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Arts & Culture

Sculptor Tim Shaw Serves Up Immersive Installation 'Beyond Reason'

Entering Tim Shaw's immersive art installation "Soul Snatcher Possession," now on exhibit through Feb. 24 at San Diego Museum of Art.
Tim Shaw
Entering Tim Shaw's immersive art installation "Soul Snatcher Possession," now on exhibit through Feb. 24 at San Diego Museum of Art.

Northern Irish artist has first U.S. exhibit at San Diego Museum of Art

Sculptor Tim Shaw Serves Up Immersive Installation 'Beyond Reason'
GUESTS: Tim Shaw, artist Beth Accomando, KPBS arts reporter

Northern Irish sculptor Tim Shaw has the first US exhibit of his immersive exhibit beyond reason at the San Diego Museum of Art PBS arts reporter batok Amando speaks with the artist and has him take us through two of the psychological charged installations. Can you tell me how you first got interested in creating art as a 13 14 years of age. And you know at that time I was probably considered as quite a disruptive child as well. Teacher had the idea that I should work with some clay Ann's program on minds I thought would have great material to throw around the room. And I asked what what you want me to do with the clay and he said why don't you make some heads and. Body parts and. So I started creating these heads ands really as if by magic just fun to release with the. Material and. Felt I couldn't really absorb myself in. In the creation of these heads that I made at the time. I felt at that time that. This is something. That I was I was going to be an artist. And I remember Coneheads and. Passing a bookshop and say a. Book in the window and the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Which I bought. And then Redd's. From one length of the street to the next time. As. There was really put in place in my mind. This is what I would be doing for the rest of my life. And it's pretty much been up ever since. I am. Tom explain what's behind you here. This is a robotic word holds the birth of Brecht clone. See you soon. Flash of separation ignites. The. Dirt. It's really about using. Modern day technology robotics and I to really analyze and to look at what it is to exists and to ask the big questions. It doesn't have the answers but. I would like to think that it certainly inspires thoughts and those questions are really about we know what is. What do we mean by the words the words when we say human spirit. And what I really find fascinating about it is when he looks at you you feel kind of this weird humanity going on there. So working on through the creative process of that I began thinking about well hard to create the form around the robots and you know what to reveal of the robotic structure and whatnot. And I arrived at this form. Through a process really of decisions that. You know in the end. It's fine to reveal the robotics because. It's part of the work. It's an integration between sculpted form and robotics ends with that. Once we got it up and moving and saying things I began to realize that actually you know you can. Make these things. Have a sense of humanity. Not. To. Be here. And why is it important for you as an artist to have installation pieces like this that really engage in if it's not like you can just walk through here and take a look. You know take a look at this. It's you have to take some time to listen to what he's saying and to kind of. Take a moment to let yourself be engaged by this. I think actually from the beginning I've always tried to. The large projects of tried to make immersive in some way. That draws the viewer in. And makes them walk around in amongst it. So tell us the name of this piece and a little bit about it. This is so such a possession. I mean it's 2012 and it's it figures in a room that are fabricated from all clothes and pillows on metal frames and the piece is really very much about what truth can be fabricated to suit the needs of those in power. Talk a little bit about how this is actually installed here in the sense that when somebody comes in here rounding a corner and there's a door. Yes so this you enter the gallery and you see a corridor in front with a light dim dim lit light bulb. You walk down the corridor and you turn and there's a door that's ajar half open. The first image you see is that of what I call the blind Wissler that the left is the scenario where in the middle. Somebody has been hooded and tied up and they are surrounded by three other figures. The three other figures are doing something but you don't quite know what they're doing. Because there's no knife or gun. But you know that there's a sense of threat impending threat there and often the corner is another figure kneeling and tied around and then over in the other corner there's a man that. Is looking overlooking a woman against the wall who appears to be drugged in some way. So there's a sense of ambiguity. In this in that in the whole atmosphere as well. But you know something something is going on that's not quite right and people actually get to walk through this. It's not something you look at through the doorway. Oh yeah yeah it's really important. That's you know again with a lot of work I create that it's experiential that you come into the room and you walk amongst these figures and the figures the scale of the figures is slightly larger than the average height of a person. So this is sort of an imposing aspect about them and talk about the sound element. You were talking about how there's your hearing kind of outside the room. Whenever I was creating this piece I commissioned a signed piece for it because I use sun in my work and when it was additions in the space I asked the assistant to turn it off and immediately I could hear the sounds of people on the street and outside beyond these walls. And that seemed to me what the signs for this should really be about that within these walls. Something terrible. Could be happening whilst. Out beyond the walls normal life continues on. And so there's the separation. Between these two worlds and that separation is the two components the two worlds are not far apart. Neighbouring in fact. That was artist Tim Shaw speaking with Beth Komando for a video of the installation go to Beths cinema Junkie blog at PBS dot org. Beyond reason it continues through February of next year at San Diego Museum of Art.

Northern Irish sculptor Tim Shaw has the first U.S. exhibit of his immersive installation "Beyond Reason" at San Diego Museum of Art. His psychologically charged environments raise questions about terrorism and abuse of power.

VIDEO: Sculptor Tim Shaw Serves Up Immersive Installation 'Beyond Reason'

Entering Shaw’s "Soul Snatcher Possession" at San Diego Museum of Art is like going into a disturbing haunted house designed by Amnesty International where what’s scary is the fact that it’s completely rooted in the horrors of the real world.

Shaw describes the installation on his website as: "a metaphor for the violent extraction of soul, the manipulation of mind and 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."

I spoke with Shaw as he was finalizing the installation of his exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art earlier this month, and he guided me through "Soul Snatcher Possession."

"You enter the gallery, and you see a corridor with a dim lit light bulb, and you walk down a corridor, and you turn, and there’s a door that’s ajar, and the first image you see is the Blind Whistler.

"Then to the left is a scenario where, in the middle, somebody has been hooded and tied up, and they are surrounded by three other figures," Shaw said. "These three other figures are doing something, but you don’t quite know what they are doing because there’s no knife or gun, but you know there is a sense of impending threat. Then off in the corner is another figure kneeling and tied with a set of ears stuck onto its head, then over in the other corner is a man that is overlooking a woman against the wall who appears to be drugged in some way, and you don’t quite know, and this is the ambiguity of the work is that you don’t really know what is going on. There’s a sense of ambiguity in the whole atmosphere as well, but you know that something is going on that’s not quite right."

One of the figures in Tim Shaw's "Soul Snatcher Possession" immersive installation piece that is part of "Beyond Reason" at San Diego Museum of Art.
Tim Shaw
One of the figures in Tim Shaw's "Soul Snatcher Possession" immersive installation piece that is part of "Beyond Reason" at San Diego Museum of Art.

The construction of the piece forces the viewer to engage in the scene depicted. The first thing you see is the blind man, which by itself is striking but not disturbing. But then as you enter the room and are confronted by a scene that is ambiguous yet intensely ominous, and it challenges you to consider if you will be the blind man, unaware of what is going on next to you or if you are willing to address the issues before you. To intensify that feeling, you can hear the normal sounds of the world outside while walking through the installation.

"Within these walls, something terrible could be happening whilst out beyond the walls normal life continues on," Shaw said. "But I do want to make the point that there are those that exist in life whose lives can be ruled by and be manipulated by fear. And those in power can use fear and the threat of violence in order to manipulate individual or society even. If you don’t do the things that are expected of you then there may be consequences to that."

Even the materials Shaw chooses to work with add layers of meaning to the piece as well.

"It’s eight figures in a room," Shaw explained. "They are fabricated from old clothes and pillows and metal frames. And the piece is really very much about how truth can be fabricated to suit the needs of those in power."

For Shaw, art needs to be interactive.

"Interaction is very important," he said. "I would call it engagement, and I do believe in creating art that in some way captivates the imagination and engages the viewer to a point where they look at something, and it’s got a life force of its own."

The robotic sculpture "The Birth of Breakdown Clown" by Tim Shaw.
Roland Lizarondo
The robotic sculpture "The Birth of Breakdown Clown" by Tim Shaw.

This is especially true of his sculpture "The Birth of Breakdown Clown," a mesmerizing mix of artificial intelligence and robotic sculpture that’s part of the "Beyond Reason" exhibit.

Although Breakdown Clown makes no attempt to hide its wires, pistons and armature, you quickly forget you are interacting with a robot. There’s undeniable humanity in its eyes that seek you out in the small room.

"Look at me and look at you," Breakdown Clown says to visitors. "I am standing here with all my wires, soft fleshy bits and metal frame, and you there with your stringy bits too, flesh warm and bone frame."

"It’s really about using modern day technology, robotics, AI to ask the big questions, it doesn’t have the answers, but I would like to think that it inspires thought," Shaw said.

This existential clown holds us rapt with questions that touch on terrorism, abuse of power and what it is that makes us human. Being in San Diego, Breakdown Clown can’t help but talk about the Wall and the unwanted that it hopes to keep out.

"But I think the robot asks, 'well, what side are the unwanted on? Are they on that side or this side? Is it about keeping them in or keeping them out?' The robot is a bit perplexed by this," Shaw said.

The robot also suggests there’s a bigger wall than the physical wall being proposed for the border.

"And that’s the wall or the distinction between the rich and the very poor so this is all coming from the robot, this individual that is aside from humanity but observing it and trying to make some distinctions and points that hopefully one can take away and think about," Shaw added.

That’s the brilliance of Shaw’s art — it demands that the viewer participate in some way. It’s not entertainment, but it’s gripping and provocative in ways that stay with you long after you have left the exhibit.

Take another piece in the exhibit, "Mother the Air is Blue, the Air is Dangerous." Again Shaw keeps the immersive experience intimate and only allows two people at a time to enter a room that essentially gives you a kind of frozen moment in the midst of a bomb blast. You are inside a foggy cafeteria, tables and chairs and turned over, and silhouetted figures run away in projected images on the wall. The only movement is the slow spinning of trays suspended in midair. It is a chilling and eerie scene.

The scene depicted in the immersive installation piece "Mother the Air is Blue, the Air is Dangerous" part of Tim Shaw: Beyond Reason exhibit at San Diego Museum of Art.
Tim Shaw
The scene depicted in the immersive installation piece "Mother the Air is Blue, the Air is Dangerous" part of Tim Shaw: Beyond Reason exhibit at San Diego Museum of Art.

"This particular piece is based on an experience called Bloody Friday and it was the day in which the IRA planted 26 bombs, at least 19 of which went off," Shaw said. "I was in a restaurant with my mother and friend and his mother when a bomb went off below the restaurant, and it was a firebomb, and we all got out. It’s based on memory that being, when the bomb went off, it felt like the atmosphere, it went larger and tight like a balloon ready to burst. And this is blue air, and you could hear the clatter of trays as they flew through the air so everybody ran and so that’s what the shadows relate to. So it’s very much about trying to explain that sense of mind that is beyond terror, a world where things are occurring and sense of hypnosis so the trays slowly revolve around."

With this piece in particular, Shaw has a clear message he wants people to consider.

"What happened then still happens today all around the world, this is what happens when talks break down, and people walk away from the table, and I guess it’s also about the importance of being at the table and not walking away from it till an agreement is sought," Shaw said.

Shaw said it is vital for artists to look to what is going on in the real world and to make sure power does not go unchecked: "Otherwise, I do believe that civilization crumbles."

"Beyond Reason" uses bold, immersive art to jolt viewers out of passivity and complacency as it questions our humanity. Kudos to the San Diego Museum of Art for showcasing politically charged work to illuminate the darkest depths of society.

The six installation pieces of Shaw’s "Beyond Reason" will be on display through Feb. 24 at the San Diego Museum of Art.