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10th anniversary of Abu Ghraib image sees Tim Shaw revisit his seminal artworks

Wed 12 March 2014

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the infamous Abu Ghraib-tortured prisoner image, which was published April 2004, recently elected Royal Academician (RA) Tim Shaw will exhibit for the first time in a public gallery his powerful sculpture installation Casting a Dark Democracy. The piece is one of three large scale installations reworked for his first major solo exhibition Black Smoke Rising, at mac birmingham from Saturday 12 April until Sunday 8 June.

Belfast born and Cornwall based, Shaw grapples with social and political realities; themes of ritual and conflict reoccur throughout his work, drawing from experiences in his formative years spent in Belfast during ‘the troubles’ and historical events that have influenced the world for centuries. 

Monumental in scale, Casting a Dark Democracy  dominates mac’s first floor gallery – 17 feet of constructed steel, barbed wire, and black polythene sit in a heavy atmosphere, a darkened room lit by a single bulb, with a haunting beat and the underlying subtext of war and fear.  

Describing her own experience of Shaw’s work in 2008, Financial Times Art Critic Jackie Wullschlager has written: ‘Empathetic yet implicating us all, Casting a Dark Democracy  is one of too few works to engage unequivocally with the reality and human cost of the Iraq war. It ought to stand on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, or in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall.’

According to Shaw: ‘Casting a Dark Democracy  also relates more broadly to conflict through the ages. Ten years on from when the picture of the Abu Ghraib tortured prisoner was first published, the image remains potent, as something that trawls just beneath the surface of the collective consciousness, revealing to us inherent primitive instincts. Belonging to no particular age or place, it is reminiscent of something that could have been dug out of the earth from long ago.  Barbaric and menacing in appearance, it also possesses a Christ-like vulnerability. Interestingly the image that is so iconic of the Iraq war transcends it.’

Casting a Dark Democracy  is accompanied by Man on Fire. Originally conceived as an idea for the fourth plinth, Shaw likens it to a personal experience some years ago, of driving unintentionally into a riot in Belfast, ‘All around cars were ablaze and the tarmac appeared scorched by collective rage.’ This striking piece is about terror and captures the dreadful last moments of a person on fire; caught in a place between life and death, consumed by flames.’

Completing the exhibition, Soul Snatcher Possession consists of eight larger than life-size figures, huddled menacingly, on the verge of a violent encounter. Only the perpetrators eerie smiles and brutal gestures imply the moment just before an unimaginable dreadful act is committed.

Reflecting on his work, Shaw says: ‘It delves into the nature of the human psyche. 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.’

Shaw continues: ‘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.’

Black Smoke Rising is curated by Indra Khanna and produced in partnership with mac birmingham and Aberystwyth Arts Centre. The exhibition is kindly supported by Arts Council England.

‘Empathetic yet implicating us all, Casting a Dark Democracy  is one of too few works to engage unequivocally with the reality and human cost of the Iraq war. It ought to stand on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, or in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall.’

Jackie Wullschlager - Financial Times Art Critic

‘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.’

Tim Shaw RA