Tim Shaw

Kenneth Armitage Foundation

Far off almost anyone’s London contemporary art map is Kensington, the posh residential neighborhood where the only galleries are the sort that might be expected to exhibit small bronze figurines—like this foundation, sited in the former studio of the prominent postwar sculptor Kenneth Armitage. And small bronze figurines, by the little-known midcareer sculptor Tim Shaw, do occupy the top floor, which made the installation hidden at the back all the more astonishing.

Shaw has spent part of his two-and-a-half-year residency here building Casting a Dark Democracy, 2007–2008, a gargantuan, more than sixteen-foot-high sculpture of a hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner, and it is shockingly powerful. Shaw’s classical training allowed him to craft this giant (made of steel, barbed wire, and black plastic) to pitch-perfect recognizability. After Richard Serra’s flat and disappointing drawing of the same figure, Stop Bush, 2004, I’d assumed that no artwork could ever match the impact of the actual newspaper photos, but Casting succeeds. In this tall, windowless space—part chapel, part prison cell—the noted Christian connotations (crucifixion, stigmata) were oddly supplanted by pagan overtones, recalling Burning Man or some secret cult. From the entranceway, the work was a massively imposing vision; from underneath, one could see that it is hollow, as if torn open and shredding, ghostly and overwhelming.

Followers of contemporary art might instinctively recoil from Casting as an obsolete example of the eighteenth-century sublime, combining terror, immense scale, awe, and beauty. Artists now tend to chronicle our times via the gaps or edges of history—for example Mark Wallinger’s brilliant State Britain, 2007, his re-creation of an antiwar street protest encampment. Casting is a conventional monument, effectively following in the outmoded footsteps of, say, the 1954 Iwo Jima Memorial, which similarly rendered in metal a war’s most visually communicative photograph. But Shaw’s transposition of monumental subject matter from heroic victor to tortured enemy is quite a turnaround.

This is a truly gothic work; like the genre’s best literary or filmic practitioners, Shaw adopts the formal conventions (claustrophobia, shadows, scale, even the play of surfaces that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has identified as central to the gothic) to speak of disintegrating histories and taboos, triggering our basic emotions and fears to subvert the possibility of a passive response. And, honestly, finding oneself alone with this two-story specter was frightening. Casting a Dark Democracy is the stuff of nightmares, wherein the victim—martyr and master, monster and monument—returns to terrify the perpetrator. Like the worst of gothic, Casting is literal, theatrical, apocalyptic. Yet it is an unforgettable indictment of the dehumanizing effects of war, far more so than the ICA’s thoughtful, up-to-date, but anecdotal and finally forgettable “Memorial to the Iraq War” exhibition of 2007, in which, for example, Jeremy Deller proposed twinning an Iraqi city with one in Britain, and Khalil Rabah challenged viewers to assemble a map of Iraq. Casting succeeded in prompting its intended, old-fashioned, “never forget” feeling; my greatest shock, standing in its suffocating presence, was realizing that just four years on, I’d actually almost forgotten those awful images. In the postelection euphoria of autumn 2008, Casting was a sobering reminder of barbaric wartime policies scarcely behind us. This symbol of trampled human rights returns, towering monstrously above us, its message more urgent and compelling than ever.

Gilda Williams