Overview by Michael Toseland on Tim Shaw RA Casting a Dark Democracy

RWA Volunteer Michael Toseland picked Casting a Dark Democracy by Tim Shaw, one of the iconic images of the exhibition ‘Shock and Awe: Contemporary Artists at War and Peace‘ to focus on. Michael has written about how the piece made him feel and the wider subjects the artwork tackles.


Imposing is a word well equipped to describe Casting a Dark Democracy, unforgiving in its honesty, its truth and emotional intensity,  it is a piece that is perhaps a look upon human suffering at its upmost submissive and a sobering snap shot into the depths of our nature.

The subject itself is one of a hooded prisoner from the Iraqi prisons of Abu Ghraib. The figure, Poised mercifully as a penitent figure reminiscent of Goya, endows the viewer with a sense of responsibility, an ethical question into the futility of suffering.


The materials themselves such as rusted steel, barbed wire, black polythene and electrical cable seem soiled by earth as if dragged kicking and screaming from the depths of her belly. A creature born of oil, of greed, of hate, of fear, of war as if not from this world but a darker other.

The underlying skeletal figure is more human, weak, feeble in its attempt to manage the weight of material bestowed upon its shoulders. A primitive, brutal image itself described by Shaw as ‘medieval’.

A pitiful figure, submissive to the hate and fear of war, submissive to our barbarism holds out its hands as if to god. Reminiscent of a Greek god of old bringing fear through power, here we see the symbol of our own fear.

This is the realization of our nature, of the sickness of our fear. The almost too human hands seeming unusually soft, plump and welcoming for such a figure are held, palms out as if yearning for human comfort. The culturaly etched crucifiction image unavoidably lurking in the subconscious.

It is a piece that forces us to ask of ourselves what it is to be human. To be human is to stretch out the hand, to offer comfort to the suffering and to shed light on the darkness of fear. These are the things we idealize and longingly grasp onto as our definition of human nature despite unimaginable examples suggesting the contrary to be true.

Shaw ultimately has presented us with the opportunity to confront crucial questions, both on our intrinsic nature and on our value of morality and humankind itself.


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