An Interview with Jeremy Shaw, Winner of the 2016 Sobey Art Award


Multidisciplinary artist Jeremy Shaw, winner of the 2016 Sobey Art Award, is known for his edgy, highly intimate film and video depictions of altered states of being in fashion, dance, science, religion and various subcultures.

Raised in Vancouver, Shaw attended the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. Currently based in Berlin, Germany, Shaw has had solo exhibitions at venues including MoMA PS1 in New York, the Schinkel Pavillon in Berlin, and MOCCA in Toronto. His work has also been featured in group exhibitions at such institutions as Stedelijk Museum in The Netherlands, the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

Renowned for mesmerizing works such as The Quickeners (2014) and Variation FQ (2013), Shaw’s practice often focuses on transcendent experiences induced by drugs, science, art, and religious rapture. Whether repurposing vintage footage or recording the hypnotic movies of a vogueing dancer, Shaw has an uncanny ability to explore and capture the visible expressions of unseen realities.

As the winner of this year’s Sobey Award, Shaw receives a $50,000 prize. In addition, his work is presented, along with that of the other finalists, in the Sobey Art Award exhibition, on view at the National Gallery of Canada until February 5, 2017.

Interviewed by NGC Magazine the day after his win, Shaw talks here about his fascination with out-of-body experiences.


Jeremy Shaw, Variation FQ, 2013, 16mm film with original soundtrack, dimensions variable, 11:02 minutes, film still

NGC Magazine: Congratulations! How do you feel about being named as the 2016 winner of the Sobey Award?

Jeremy Shaw: I feel great. It’s a nice affirmation of what I’ve been doing. But I also feel really torn because every one of the finalists is so strong. The exhibition is five really individual, unique positions on contemporary art.

NGCM: Why is this award important to an artist like you at this stage in your career?

JS: It’s recognition that people have been taking note of what I’ve been doing for the past 15 years of my life, or are taking note now. Artists work in obscurity a lot of the time, and there isn’t a lot of public recognition. Artists can work for years on things without any recognition. For me, it’s a confirmation that what I’m doing is being heard; it’s being seen.

NGCM: The jury said, “Jeremy Shaw’s work speaks to a fundamental longing for transcendence.” Is this a personal longing you are reflecting, or do you think we all have this longing?

JS: I think it’s inherent in all of us. Since the dawn of mankind, we have all been attempting to escape the physical, escape the present. I think it’s what makes us human. To me it is one of our true characteristics as a species: this desire to have a body and also to want to get out of it, however you choose to do that.

NGCM: Do you feel this is what art is supposed to do: transcend us, remove us from the everyday, uplift us?

JS: I think that is a huge thing that art can do. This idea of transformative experiences with art is very important, and it’s why a lot of artists make art. It’s something I’m very interested in, and something I’ve had my own experiences with.

NGCM: You explore the interconnectedness of science and religion. What similarities did you find between these two disciplines?

JS: Faith. Science has faith at its core. It came from a certain amount of belief. I’m very interested in science attempting to explain religious experiences, and attempting to quantify what’s happening when someone is having a religious experience. But yeah, I think it all comes down to the need to believe in something. I think science and religion are key examples of that.

Jeremy Shaw, Transcendental Capacity (Billboard Hot 100 Songs of 1984): Thompson Twins, “Hold Me Now,” 2013, scanned Kirlian Polaroid, 8.5 x 10.8 cm. Photo: Roman März

NGCM: What drew you to explore this state of being transformed, these “altered states”?

JS: Even when I was really young, I was drawn to films that had ghosts or paranormal things in them. I’m very drawn to Norman McLaren’s (1968 short dance film) Pas de Deux. This attraction was in me, and I fostered it. But I was also drawn to other people’s experiences, and a universal desire to have this kind of experience. It’s been an arc of interest, but it all boils down to the transcendent.

NGCM: Some of these religious states of being can look very much like modern dance. What does that say about this act of being transformed — either by a deep religious pull, or by immersing yourself into an artistic practice?

JS: I think there’s a sense of abandon. You know how some people lift their arms in the air? I always see it as victory and submission at the same time. There’s joy, or terror, but then there’s submission in it as well. You have to let yourself go.

NGCM: You see this state of euphoria in many paintings by the Old Masters, for example. Are these painters among your influences?

JS: Now when I go back, yes. But not from the get-go. I’m a child of the 1980s, and I grew up watching music videos and getting very into documentary films and going to concerts, being part of the rave scene early on, and really being moved by that. Places where you were trying to achieve that experience without religion. But now when I re-visit those paintings, yes, I see that fine line between what is ecstasy and what is pure terror. And I think that is something I try to touch upon as well.

Jeremy Shaw, Quickeners, 2014, HD video installation with original soundtrack, dimensions variable, 36:43 minutes, film still

NGCM: Who else influences your work?

JS: My work is influenced by cinema a lot, music videos, documentary films. As far as artists go, there have been many, but a lot of my influences come from popular culture, psychedelia, and various filmmakers: French writer, documentary film director and multimedia artist Chris Marker; Canadian filmmaker and director David Cronenberg. I also pull things out of terrible movies. I have a pretty wide palette of what I enjoy.

NGCM: How has being based in Berlin changed or augmented your art practice?

JS: When I first moved there, it was very affordable, and that gives you more time and more space. I also find Berlin to be an incredibly liberal and tolerant place. I don’t know if it changed my practice, but my practice was allowed to change, and was given the time to evolve in a very positive way.

NGCM: Would you like to return to Canada to practice art?

JS: I really don’t feel that I have ever left. I don’t know when — I don’t see it in the near future — but I’ll never not be a Canadian artist, that’s for sure.

NGCM: What would you like to create next? Do you have any specific projects you can tell us about?

JS: I’m working on a couple of different things: a new film/video work, as well as continuing on this trajectory of optical sculptures that I’ve been making — these custom-made acrylics in a prism that goes in front of a photograph and optically affects the photograph I’m using.

NGCM: What advice do you have for emerging artists?

JS: When you fail, don’t worry about it. I grew up heavily influenced by David Bowie. He failed many, many times. But he never looked back. And we only remember the good parts. Although, in hindsight, even the bad parts were good.

The Sobey Art Award exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until February 5, 2017. A line-up of exciting programs will be offered in conjunction with the exhibition, including tours and talks, and opportunities to meet art experts. To learn more, please visit the Sobey Art Award website.

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