" 'Wie bitte?" I asked innocently. Schwester Silke boomed instructions at me, the piercing sound of her weasley voice searing through my functioning ear like a metal knife scraping a blackboard. 'Schwester Silke ist eine blöde Kuh,' I thought to myself, making a mental note never to say, 'Pardon me,' again." —Catriona Shaw
Scottish artist and musician Catriona Shaw grew up on the Orkney Islands before completing her degree at Edinburgh College of Art, later completing postgraduate studies at Akademie der Bildende Künste, Munich and Universität der Künste, Berlin.
An artist whose practice has shifted seamlessly between the visual arts and making music—and sometimes combining both—her work spans drawing, video, installation, performance and multimedia. Her institutional credits include Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow; Kunsthalle Luzern, Lucerne; Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel; Badische-Kunstverein, Karlsruhe; Lönnström Art Museum, Rauma; Pier Art Centre, Orkney; Kunstwerken (KW), Berlin; Casino, Luxembourg; and the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, among others.
Rising to international visibility in her guise as Miss le Bomb from the vibrant German music scene of the noughties, as a musician she is respected for both her solo projects and for the joint projects she has undertaken with her husband Fred Bigot, across both the "art circuit" and the commercial music arena, including their successful electrodance group Queen of Japan. This saw them perform at a multitude of venues on numerous continents.
Shaw's artistic practice deploys almost unfiltered drawings, often completed rapidly and without extensive pre-planning. She operates like a diarist working through the medium of drawing. The works themselves can be funny, opaque, wry and without easily explained meaning. Describing some of her preoccupations as "popular culture, anthropomorphism, absence and social politics", these all exist in a shared space in which the relative values of each are neither commodified nor graded by importance.
Despite the very personal, almost confessional nature of her drawings, hers is not an egocentric practice that disassociates the experience of the artist/auteur from the broader social context. Perhaps because of her experience in bands, collaboration is a notable feature of her practice, whether collaborating with architects or teenagers from marginalised communities in Berlin's Kreuzberg to create works.
However, the work exhibited by Shaw in True North has not been made through collaboration and has a very clear, personal narrative arc. The opacity, lateral POV and unfiltered recording of life "in the moment" are all there. But, this new body of work reflects a very specific and, frankly, traumatic experience.
In summer 2021, while on holiday in France with her family, Catriona Shaw suffered sudden and profound deafness. Initial medical treatment in France could reveal no obvious aetiology or pathology to explain this sensory loss. This was followed by months of intensive follow-up treatment back in Berlin where she and her family live. During the months it took to get to a near-likely diagnosis, she was frequently hospitalised, undergoing what seemed like endless rounds of observation and testing. During this period she occupied herself and managed her anxieties—imagine the impact of sudden hearing loss to a professional singer and musician—by making numerous small-scale drawings in notebooks.
These drawings—of hospital equipment in her ward or of her son—while in hospital and of her domestic environment at home while waiting for news of results or treatment options open to her are premiered in True North; both a larger drawing-based installation and individual unique works in their own right.
In their installed context, they become amplified. In these works—taken as a whole installation or individually—the foreboding sense of anxiety and risk is palpable in some individual drawings and oddly absent in others. On another level, they operate very much as historic primary source material: an eye witness account of a harrowing human experience; a valuable, unedited register of surviving a storm, like a captain's log from an ill-fated 16-century sea voyage; or the diary of a young woman living through times of political turmoil during the 20th century.