Tim Shaw: Beyond Reason

by Professor Michael Sandle

As I had something indirectly to do with my friend and fellow sculptor Tim Shaw’s major exhibition currently on at the San Diego Museum of Art, I thought to hell with the expense and flew over for the opening. I had told him that networking was absolutely essential to furthering a career in sculpture, which can be something of an uphill struggle and that he ought to make an effort to come up from Cornwall, where he is based, to attend an event that was going to be held at Tate Britain. He took my advice and went to the event where he bumped into Mary Moore, daughter of Henry. She very kindly introduced him to the Deputy Director of the San Diego Museum, Anita Feldman, who had for many years worked at the Henry Moore Foundation. The rest – as the saying goes – is history.

The San Diego Museum has put on a spectacular and courageous show of Tim Shaw’s work, which includes his earlier masterpiece Middle World (main image), which is a sculpture of breath-taking virtuosity and obsessive detail bordering on madness and you can be certain there is no sculpture anywhere in the world remotely like it. The Museum also has his very disturbing installation Mother, The Air is Blue, The Air is Dangerous based on Tim and his mother’s frightening experience of being in a large store in Belfast when it was bombed by the IRA (fig.1). This installation uses with great effect projected moving images and a fog machine.

There is, in addition to this, another large and unsettling installation with over-life sized, sinister figures called Soul Snatcher Possession, which also relates to the troubles in Northern Ireland and there is yet one more equally disturbing sculpture which also relates to this grim period of fairly recent Northern Irish history, which depicts a young woman who has been tarred and feathered and tied to a lamp post and which is titled Alternative Authority (fig.2).

This relentless attempt to bear witness by Tim Shaw doesn’t stop there either – there is a pair of over-life sized figures which rock back and forwards and whose mouths have been stopped with money – this work is called Defending Integrity from the Powers that Be and alludes to a campaign Tim fought in Cornwall over what he saw as the desecration of his former Art College in Falmouth by forces representing corporate greed and philistinism and how voices protesting against it can be bought.

The last work in this astonishing exhibition that I will mention, The Birth of Breakdown Clown, is the most challenging for the visitors to the exhibition (fig.3). This is an animatronic sculpture that has AI (artificial intelligence), which can speak, gesture and declaim a text written by Shaw, which is impressive in its own right. This sculpture has also been programmed to interact with onlookers if they speak to it – Tim Shaw has cleverly manipulated the sculpture to bring in references to Donald Trump’s infamous Mexican Wall – as San Diego borders with Mexico this is a hot topic and I noticed that some onlookers abruptly walked away when the Wall was mentioned. I will finish by saying that Tim Shaw is a hugely important sculptor, who has chosen not to hide behind irony – his work is visceral and tough – so necessary for the times we live in. I wouldn’t have missed this exhibition for the world.

Main image: Tim Shaw, Middle World (photo: © the artist)

‘Tim Shaw: Beyond Reason’, San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado Balboa Park, San Diego, USA. 20th October, 2018 – 24th February, 2019.

Aurora Corio