Isn’t that what art is about, a visual experience? I didn’t even mention the studies he drew in preparation for the installation and the small sculptures at the entrance of this show, though both contributed to the whole atmosphere that was spellbinding, leaving me with the desire to see more of his work in the future. I only wish that these 2 installations could be seen on an international scale, as they merit greater visibility not readability.
      Thank you for commenting!

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