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Issue 30 September-October 1996 RSS

Tim Noble and Sue Webster

Independent Art Space, London, UK

This collaborative show, entitled ‘British Rubbish’, consists of two mechanically animated installation works, a number of unframed drawings (of the fashionable, automatist Biro style) stuck to a wall and a 40-page catalogue. The works have an intended cartoon or joke quality, the artists taking pleasure in both ridiculing and celebrating the usual stage props of popular culture: the Union Jack and working class domestic aspiration as represented by B&Q, baked beans and the mucous lappings of transient English seaside sexuality. To these, various social and personal dysfunctions (often relative to the enduring class basis of all things English) are introduced; material that has been well covered by, at least, The Who and The Kinks through to Blur.

Sue Webster and Tim Noble further extend these dysfunctions, in a traditional, English, mocking, punk style, to describe actual or latent violence toward the principal human concerns of work and love in relation to the cultural absolutes of baked beans and Union Jacks. This extension of disorders takes the form of sundry tortures, violent confrontations, self abuses, surrogacies and displacements, damage to property and the ridiculing of other artists’ works - as well as the destruction of nature, the vilification of knowledge and the general spreading of shit according to the theories of Sid Vicious.

In the catalogue and drawings, Noble and Webster make frequent reference to themselves as a couple, describing themselves, à la Gilbert & George, as ‘The Shit’ and ‘The Cunt’ respectively. Six or so of the drawings show The Shit decapitating and abusing The Cunt, although none show The Cunt dismembering The Shit. In a number of other amputations and dismemberings reference is made to the notorious mass-murderer and rapist Frederick West, to whom Noble, as celebrated in the drawings, bears a striking physical resemblance.

The two installation pieces are apparently distinguished on a gender basis, although both artists collaborated on each work. One is about nature and the home, corresponding to the vagina and the female principle, and the other is about received ideas of mechanistic masculinity in the workplace. This piece, Idealistic Nonsense (1996), shows several pristine white boxes, of a high Minimalist art value, around which a number of motorised identical male mannequins industriously saw, hammer and paint. These one-third scale, humorously inane figures originated in the windows of old fashioned repair shops, where they represented the stolid dignity of working-class labour, but here they have a high ironic pop value in relation to the Minimalist art on which they work. This piece takes as a counterpoint one penis joke, not worth explaining, and has as its punchline the excretion of faeces. One of the figures, the one furthest away and hidden from us, is defecating - a glistening turd soiling the pristine white art in a cheeky pollution of, or militant opposition to, the collective workplace activity.

The female work, Everything Was Wonderful (1996), begins with a large plastic topiary hedge spanning the width of the space, which may only be entered via a small aperture. The pubic hedge and its hole are a representation of the external female reproductive tract. This leads to an idealised garden of nature in the form of a stylised diorama, within which mechanised toy rabbits copulate, birds tweet and water runs. In the centre of this is a nest, an ovarian home, containing three eggs. One of these is larger than the others and moves as if about to open. It is the egg of a cuckoo - a bird which has reproductive ethics and family values indifferent to received notions of morality held by BMA ethics committees, newspaper leader writers, the church, or social workers. There is an imminent violence to the idea of the familial home: the fecund heartland of natural goodness turns out to be in Frederick West’s back garden.

In this show, Webster and Noble are engaged in a sometimes enjoyable, sometimes adept, but very confused, struggle with material that is, unsurprisingly, overly potent for them. They are unable to reconcile their cheeky, cuntier-than-thou, class fuckoffism with their art career aspirations and the powerful demons of hatred they have summoned. The statutory 100 years has not yet quite elapsed before West’s tortures of women have become as cheerfully celebrated in their ‘Englishness’ as, for some reason, Jack the Ripper’s.

The works, by being claimed as a collaboration between a male and female artist, in which the female is frequently maimed and tortured, seem to imply a judgement by the artists of a contributory willingness on the part of the victims. If this is not so, we may kindly, if priggishly, wish to give Noble and Webster the benefit of the doubt, regarding the artists as having simply got themselves out of their depth - intellectually, spiritually and artistically.

Neal Brown

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First published in
Issue 30, September-October 1996

by Neal Brown

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