Tim Shaw 'Something Is Not Quite Right'
Part 1: 13th October - 9th December 2017, Anima-Mundi, St Ives, Cornwall
Tim Shaw’s controversial, confronting and visceral works have caused quite a furore since the private view at Anima-Mundi in St Ives on Friday 13th October. The exhibition opening was preceded by an interactive performance, in which the audience allowed the ‘Department of Fear and Insecurity’ to gag them with stockings, whilst Tim Shaw paraded from the sea through the cobbled streets of St Ives, gagged and ‘disabled’ by prosthetic, fabric-filled stocking arm extensions.
The function of this uncomfortable, uncompromising event was to give the audience a sense of what it feels like to loose your voice – to become powerless – to submit and tow-the-line.
“Three different works on three different floors, the general thread that runs throughout points towards ‘complicity” Tim Shaw, 2017
In Tim’s work, the striking aesthetic and use of familiar motifs and images from the media generates reaction and opinion – a welcome and necessary part of the creative process, which undoubtably fuels artistic output. The fact that people find the works shocking and hard to look at amplifies his distress at complicity and ‘turning a blind eye’. So often one is aware of abhorrent things happening, but we keep quiet and keep on walking. ‘Something Is Not Quite Right’ seeks to lay bare these uncomfortable truths and reinforce their horrifying nature, giving a voice to those who have been silenced through fear and manipulation, whilst creating a space for new conversations and ideas.
Perhaps the most powerful example of this, and indeed the most controversial in terms of subject is Alternative Justice. A 7ft sculpture of a female figure is tied to a post on the upper-floor of the gallery. The bare room is lit by a single light bulb and the slumping form is clearly the victim of a horrifying and violent act.
Exhibition introduction by Tim Shaw
The work is informed, in particular, by accounts of tarring and feathering which took place in Northern Ireland during 'The Troubles'. Tarring and Feathering is a form of public humiliation used to enforce unofficial justice or revenge, a metaphor for severe public criticism. Earliest written accounts date back to 1189. Many of the victims were women from nationalist areas who were accused of conducting sexual relations with members of the RUC or British soldiers. In some cases, the victims clothes were torn apart, they were beaten and had their hair shaved. These acts were carried out by groups of both men and women within the community. Several preliminary studies were created in wax, including one shaped by a widely publicised account of a male drug dealer who was tied to a lamp post then tarred and feathered in Belfast, in 2007. One story that remains in the mind was recounted during the making of Soul Snatcher Possession back in 2012 by the wife of a British soldier serving in Northern Ireland. She described the disturbing scene of a women being paraded around the square of a small country town in NI on the back of a vehicle trailer, clothes torn, tarred and feathered. It is likely that this account planted the seed for Alternative Justice. The work sheds light on the issue of complicity within community and questions what is it that makes this particular form of punishment so abhorrent. Growing up in Northern Ireland, everyone was affected by violence; we knew about knee capping, the shootings and bombings. Somehow the punishment of tarring and feathering occupies a more dreadful place in the collective mind.
Alternative Justice explores the poignancy of this.
Defending Integrity From The Powers That Be:
A specific siting of the context of Defending Integrity From The Powers That Be was focussed on current circumstances within further education.
In November 2016, I wrote a six page open letter criticising management culture at Falmouth University. Informed by months of lengthy research, the letter summarises some of the possible reasons for the unhappiness and discontent expressed by many who not only work at the university but also live locally. The university defended itself in an open letter to the local press which in turn has become the subject of a work entitled Obliteration. During the months that followed, a tidal wave of support gathered which echoed a feeling that what was written needed to be said. Correspondence from former staff reflected a situation that many current staff spoke about. Collectively, what was revealed was a picture of deep concern. Not long after my letter went to press, a senior staff member was removed from campus and suspended for expressing support on their Facebook page for some of the points raised in the letter. As one staff member puts it: “She spoke for everybody in what she said, and the way in which she was treated speaks for everyone’s silence.”
Defending Integrity From The Powers That Be is shaped by several covert meetings with former employees of the university who were made ‘redundant’ and signed compromise agreements in return for a better pay-off deal. What is evident is that an employee can be made ‘redundant’ under questionable circumstances that never come to light because, through contractual agreement, the details of their dismissal or redundancy can never be divulged. Recently, the press reported that nearly 200 staff have been made redundant by Falmouth University in seven years. An Freedom Of Information revealed that 31 left though compromise agreements costing the tax payer £789.659.34 (excluding legal fees). Its a large amount of redundancies for a small university to make. What is more shocking, is that not one politician or councillor in Cornwall is prepared to publicly speak out about this significant finding. Its a silence that is pervasive. Current staff at Falmouth are frightened to speak out for fear of losing their jobs. Former staff that signed compromise agreements could potentially be sued if they speak out. In some cases, former staff that didn’t sign, together with some of young people in the town are reluctant to raise their heads above the parapet for fear of jeopardising future job prospects at the university. As the university’s director of communications claims to the press that ….’"there is no evidence of low staff morale’’….. and refuted the claims over non-disclosure agreements saying they were put in place at the employee’s request. The two figures rock back and forth, through mouths gagged and stuffed with money they scream the words:
‘Yes. We are the envy of our competitors. No?’
No. We are excellent. Yes?
Yes. Excellent. No?
Yes. We tell no lies. No?
Yes? We tell no truth. No?
The work begs the question: whose words have the strength and integrity to count, in an age where alternative truths proliferate through the haze of social media?
Soul Snatcher Possession:
‘Don’t fuck the act son’ is what the famous hypnotist whispered firmly into the young boy’s ear, as he refused to fall under the showman’s spell, during a performance many years ago. A few awkward moments followed, then the boy bowed his head like the others. ‘Pretending’ was easier for everyone. The experience was an early insight into the persuasive, manipulative powers that those in charge possess. I look back and ask, how many of the seven volunteers on stage that night had actually been hypnotised? I guess that some were, whilst others like myself pretended to be. It is often more comfortable to go along with whatever life demands of us than not. The line of least resistance prevails.
Influenced by a violent disturbance that took place on a street one night, Soul Snatcher Possession sets the scene of a ritual gangland killing or punishment beating. No weapon is visible, the perpetrators smile and gestures betray the moment just before some dreadful act is committed where fear fills the imagination. The installation is a metaphor for the violent extraction of soul, the manipulation of mind or the taking of life by the powerful, in order to perpetuate the myth that those with the power want to portray. It relates to the street, the corridors of governance and commerce, the art world included. These traits are integral to human nature and its survival, often hidden behind a veneer of sophistication. Eight large figures made from old clothes, sacking and pillows are constructed unto metal frames and stand in a dimly lit room. The figures are inter-related; the strong do not exist without the weak. Material is cut, slashed, stitched and manipulated into shape.
The central group appear to crowd in on their victim who is hooded. In one corner stands a large blind man holding a stick. In another, a woman is slouched against a wall with her breasts uncovered. Close by, a predatory figure watches over her. It is unclear as to whether a sexual act has been or is about to be carried out, consensually or otherwise. Opposite, a kneeing figure is bound and masked. During the making of the work, I listened to a radio interview given by the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann. Referring to the holocaust, he spoke about a ‘dimension of barbarity that does not disappear from human nature.’ The description aptly describes Soul Snatcher Possession. It is chilling to realise that in the end, those who are in charge have the ability to get rid of someone, to sideline or rewrite what an individual has said or done. If reason and diplomacy do not work then violence often will. A full-size version of Soul Snatcher Possession will be shown at The Exchange, Penzance in Part 2 of Something Is Not Quite Right from 10th February - 19th May, 2018.