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Following the torches as they dipped and swayed in the darkness, they climbed mountain paths with head thrown back and eyes glazed, dancing to the beat of the drum which stirred their blood (or ‘staggered drunkenly with what was known as the Dionysus gait’) ‘In this state of ekstasis or enthusiasmos, they abandoned themselves, dancing wildly and shouting ‘Euoi!’ (the god’s name) and at that moment of intense rapture became identified with the god himself. They became filled with his spirit and acquired divine powers.

Euripides in Delphi by Peter Hoyle

For the modern astronomer one universe is not enough. New observations suggest other universes separate from our own. Strange quirks in the radiation from the Big Bang from which our universe exploded billions of years ago may indicate the pull of other universes that predate the one we know. Out there, things may not be as they have seemed.

On a parallel path, artists have long realised that behind our personal experience lie other worlds. This is the realm of Tim Shaw’s art; the meeting of the conscious and the unconscious mind. Throughout his career, Shaw has felt that it’s his job to draw out something from these other worlds and present them to us. In ‘Awaken from the Dream of Reality’ he does so by examining one of the oldest forms of human activity – ritual.

All rituals have one key component – repetition. It’s through repetition that ritual does its work. Each ritual, old or new, has its established form, place and date in our lives: the baptism of children, the ringing of bells, singing a sacred song, passing round the wine or a joint, placing the mobile phone always just so on the table, lovers undressing, updating Facebook, pouring out the tea, laying out the dead. All these rituals take the everyday and load it with an added experience of being human, being individuals, yet together. For Tim Shaw ritual goes further. As for the ancients, for Shaw ritual is a door into another world. He has long been fascinated by human beings’ need to dissolve normality, leave reason behind and reach deeper into our selves. According to Carl Jung, we can only be complete human beings if we reconcile the workings of our conscious and unconscious minds. Tim Shaw instinctively recognises this as a human need. For this reason, ritualistic figures are recurring motifs in his work.

Because of this, each year on May Day, Shaw is to be found wearing his habitual fedora among the crowd at Padstow for the Obby Oss Festival. Anyone who has followed this festival will attest to its strange hold over its participants. The Oss itself looks little like a horse, nor any hobby horse for that matter; it’s a black cylindrical drum propelled wildly by a man wearing what looks like an African mask. As the Oss whirls and sways violently through the village, it is accompanied by drummers and initiates garlanded with spring flowers and occasionally lubricated by beer. The Oss is fun but also violent and predatory. It rushes up to young women, taking them under its black skirts, bestowing fertility. In a softer mood, it stops at the homes of the elderly, bowing tenderly to the inhabitants in a form of benediction. The link is forged between sexuality, death and rebirth.

In late evening the crowd sings the Oss a lullaby. Tears stream down faces, fingertips stretch out for one last blessing before the Oss goes into its stable until the following spring. The ritual ends, the Oss sleeps, the village snaps out of the dream. Time rushes forward again, the fishing boats bob in the harbour, there are children to get to school. But the inner spirit is refreshed, the life force recharged. Shaw also sees a further dimension: the oscillating movement of the Oss is reminiscent of waves on a shore, evoking Padstow’s maritime tradition.

In the exhibition, the Obby Oss is represented both in maquette form and in video.

Shaw’s work emphasises the role of release – and pleasure - through ritual, the intensity of feeling unavailable in the daily round. At a music festival in 2009 he watched a fantastically dressed couple cavort under the influence of ketamine. In the work entitled ‘K’, two masked figures dance crazily under the spell of the drug. With characteristic humour, Shaw has referred to this work by an alternative title, ‘The Bisto Kids Gone Wrong.’ It is apt: one dancer swings wildly, offering the drug on a ladle while, mid-gyration, the other dancer dips forward and accepts the offering, its face surreally distorted to sprout a bee-like proboscis. They are suspended in time for Shaw has transfixed them in sculpture. The moment has the transgressive power of a pagan Annunciation.

In ‘The Rites of Dionysus’, figures also dance, inhabiting a trance-like sensuality in in which they can be penetrated by the god and become exalted. The figures on show are maquettes for the full-scale installation at the Eden Project near St Austell. In this major commission, Shaw was asked to create a work based on man’s relationship with the vine. The god’s followers, the Maenads, dance in a frenzy among the vines. In the centre stands Dionysus in his guise as a bull, representing what Shaw calls ‘the wild force of nature.’

There’s a further link to the Obby Oss with the Armagh Rhymers. In their anthropomorphic costumes they suggest a world in which our human and animal natures conjoin. What is hedonism, enquires Shaw, if it is not to break us out of the humdrum into the magnificent and transformative – and perhaps even towards something dangerous? When The Doors sang, ‘Break on through to the other side’ they called for an experience Shaw would endorse.

The Rhymers are represented here in the three-screen video installation ‘Awake from the Dream of Reality’; including images of the Obby Oss festival and the Ottery St Mary Tar Barrels carnival.

Having long ago turned its back on major Christian themes such as the Holy Family, Western art has not abandoned its interest in the transcendent. So much of the finest modern art has sprung from the spiritual – Malevich, Kandinsky, Brancusi, among others. Shaw’s work calls out in continuation. As the visitor to the exhibition moves from floor to floor, from room to room, he or she will be struck by the range of Shaw’s work and its sources, but also by the unity in diversity.

Tim Shaw’s art is timely work in uncertain times. It’s a call to embrace the physical and the nonphysical – an echo of W B Yeats’s great aching enquiry: ‘how can we know the dancer from the dance?’ Shaw suggests we can all dance and be the better for it.

Don Jordan, 2013

‘In intoxication, physical or spiritual, the initiate recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence had destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly liberated from the prison of everyday preoccupations’

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy


ONLINE CATALOGUE (click below) :




Floor 1 ‘The Rites of Dionsyus’:

Floor 2 ‘Ketamine’ :

Floor 3 ‘Rituals’:



Tim Shaw is a British artist, born in Belfast in 1964. He currently lives in Cornwall. 

Tim Shaw’s sculpture and installation is often dualistic, incorporating current affairs, societal complexity and human conflict with ancient, mythical, metaphysical and primal concerns. Shaw’s powerful oeuvre connects these elements to create wider, timeless portraits of humanity. Shaw is an artist schooled in the traditions of heavy metal casting and academic modelling, however his approach to materials and subjects is totally contemporary. He often creates environments which include sound, light and FX. The tension between tradition and the new, nowness and the ancient, between solidity and breakdown, is an organic part of his worldview, whether he’s looking at the atrocities of Abu Ghraib or the transgression or enlightenment of primitive ritual.

He was elected an Academician at The Royal Academy in 2013 and made a Fellow of The Royal British Society of Sculptors and a Fellow of Falmouth University the same year. Shaw has had a number of significant solo shows throughout the UK, Ireland and internationally. Most recently the major public solo exhibitions ‘What Remains’ and ‘Something is Not Quite Right’ a collaboration between The Exchange and Anima-Mundi, 'Mother the Air is Blue, The Air is Dangerous’ was held in the F.E McWilliam Gallery in Northern Ireland, 'Black Smoke Rising’ toured from Mac Birmingham to Aberystwyth Arts Centre and Back From the Front presents: Shock and Awe – Contemporary Artists at War and Peace at the Royal West of England Academy. He has undertaken a number of public commissions including 'The Rites of Dionysus' for The Eden Project, 'The Minotaur' for The Royal Opera House and 'The Drummer' for Lemon Quay, Truro. A more political side to his work became evident in a number of sculptures responding to the issues of terrorism and The Iraq War. 'Tank on Fire' was awarded the selectors prize at the inaugural Threadneedle Prize in 2008 and the installation 'Casting a Dark Democracy' was reviewed in 2008 by Jackie Wullschlager of The Financial Times as ‘The most politically charged yet poetically resonant new work on show in London’. Shaw has been supported by the Kappatos Athens Art Residency, The Kenneth Armitage Foundation, The British School of Athens,The Delfina Studio Trust through residencies in Greece, Spain and a fellowship in London. Most recently as an Artist Fellow at the Kate Hamburger Centre for Advance Study in the Humanities of 'Law and Culture' In Bonn, Germany where he began work on ’The Birth of Breakdown Clown’ an existential sculptural work utilising sculpture, robotics and AI. Tim Shaw is represented by Anima-Mundi.