‘Black Smoke Rising’ at Aberystwyth Arts Centre – powerful, unnerving and devastatingly affecting

AFTER hearing from those who had viewed sculptor Tim Shaw’s art exhibition Black Smoke Rising, I visited with the belief that this would be an incredibly powerful experience – the kind of art display that keeps you pondering for days after. However, nothing prepared me for the overwhelming emotional response I had and, dare I say it, mild nausea I felt at being immersed in this stunning experience. Shaw’s exhibition takes its contextual inspiration from the socio-political scandals and human suffering which arose in the early years of the Iraq war. However, despite the political specificities largely linked to the exhibition, at its heart the message is a simple moralistic one of the need for peace and human understanding.

blacksmokeThe concept of the unidentifiable runs throughout the exhibition. Indeed, it is as if the sculptural forms on display are, in many ways, faceless; masked visages, and other figures so charred in appearance that they barely cohere to a recognisable human form. The literal facelessness becomes metaphorical – serving as a reminder of the universal nature of pain and suffering which can befall the human race. This is especially potent in Shaw’s immersive re-imagining of Abu Ghraib prison, entitled ‘Soul Snatcher Possession’. Claustrophobic and truly unnerving, it re-asserts the horrifying malice which mankind is both able to endure and instigate.

The scale of human suffering is perhaps no stronger felt than through another of Shaw’s sculptural exhibits, entitled ‘Man on Fire’. The blackened form takes its inspiration from photographs of British soldiers ablaze after petrol bombs had exploded upon their tanks. From one angle, light surrounds the charred mass, giving the effect of an almost divine aura emerging from the horror. What is created is a deeply moving, yet simultaneously horrifying, reflection on the moment between life and death – fraught with fear and hope, light and darkness.

Meanwhile, the exhibition’s defining artwork, entitled ‘Casting A Dark Democracy’ is based upon a photograph which sent shockwaves around the world back in 2004. The photograph depicts an Iraqi prisoner, held at Abu Ghraib prison, standing upon a box with electric wires attached to their arms, unidentifiable under a hood and a large poncho-like sackcloth. Should the prisoner have fallen, they would have been electrocuted. Shaw’s sculptural evocation of this infamous image is truly overwhelming to behold; like a singed, apocalyptic wicker man, it stands as an ominous and distressing reminder of the toll of human conflict.

Moving from each exhibit, I felt an increasing sense of emotional breathlessness. Sounds of drums pounding, and the smell of chemicals and oil added to the choking realism. As overly dramatic as it may sound, I emerged from the gallery feeling happy to see the light again. An evocative, harrowing exhibition and a must see.

Tim Shaw’s Black Smoke Rising is on display until 18th November at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Gallery 1.