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Tim Shaw on Northern Ireland, Falmouth and Defending Integrity
phone interview Rupert White
You did an interview for artcornwall.org a few years ago, so it would be good to talk about some of the projects you've done since then. Soul Snatcher Possession (SSP - pic below) is one of the most remarkable, and in fact there's a maquette in the current Anima Mundi show in St Ives.
The maquette you see there is Soul Snatcher Possession version two. Version one was in wax and was destroyed in my studio by the sun, but I thought it was important to resurrect it. The two are very different to each other. It seemed important to rework this piece because of the times in which we are living at the moment; because it's very much about how truth can be fabricated to suit the needs of those in power.
I believe you showed it in Birmingham?
It was first made for Riflemaker (London) in 2012.
I left the Kenneth Armitage Foundation (London) in 2009 and returned to Cornwall to create The Drummer for Truro. I hoped during the time I was making The Drummer I would be able to create SSP but I wasn't able to. But shortly after this I returned to the Kenneth Armitage Foundation. One of the trustees on the day of The Drummer installation came up and said "there's a gap in the schedule do you want to return to London?" I knew what I wanted to do, because SSP sprang out of that time in London.
Soul Snatcher Possession does look very urban, like it was imagery that you'd acquired in London.
I was working to try and promote 'Casting a Dark Democracy' and I was sitting around waiting for people to come, and was aware that I was entering into a world in which truth started to become fabricated a bit.
And here you're referring to the machinations of the art world?
Exactly. I remember an almighty scream – either imagined or not – that I heard in the middle of the night. I remember getting up and looking out of the window for a long time but seeing no trace of anything. It seemed very real to me, so the next day I went to the local shops to ask and look in the papers but there was no trace.
At the time I wasn't very happy as to how things were. And I remember getting very drunk one night with somebody and telling them about my frustrations, and I wrote out on a piece of paper the words: 'Soul Snatcher Possession'. I remember looking at it in the morning and thinking: 'this rings true'.
So you had the title very early on...
Yes. Then I started making these maquettes, and I returned to 'Man on Fire', then on to 'The Drummer' but I held that idea in my head.
The first two figures were made during the second seven week stay in London, and that was the first time I used old clothes in a sculpture. In October I was back in Cornwall, and the following April 'Soul Snatcher Possession' was ready to show at Riflemaker. I also showed it at Mac in Birmingham, in Aberystwyth, and in Shoreditch Town Hall. In Shoreditch it was in a show called 'Out of Our Heads', which was a wonderful show actually. The room I was given was almost the same size as the Riflemaker room. All the windows were bricked up and it really suited the space.
Let's move on to 'Mother, the Air is Blue' (pic below), which is more recent again and seems to be the most autobiographical of all your works, referring back to your childhood in Northern Ireland.
In my mind, I tend to work a couple of years ahead. It came after that summer of showing in London. I did an interview for a magazine in Athens, and they asked what ideas I had in mind to do next, and 'Breakdown Clown' and 'Mother, the Air is Blue, the Air is Dangerous' were.
The latter piece really refers to a day back in summer July 1972 when I was in a restaurant and a bomb goes off, I think, on the floor below. I could have sworn this happened on a day called Bloody Friday, a day in which 25 bombs were planted, 19 of which exploded within 80 minutes and within a few square miles of the city centre. Strangely there isn't any record of this particular bombing; that's not to say it didn't happen on Bloody Friday because so much else did happen on that day.
I went to Athens and the curator of the Kappatos Gallery picked this piece because they thought it would be interesting to produce and show it there. And I was glad; this was going to be one of the most experimental pieces I had ever created because the installation does not rely on sculpted form as a central focal point within the space. I wasn't sure how I was going to do it, but as the concept began to solidify I realised that what was needed was a distillation of this childhood memory.
The things I could remember were the chairs, and the tables, and the clatter of trays flying through the air, and the cutlery, but more than that the people chaotically running one way then another. Strangely, I was left with the memory of this tight, blue air rising from the stairs, as if the whole atmosphere was expanded like a large balloon ready to burst.
I think you said you were 7 at the time which might have a bearing on how you experienced it?
Yes. My sister’s memory was of her running through the streets of Belfast city centre with our mother and I on Bloody Friday. And of course you didn't know if you were running away from one bomb, just to run into the next. A terrifying experience.
I asked a close, lifelong friend who was also in the restaurant that day with his mother: “Sam, d'you remember the day the explosion went off in the restaurant?" but he just stared at me blankly. I knew in my heart that it had happened, but thought 'why could he not remember this?'
The essay in my book was being written by a chap called Don Jordan and we were talking a lot about this at the time, and in the end I had to write Sam out of the history of that experience.
Then the time came to show the work in Northern Ireland, and I realised it was going to be a very different experience showing it there compared to Athens.
Because of the sensitivities.
You can't muck around with this stuff.
I wanted it to memorialise Bloody Friday because it was such an awful thing that had happened. Somehow, it didn't seem right for it to recede from collective memory without being marked. But of course I do understand why people who grew up during The Troubles in Northern Ireland do want to put the past behind them.
So I was treading a difficult thin line. I had this to think about, and I had the whole worry about whether the whole thing could be a false memory. And because of this, the lead-in to the show was an extremely anxious one.
You were more concerned about the Northern Ireland show than you were about the Athens one?
With Athens there was a different set of worries; more artistic ones. But for the Northern Ireland one, the concerns were at a far deeper level.
How did it go down in the press in Ireland?
The Belfast Telegraph did a two page article on it, and it went down well. It had a lot of attention. And I was worried that it would attract negative comments about dragging up the past – but it didn't.
Maybe it's to do with the passage of time; you couldn't have done it 20 years ago...
On the night of the opening, some visitors did walk straight out of the exhibition. My cousin’s husband who was in the UDR (Ulster Defence Regiment) spent the night in the car because he didn't want to deal with it. He'd already dealt with a lifetime of violence. My friend Sam did come to the opening, and I wasn't looking forward to him coming, because as mentioned I'd written him out of my history.
I phoned him three nights later to thank him for coming and his words were: "Jesus Tim – when I walked into that room it reminded me of when I was a kid and I was in a restaurant and a bomb goes off". I was relieved, and later I went to meet him and properly cross-examined him.
It was a relief, and strange that an art work can unlock a buried memory in that way.
So 'Mother the Air is Blue, the Air is Dangerous' is going to be part of the show at the Exchange?
Yes. The two installations will be shown there alongside each other. 'Mother, the air is blue' and 'Soul Snatcher Possession'
Coming on to 'The Birth of the Breakdown Clown' (video below), am I right it was the result of a fellowship in Germany?
It was like a think-tank, based at Bonn University in Germany that had a lot of autonomy, with a really good professor who basically ran the college how he wanted!
Your original maquettes look more obviously like a clown, with clown shoes and make-up and so on. How come these more obvious clown-features didn't make it into the final work?
I suppose it's the clown stripped bare. But what is a clown? I suppose Breakdown Clown is the outsider, who tries to speak some sort of truth about what it is to exist.
Is it still physically in Germany?
No, it's in my studio.
We brought over to Germany an artist called Giles Walker who has worked with robotics, and we also brought Adam Russell from Falmouth who worked on the artificial intelligence. I have to say that what we produced was really good given the limited time-frame and budget available. I wasn't really prepared for the many different levels you have to work at to create something like that, such as an AI script: there were about 10,000 words of artificial intelligence script.
So it's properly interactive: you can have a conversation with the clown?
Yes, but it's very basic.
I didn't realise.
I like the fact that its basic so you don't know what its going to come out with, which gives it an eerie quality. Its not like 'SIRI', it's more like Frankenstein's first awakening.
And you yourself wrote the script?
Yes. And it really came out of being in the think-tank, working day and night and being surrounded by these ten other academics from around the world.
During that year in Germany you must have heard a lot of concerns coming out of Falmouth University, which led up to you writing that letter at the end of 2016
Actually concerns had been raised a lot earlier. As I was being honoured in 2013 there were already concerns.
You were made a Fellow in 2013...
Yes, and as a Fellow, I had to question where I stand on these issues. The first thing that made me really sit up and take note, was the decision to close down Contemporary Craft. That took place before I went to Germany, and I remember thinking 'it's important to express something about this', but I didn't at the time, other than sign a petition to keep it open. I went off to Germany and whilst I was out in Germany I started to hear more things about the university. There was a press article in the West Briton about the Vice Chancellor's salary, and there was also an open letter written by a member of staff. It was the latter that really made me realise that I needed to put pen to paper and voice support for those that work there.
I can't remember; was the staff-member's letter signed?
No it wasn’t. If it had have been then I’m quite sure that the staff member would have been out the door within days, if not hours.
But the points that were raised in the letter reflected what was being said by staff and the public. It became apparent that the unhappiness was not being experienced by a few, but by many. There was this feeling that staff could not speak out about what they felt was wrong with how the university was being run.
This was June 2016 and I spent a sizable amount of time writingmy letter and listening to people. When you're writing a letter like that, you have to get as close to the truth as you can, and that means cross-referencing, and getting accounts from many people as you can.
As it was difficult for the staff to speak out, at some level you became their spokesperson working from the outside?
Education is everyone's responsibility. The University is hurtling towards being a private enterprise, and people need to take an interest in how it's being run and how it's affecting the community. When I published the letter I had no idea of the magnitude of reaction, but within hours my email was full of correspondence as far away as Germany, Holland, Scotland and all parts of the UK including Cornwall.
From people who have a particular affection for Cornwall and Falmouth??
Yes. One of the people that contacted me had an important role in the University, and he said that what I'd written was a very accurate assessment of the situation, and I heard about how people were being made redundant and I had conversations with many of them, and listened to their stories. People wrote to me, and people are still writing to me.
Your association with Falmouth goes back a long way, you must have felt very drawn into trying to help.
Yes and obliged. A sense that 'somebody has to do something'.
Despite the petitions and the press coverage, bringing to light the 200 redundancies and the £800,000 payouts, the politicians have ducked the issue. And the council have ducked the issue, And that's what we have to look at next. And the Board of Governors. What are they doing to try and improve the situation? My perception is that those in charge are in complete denial that there is anything wrong with how the institution is being managed. That needs to change!
Thecurrent show at Anima Mundi seems to strongly reference the situation in Falmouth. Especially the downstairs installation 'Defending Integrity From The Powers That Be'. Yes. 'Defending integrity from the powers that be’ does exactly that. It looks at the idea that the power of free-speech has been eroded, and it asks: where does the freedom of speech lie within educational institutions now? We know, for example, that one of the tutors who agreed with my letter on their Facebook was suspended days later as a result.
Hence why the figures in the installation and guests at the private view were gagged.
That's right. I have spoken to former employees who have signed compromise agreements that prevent them from talking about their experiences.
Something happens when you introduce business models into education or healthcare: a different kind of morality comes into play, and people start behaving differently...
You've hit the hammer right on the nail. And that's why its important to fight for education to be managed using a different kind of model. Where does the issue of morality lie in all this?
Have you any comments on 'Alternative Justice' on the top floor (pic below)? Is it anything to do with the Falmouth situation?
No, it's not anything to do with it. Its about complicity; when people walk past or don't say anything.
Because it's an image of a woman who is tied to a post, its easy to read it as misogynistic.
You just have to read the press release. Tarring and feathering is a form of punishment that was used frequently in the 70's in Northern Ireland. Men and women were tarred and feathered, but it was particularly common with women who fraternised with British soldiers or the RUC. It was carried out by men and women particularly within nationalist communities.
For years I wanted to make this piece, and it got made very quickly. It seemed to be the right time to make it. We know about the bullets and the bombs and the kneecapping. What is it about this form of punishment that makes so different?
Its very medieval...
Medieval and ritualistic.
Talking of ritual, there's the photo in your book of a burning wicker man in the garden at your home. Do you think of that as an art work or a performance?
I see life and art as very much the same thing. And here in Cornwall its important to mark the passing of the seasons. I very much believe in that. It was a summer celebration, a midsummer celebration.
Thinking about life and art coming together, I remember a show at Millennium when you came dressed in a blanket that had a face cut into it. You said you were the Owlman of Mawnan...
Oh yes, I'd forgotten about that!
Coming back to questioning the establishment, I do think that people have become more afraid of doing this. We are of a generation that rememberThe Sex Pistols and talk of Anarchy In The UK. It was a time when there were all kinds of cultural and political protests.
There were a lot of marches, and people like the Greenham Common women...
Why are n't people speaking out more? Why is that?
Tim Shaw's 'Something is not quite right pt1' continues at Anima Mundi until 9/12/17. Pt2 opens at The Exchange 10/2/18.See 'exhibitions' for more photos, and features for the 'open letter'.