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Tim Shaw: studio visit

In 2009 Tim Shaw had a solo show at Riflemaker in London. In 2010 he returned to Cornwall to work on a major commission for the centre of the City of Truro. Rupert White visits his studios in Mabe and discusses his career and work to date



The crucifix has a central position in Middle World (below right). Was it part of the design from the beginning?

The figures and the cross were made at the same stage. Then the table came next. With small figures you want to bring them to a height where they engage with the viewer. I was very inspired by medieval English and French cathedrals, and by Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. So I created this table. Then I thought I really want to create something upwards. I want it to look like something between an altar and a pinball machine.

The title Middle World refers to the middle of existence. The hinterland of the human psyche, or the twilight zone. You can see references to pagan and Christian, modern and ancient.

The jet-form is a good example. It looks like it was cast from a toy.
Yes. It was modeled actually. It has a specific reason for being there.

It tells a story of human development through the ages. It's a limbo world where past and present meet. It was inspired by walking round a corner in Tours and seeing its great cathedral. It was awe-inspiring and frightening as well. It was imposing and impressive, and a reminder that we are mortal.

Has the concept for the work changed during its development?
It went in three stages: the figure, the table and the facade - the upper part. I would describe it as being like a novel. When you write a novel you're working within certain parameters, working with a central theme.
What's its future?
I would love for it to go into a public collection. I think that's where its home is. It would nice to see it in a public space, perhaps in a touring show. It was seen by movers and shakers in the studio in London. I would like it to be exhibited down here, in Tate or Newlyn. But it looks good here in this barn too. It was made here.
Moving on, what are these little figures in the corner?
The maquette for the Eden project. The Rites of Dionysus (below left).
Hence the stumps of grapevine...
I had a residency in Spain in 1996. I arrived at night and the next day I looked out and all the surrounding fields had these dark twisted forms in the soil. They were very old vines, and I made many drawings. I made some work that was shown in Falmouth, and at that time the Eden project were looking for artists, though the build hadn't happened at that stage. They asked me to create a piece of work that would tell the story of man's relationship with the vines.
I was interested in Christ turning water into wine, but then I came across Dionysus and Bacchus and I read Euripides' Bacchi. I realised that Bacchus was the terrible force of nature personified. Like the first time I saw a bull charging across the Place de Taurus, it had this terrific livid force. Dionysus had these many different forms, and one of them was a bull, and it was great the way that one thing linked to the next.
So I created this orgy. And actually the word originates from the Greek, orgi, which means rage.
There was a religious cult around Dionysus too. And it inspired Nietzsche.
It was very important. I found it a fascinating story because it's what happens when humans go beyond control. They're dancing within this ecstatic trance and they're ripping dogs apart and putting rabbit heads on spikes.
Not all the figures feature in the final sculpture do they?
This head had to be taken out because it was around the time of the first beheading in Iraq. There were four figures that are not in the final work.
At the beginning everyone at Eden was very territorial about the project and we viewed each other with mutual suspicion, and I didn't really like the layout. But In 2002 I was called because the vines had contracted phylloxera, which is a bug that destroyed half the vines of Europe.
The soil was infected as well?
Yes. They couldn't put the vines back in till the following Spring. So I said shall I go and make some metal vine forms? It gives us a chance to collaborate properly. I did and it started to flow better.
It's not a very atmospheric space at Eden though is it?
It's interesting being in there at night. That's when it works best. But it's a very hard space because you're competing with a lot of other things. It's a lot better now than it was a few years ago. It takes a while for a place to develop any sense of spirit or atmosphere.
About three years ago you were in London courtesy of the Armitage Fellowship. Was it hard to adjust?
It was like I'd died and gone to heaven. I was in one of the best studios you could have in London with a small salary and all bills taken care of. It's very easy to adapt to that!
Did it affect your way of working?
It affected my sense of scale. Having a big studio I was able to execute larger works. At the time I was interested in creating work about the UK foreign policy in Iraq. But that was already in my head. I don't know about other artists, but I tend to work 2 or 3 years ahead.
You have to plan. Being in London allowed me to create the ambitious installation 'Casting a Dark Democracy'. It summed up what was wrong with going to war in Iraq. It also brought me back to experiences of Belfast in the early days where people enforce things through violence.
You were a boy growing up in Belfast during the troubles in the 70's...
Yes. At the time you don't process it. All was strangely normal. But looking back it was an incredibly dangerous, dark, and dreadful time in which everybody was affected. Many bombs did go off, and many without warning. People were killed and maimed. And we all came across people who were beaten up. As regards the paramilitaries, violence is always part of the freedom.

The democracy that we are bringing to Iraq was brought with the bomb and the bullet.

Does your experience of Belfast come into your work in other ways?
Yes. There's the crucifixion. If you think of Ireland and Northern Ireland I grew up within very clear spiritual boundaries. Everything was very black and white.
There was a background of religious intolerance to both the war in Iraq and Northern Ireland...

Coming to Cornwall and creating the Middle World happened as result of coming into this place which provided more of a grey area. Its hard to put your finger on what it was. It was that area between the religious  and political boundaries that I was used to.


Things were n't so clear any more in Cornwall...

No. In Cornwall it's more pagan and non-christian...
Also rural areas have a different cultural mix.
There's a difference with urban politics, which is more immediate. In the countryside the land and nature have more of an influence, and I found it shocking. It was a culture shock. And I started questioning things. What if God and the Devil don't exist?
There's something that visitors from Northern Ireland find slightly unsettling about the life here, and the environment and the people, though it's not obvious.
Coming to the large sculpture for Lemon Quay. Did you get the commission when you were working in London?
It's taken 4 or 5 years

So you had to submit a proposal...

Yes, and then shortlists get drawn-up.
Does that mean the concept is established by that stage?
Yes, very much so.

Firstly the competition ran in 2002 and four sculptors, were shortlisted: William Pye, Peter Randall-Page, Doug Corker and myself. The brief was to create a work that celebrated Truro's maritime heritage. The quay was cemented over in the 20's, but below there is tidal water.

The original brief had a quarter of a million budget and there was to be a sculpture, one at either end. And my idea was to produce a piece called 'In remembrance of tidal waters that lie beneath' and this came in the form of a swan on a ball at one end, and a figure conjuring up the image of the swan. The swan would have water pumped up through the wings.

So the decision to have the ball came early from the design aspect. It can be seen as a globe, or a buoy in the sea. It's a primal shape. The planets and the earth are spheres.
After the first competition the idea seemed to evolve to nothing. There wasn't the political will to make it happen, and a few years later another competition took place. I still felt strongly about the idea of a figure on a ball. The first figure was one conjuring up a vision, but by itself it didn't work well.
When I first set foot in Cornwall I remember thinking Cornwall is a place whose drumbeat beats differently to elsewhere. There is this shared idea that Cornwall is magical, timeless, primordial. What is that feeling that you get when you drift from Devon to Cornwall? Its sense of remoteness, possibly dereliction and desolation. There is a modest independence and an instinct to survive.
One characteristic of contemporary Cornwall are the modern festivals that all feature drums.
I've been going to the 'Obby 'Oss for 20 years. I've only missed one. The drum beat is very primitive, like the beat of the heart. There are two 'osses, red and blue, and they both have drummers.
Many towns use the drums to beat in the Summer and Winter. There's something about this that connects the towns up. Truro is the commercial centre that serves and connects up its rural communities. So all these places where drumming has gone on, I wanted to bring it back to the centre to produce a beating heart - almost.
The older festivities would be Padstow and Helston, and the newer ones St Just and Penzance, so this became important. Those festivities and the image of the drum depicts in visual, figurative terms that sense of determination to get on and survive. When you see the photographs of the miners in the wonderful collection that Truro has you see that same sense of determination in their eyes.
The drum has an animal on it. It looks like the Lamb of God. But it's not a cross that he's carrying...
Its a Lamb and Flag. Its a symbol that was used by many of the stannary towns. Truro was a stannary town that weighed valued and sold the tin. Stannary towns were able to fix prices for goods. The smelting works in Truro near the viaduct used the symbol.
The head of the main figure is not finished. He looks like he's going to be elderly and quite fierce.
He's certainly not going to be young. I want it to look austere. I don't want it to have a pleasant smiling face. I'm interested in having a determined, downward look to the mouth. But when you're working on a figure that height there are weird distortions that take place that have to be allowed for.
Will there be a front?
I need to work it up in the round because people will see it in the round. But it will face east. It faces roughly towards Marks and Spencer's, but it faces the rising sun. And I like that symbolically as well because again it conveys a spirit of independence. I don't mean that as a form of pseudo-nationalism. It's not something to do with Cornish Nationalism.
It's going to be important to get the PR right. You want people to like it.
Yes. Very important. When I was in London making work about war and conflict I had lost touch with the meaning. I had lost the thread. So I made a full-scale mock up and took it to the site. And a woman came and asked me what it was about. I came back to the studio and realised I had to get my focus back.
I've talked about remoteness. But from what? It's to do with being many miles from the country's administrative centre. Artists that are working down here suffer from not getting exposure. I've had it said to me by a gallerist: what are you getting so worried about? It's only Truro. It's only down there. What does it matter? And that sentence says it all.
This is a permanent public art work. You're not just making it for yourself or your friends.
It's not just the artist huddled away in nowhere-land indulging his or her thing
You do get artists who are only interested in making work for their friends, and for a small elite minority
I've always had a focus on London because that's where the better deals happen. But there are still good things that happen down here.
And you've got work out of Cornwall. like the Minotaur and Silenus.
Silenus is in the collection of David Roberts, who is one of the 3 or 4 biggest collectors in the country. That piece came after the rites of Dionysus. I worked at the British School in Athens and it was a real privilege being there. You were surrounded by PhD students doing research. I was very interested in the sites, drawing, photographing and even recording sounds.
It was the last piece that I was going to create for Eden, but it's a man holding its penis, and it was considered inappropriate. Silenus was the tutor of Dionysus, depicted holding fast to his cock and drinking wine. But I don't really see Silenus as a fat jovial character. The antlers are a symbol of power and fertility and they were made out of wood.

That was shown in London and it was bought by David Roberts and Joe Clark put on a show in London. And two days into the show this person came in and laid into it with a crowbar many times. It was in a yard and the person on duty came out and the attacker said 'you're worshipping the wrong religion' and then he ran up the road. It was quite a shocking thing.

I was on my way down to Cornwall. I didn't believe Joe when he first told me. Then it went into the papers, and the collector was interested in the effect that it had had. I was quite disturbed. I wondered if I was next.

It was the East End in Vyner Street? There are lots of Bangladeshi working there.
The galleries are cheek by jowl with sweatshops, where people are working long hours earning only pennies. I remember peeping through a door and it's about 10 oclock at night inside are 80 people working away. And it was a far cry from the world that I was part of at that moment.
The art scene in London has become more glamorous and wealthy than it was 20 or 30 years ago...
With the emergence of Frieze, The Turner Prize, Saatchi and Serota, a kind of new world began. The art world has become blatantly commercialised.
And there's no shame in being commercial any more
It's more like the fashion or music industry. But more money has changed hands which is a good thing. The bad thing is the superficiality that the glamour brings and you get people who are put in a position of power that know jack-shit about art, and effect this load of nonsense about what is contemporary and what is n't. And it's divisive.