in Features | 11 NOV 04
Featured in
Issue 87

Mirror, Mirror

Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan’s sculptures, installations and performances mine the space between what you want from something and what that something has to give

in Features | 11 NOV 04

‘I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning. Something horrible was happening and yet I couldn’t figure out why – I couldn’t put my finger on it.’
Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho (1991)

Glamour is not compassionate. If it’s compassion you’re looking for, go look elsewhere. Glamour doesn’t care about you and me, the unconsoled. It needs us, though, to work its doubtful magic. And we, believing we need that magic, need it.
Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan’s The Glamour (2000) takes the form of a bank of rubble and pink neon bulbs, reflected in three floor-to-ceiling mirrored panels. Described in such blank, uninflected language, the piece may appear to be an exercise in Formalism, full of small-beer contrasts in surface, heft and hue, or else (if one’s sniffing around for art-historical references) a pub-rock riff on the work of Dan Flavin, Dan Graham, Robert Morris or Robert Smithson. Bask a little in its raspberry glow, however, and The Glamour is transformed into something altogether different. The rubble begins to resemble the crumbly brown softness of expensive lipstick; the flexes on the light fittings surfers’ ripcords, or the tails of slumbering, sun-baked beasts. The mirrors become the sky over Venice Beach, or the savannah, or else (because mirrors can never fully escape their own mythology) the shimmering portals encountered by Narcissus, Merlin or Alice. And yet, for all this, Tatham and O’Sullivan’s installation offers no real passage to a physical or mental elsewhere but is, rather, intractably of our own (very material) world. Strung together like plates of armour, utterly resistant to dialogue, its forms, motifs and references, from Minimalism to Ambre Solaire leisure, are surfaces to slide down. There’s no feeling in The Glamour, and no solace – only the indifference of spectacle.
In Jamieson’s Scottish Dictionary, published in 1816, ‘glamer’ or ‘glamour’ is defined as ‘the supposed influence of a charm on the eye, causing it to see objects differently from what they really are’. It’s possible that the word has its roots in the Icelandic ‘glimbr’, meaning splendour, ‘glam skygn’, meaning squinting or wall-eyed (a condition connected with witchcraft), or the Old English ‘gramayre’, a corruption of the Greek ‘gramma’, meaning letter or letters. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the last of these root words that is most pertinent to Tatham and O’Sullivan’s piece. If we think of its elements – the Smithsonian rubble, the beached-up Flavin-esque bulbs – not as objects but rather as descriptions of objects, or props, its spell begins to dispel. The Glamour is a stage set on which the multiple disappointments of mysticism, 1970s Conceptualism and Pop aesthetics (all, at bottom, to do with the disparity between what you want from something and what that something has to give) are played out.
In 2002 Tatham and O’Sullivan exhibited a second version of The Glamour at the Kunsthalle Palazzo, Switzerland. Here the piece took the form of an oblong of mirrored tiles overlaid with pink neon light fittings and a thicket of fresh, steely, barbed wire. While this re-staging confirms the staginess of the original – with its focus on phrases rather than specific objects – it also points to an important aspect of the artists’ wider practice: the programmatic revisiting, and revision, of several of their key works. Take their project HK, which began with the exhibition, in 2001, of a phalanx of 11 black, six-metre-high letters spelling out the words ‘Heroin Kills’ at Glasgow’s Tramway. The following year the same words adorned Tatham and O’Sullivan’s HK Necklace (2003), a piece of hand-cut 18-carat gold jewellery worn by an invited selection of high-profile, Venice Biennale-bound artists, art dealers and curators, which the artists then subsequently incorporated into the sculpture HK Necklace with Jester (2003), in which the El Lissitzky-meets-LL Cool J-styled necklace is embraced by a shop-bought Swarovski crystal harlequin; the piece appeared, at the artists’ insistence, on their dealer’s stand at Art Basel 2004.
This set of transpositions is a lot to swallow in a single gulp, so perhaps it’s best to begin by rolling the phrase ‘Heroin Kills’ around our mouths, to get used to its peculiar flavour. While it functions, in a sense, as a warning, it is worryingly unspecific. As Lars Bang Larsen has written: ‘It’s not a slogan but it sounds like one, like “smoking kills”, or “speed kills”. But opacity of meaning succeeds the bombast: how does heroin kill? Does it kill everyone or just a few? Who is telling us? Don’t we know already?’1 We do know, of course (we all saw the ads on TV), and that’s what makes the project so uncomfortable. Uttering ‘Heroin Kills’ in Glasgow, a city with a substantial smack problem, seems glibly after the fact, while uttering it in Venice and Basel, especially in the language of fashion, or of rich men’s fripperies, seems glib full-stop. However, what is in play here, and what is important, is not only the continuous emptying-out of an already empty phrase’s meaning, but also the set of permission-giving discourses that allowed this emptying-out to take place. Among these we might number the New Labour idea of art as a public good (Glasgow), the willingness of art world bigwigs to wear Tatham and O’Sullivan’s heroin-chic bling to glamour-heavy openings, dinners and parties (Venice), and even the art market’s adoption of Jeff Koons as a favoured son, on which HK Necklace with Jester depends for much of its commercial lustre (Basel). Ultimately the project exists not in objects, or even in ideas, but in their traffic with, and misappropriation by, power structures. HK is not subversive, if by that we mean something that comes out of the blue to overturn established meanings. Rather, it is an inside job, an act of faux subversion, and one that pleads for itself as the only type of subversion we have left.
If permission is at the heart of the HK project, the same is true of Tatham and O’Sullivan’s Think Thingamajig (2003), a ceramic cube decorated with pink diamonds on a black background that the artists have described as ‘an esoteric object, a thing for thinking’. Thinking about what, though? About the artists’ straw- and black paint-plastered monolith This Has Reached the Limit Conditions of its Own Rhetoric (2003)? About their drawing No, This is the Thing That Has Reached the Limit Conditions of its Own Rhetoric (2003), in which the monolith reappears, this time as a chess piece manoeuvred by a suave, top-hatted gentleman? About their recent sculptural work That is the Way, it is, it is, that is (2004), in which the The Glamour, HK and This Has Reached… projects are smooshed together in what is at once a caricature of the artists’ oeuvre, a mini-retrospective and, quite possibly, an endgame in which each element cancels the other elements out?
In fact, it does not help us think about these objects at all. It, like them, is a prop, a decoy. Its only purpose is to get us to think about thinking, and who might want us to do that thinking, and why. This may seem meagre, but it has its consolations. Thinking doesn’t disappoint us or compromise us. Thinking guides us through glamour. Thinking is where compassion lives.

1 Lars Bang Larsen, Joanne Tatham & Tom O’Sullivan, edited by Will Bradley, Tramway/Modern Institute, Glasgow 2002 p.3