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Artist Tim Shaw: 'I felt the vibrations of the bombs nearby, I saw this electric blue air'

Published 02/11/2015

Stark reminder: artist Tim Shaw with Man on Fire, one of his sculptures in the new exhibition
Stark reminder: artist Tim Shaw with Man on Fire, one of his sculptures in the new exhibition
The horrific aftermath of the Bloody Friday IRA bombings in 1972, which still haunt his work
The horrific aftermath of the Bloody Friday IRA bombings in 1972, which still haunt his work
The horrific aftermath of the Bloody Friday IRA bombings in 1972, which still haunt his work
Big picture: Tim in front of one of his own works
Rev Joseph Parker (father of Bloody Friday victim Stephen Parker), his wife Dorothy and children Roger and Karen, prepare for a new life in Canada

A powerful exhibition by Belfast artist Tim Shaw reveals his recollection of the horror of being caught up in Bloody Friday, aged just seven. His work conveys a terrifying picture of one of the darkest days of the Troubles, yet one he says is often forgotten about. Ivan Little reports.

Opening the door into Tim Shaw's powerful and evocative art installation in Banbridge is like taking a step back into a bad dream from Northern Ireland's horrific past.

For this is a room with a view, a deeply disturbing view of one of Belfast's most appalling massacres, Bloody Friday in July 1972, when nine people were killed and 130 others were injured in a frenzied IRA bombardment of up to 20 explosions.

Inside the hazily-lit gallery is a freeze-frame moment in time, a hugely affecting re-creation of a Belfast city centre cafe which has just been rocked by an explosion.

Its nightmarish jumble of flying chairs and upturned tables and cascading trays are suspended in mid-air while on the walls the chaos is re-enforced by projections of slow-moving shadows of terrified customers fleeing from the pandemonium before turning in their panic to run in the opposite direction.

On the tables, on the chairs and on the floor are purses, shoes, umbrellas, coats and handbags which have been discarded by terrified customers as they stampede for safety.

It's a walk-through immersive installation and in a corner lies what looks like a corpse, wrapped in plastic bags, similar to the ones fire-fighters used to collect body parts on that dreadful summer afternoon.

For anyone old enough to remember Bloody Friday, the exhibition is an all-too-real reminder of the way Belfast was during that 80-minute onslaught of bombings and from all around the gallery a non-stop surround sound of whining alarms and sirens adds to the assault on the senses in the claustrophobic and smoke-filled space.

For artist Tim Shaw, who was born in north Belfast in 1964 but who now lives in Cornwall where he has carved out a reputation for himself as one of Britain's top figurative sculptors, his representation of Bloody Friday isn't the product of his imagination or of hours of research in a dusty newspaper library.

Because Tim was himself caught up in the mayhem of the incessant wave of explosions unleashed by the IRA 43 years ago.

He was only seven and the passage of time has confused him as to where he actually was when the first of the bombs started to explode.

He thinks he was in a restaurant in the Royal Avenue area but he concedes that the cafe blast may have happened during another visit to the city centre with his family.

But he says: "I do remember after feeling the vibrations of explosions nearby, I saw this electric blue air and I thought that this was a dangerous situation to be in. It seemed there was a silence followed by a clattering of trays going through the air. And in my memory the people who were trying to get out were shadow-like figures which is how I have shown them in the installation."

Whether or not the restaurant explosion actually occurred on Bloody Friday, Tim recalls running from bomb scene to bomb scene on that fateful day of carnage and he counts himself lucky that he, his mother and his sister were not among the dead or injured.

"We didn't know if we were heading away from one blast or running into another one. I can still see us going up Royal Avenue when someone shouted for us to go another way," he says.

"That terror has always stayed with me and even though I have been making sculptures in relation to the Iraq war and the Middle East for 10 years it was probably inevitable that I would process this vivid and defining early childhood memory into a piece of work."

One teenage boy who lived near Tim was among the dead and at the opening of his new exhibition, Mother the Air is Blue, the Air is Dangerous in the FE McWilliam gallery he dedicated his work to Stephen Parker, who was killed while trying to save other people from a bomb blast on the Cavehill Road.

The 14-year-old boy was only identified by his father the Rev Joseph Parker by a box of trick matches in his pocket and by the shirt and Scout belt he was wearing.

Mr Parker subsequently set up the Witness for Peace movement and, by a tragic twist of terror, Stephen McCann a teenager who composed a song for them called What Price Peace was later abducted and killed by members of the Shankill Butchers gang.

"I want to dedicate the exhibition to all victims of conflict across the world," says Tim, who is passionate in his belief that Bloody Friday should be remembered - and not just here in Northern Ireland.

He adds: "I don't think that many people in other parts of the world know anything about the events of that day. When I was working on what was then an experimental piece about Bloody Friday in a gallery in Athens, everyone there thought it was about Bloody Sunday.

"I don't want to make any comparisons between the two days, of course, but it seems that Bloody Friday, which was an atrocity - a day of madness - is rarely mentioned.

"I recently heard an interview on Radio 4 with a Belfast journalist who had written a book about 1972. The introduction said, 'The year of Bloody Sunday', and in the next breath I assumed they would talk about Bloody Friday. But there wasn't a word and, because of the intensity of the terrorist attack, I found it very hard to believe that it wasn't mentioned.

"To me, it seems that it's a day which has receded from the collective memory, and while I accept that people who were there don't want to talk about it, at the same time, because of the significance of it, I don't think that it should be overlooked"

Tim says he also wants his work to relate to what is going on in the world as well as in Northern Ireland. He adds: "We are living in really crazy times, and so the shadows on the wall in the Bloody Friday installation could be any room across the globe, particularly in the Middle East. It could be people migrating not just to get a better life, but just to get a life."

Tim's work has been highly acclaimed across the world, and in 2013 he was admitted to the Royal Academy. But instead he almost went to work on the Spitting Image TV programme, which lampooned politicians in the Eighties and Nineties.

"Happily however, I decided to follow, the route of fine art, which seemed to the best way to go," says Tim.

Throughout his career, Tim has found massive inspiration in the work of FE McWilliam, the Banbridge-born sculptor in whose honour the gallery on the outskirts of the Co Down town has been developed.

He recalls: "I was still at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen whenever I saw his sculptures for the first time in the Ulster Museum in 1982."

Tim's mother, who encouraged her son throughout his formative years at Manchester Polytechnic and Falmouth University, later urged him to write to McWilliam to introduce himself, and despite his reservations he did send him a letter, which was rewarded with a quick reply.

McWilliam invited Tim to visit him in his home in London's Holland Park where he looked at his portfolio, and was very supportive of him. He even introduced Tim to a gallery owner, who then agreed to stage an exhibition.

"I asked FE to come to my show, and he only agreed to attend if I promised to go to his exhibition, which was opening the next night just around the corner in London," says Tim. "Of course I went, but, sadly, three months later, FE passed away."

One of McWilliam's best known bronzes has been included in Tim's exhibition in Banbridge, and it has resonant echoes of his own work. The piece from McWilliam's Women in Belfast series depicts a casualty of the Abercorn bombing in Belfast in March 1972 flying through the air.

Tim says: "I found the sculptures striking because they were dealing in a very direct way with the Troubles because war is something that many artists choose to ignore. His work was an inspiration to me subconsciously, so I wanted to integrate my exhibition with FE McWilliam's sculpture."

A small version of one of Tim's most stunning creations stands nearby. It's based on a famous picture of a British soldier whose tank was set on fire with petrol bombs in Basra in Iraq in 2005, before he clambered from the armoured vehicle in flames. The piece, which is called Man on Fire: What God of Love Inspires such Hate in the Hearts of Men, was also influenced by the images of the terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport and Tim's own experiences of getting himself caught up in a riot in Belfast 10 years ago when cars were being set on fire all around him.

"I ended up in the middle of it because of my own curiosity and stupidity but I managed to get the hell out of it, he says.

Not far from Man on Fire, which has recently been acquired by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, is another sculpture, Tank on Fire, from the same incident in Iraq.

And it is from the same warzone that one of Tim's most publicised pieces comes. It is a 17-feet tall steel sculpture called Casting a Dark Democracy, which he made after seeing an iconic photograph of a hooded torture victim in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Tim adds: "It also relates more broadly to conflict through the ages. It is reminiscent of something that could have been dug out of the earth from long ago."

Not all of Tim's sculptures have been on the theme of war. He was also commissioned to make the Rites of Dionysus, which is one of the best-known works of art housed at the Eden Project visitor attraction in Cornwall, southern England.

Four years ago, Queen drummer Roger Taylor unveiled a huge bronze Tim Shaw statue in the centre of Truro in Cornwall.

The 15-feet sculpture was of a drummer and was commissioned by the local authorities as a symbol of the Cornish spirit and culture.

However Tim's statue sparked an Ulster-style row among puritans in Truro because the drummer was completely naked, prompting Freddie Mercury's sidekick Taylor to point out: "No anatomical part of it was modelled on me."

  • Tim Shaw's exhibition, Mother, the Air is Blue, the Air is Dangerous continues at the FE McWilliam Gallery, Banbridge, until January 30, 2016. Admission is free. For further information go to www.femcwilliam.com

Belfast Telegraph

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