Casting a Dark Democracy

Sculptor Tim Shaw's exhibition of a war soaked background seeks to make the viewer incredibly uncomfortable.

Photography by Daniel de Sousa
For one night only, Tim Shaw’s 'Casting A Dark Democracy' was on show once more to the public since it’s original run in Autumn 2008. The exhibition confronts issues of world conflict, in particularly the atrocities that have framed our reception of the war in Iraq. On show were Man on Fire (2007-8) and Tank on Fire (2007-8), which won the Selectors' Choice award at the Threadneedle Figurative Prize, as well as Middleworld (1989-95), an epic concrete and bronze tribute to purgatory.

Held at the Kenneth Armitage Foundation, which at upon first glance appears to be an unassuming home yet holds an amazing and unsuspected space, the selection of Shaw’s work on show was awe-inspiring and thought provoking. In 2007, Shaw was awarded the Kenneth Armitage Foundation sculpture fellowship which gives him residency in the space for two years.  

Middleworld stood out for its sheer complexity. It took eight years to complete, and portrays ideas of good and evil, life and death through seventy small bronze and terra cota figures. It presents an apocalyptic arena, made almost of brimstone, which questions ideas of mortality through the use of pagan and Christian symbolism. The attention to detail was astounding, and its painstaking intricacy only heightened by its sheer size.  Shaw explained to me that the middle ages strongly influenced this piece, and I had to agree that his use of copper oxidized concrete certainly added to these ends.  

Whilst Tank on Fire and Man on Fire both directly relate to the war in Iraq, the most awe inspiring exhibit was the five metre tall Casting A Dark Democracy (2008), which is based on the now infamous image of the Abu Ghraib prisoner. For those not lucky to see this exhibition first time round, last night offered an amazing opportunity to see arguably one of the most courageous sculptures of our time. The imposing piece, made of metal, barbed wire, black Polythene and electrical cable stands upon a sand floor looking down at its oil filled shadow. Booming through the smoke and doom is the sound of a heart beat, adding to the monstrous properties of the cloaked figure and evoking a sense of panic. Intermittent snatches of radio transmission add a reminder of its violent, war soaked background.

The uncomfortable soundtrack, dim lighting and smoke in the room add a threatening undertone that makes viewing incredibly uncomfortable. Is this purely due to the atmosphere, or is it one’s morals asking how they had managed to ignored this image before when it splashed across the media? Or is it because one can not help but think that this large, ghostly, confrontational yet almost unreal figure is one day going to come to life and avenge its treatment? 
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