British-born and -based artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster skilfully skirt the boundaries between beauty and the shadowier aspects of humanity, playing with our perceptions as well as our notions of taste. Many of their most notable pieces are made from piles of rubbish, with light projected against them to create a shadow image entirely different to that seen when looking directly at the deliberately disguised pile.
The photo above shows White Trash (With Gulls), one of Webster and Noble’s earliest trash-based pieces. Six months’ worth of household waste plus a pair of dead seagulls comprise the heap of refuse. It’s no accident that it took the couple a further six months to make the piece, during which time they were eating and consuming – as you do. On the wall, the shadow figure self-portraits of the artists take a break with a cigarette and a glass of wine.
Less within the domain of disgust, the trash pile in Real Life Is Rubbish is constructed out of studio instead of everyday waste. Tools that the artists would eventually run out of – like a screwdriver that serves as Noble’s nose – and discarded items such as used up brass polish are piled together. Out of the apparent jumble of chaos, two perfectly formed silhouettes of the artists emerge.
That the next piece, entitled HE/SHE, looks to display shadows of Noble and Webster urinating is less shocking given that the artists have often chosen to deal with ostensibly cruder themes in their collaborative work. Having met whilst studying at university in Nottingham in the late ’80s, the couple later moved to London, where they gained a reputation for being rebels of the art scene, not content with the position of artist as celebrity.
Notwithstanding their distaste for the conventional, Webster and Noble’s sculptures and installations are not only brilliantly conceived but consummately executed. The second image above of HE/SHE shows more clearly the junk sculpture from which the image of Noble emerges in the light of the projector.
Not all of Noble and Webster’s work uses low grade materials drawn from the rubbish dump or the scrap yard – like this welded scrap metal piece of rat love. No, some of it borrows from the aesthetics of the shopping mall or the Las Vegas light show, with flashing displays and gaudy neon inspired by some of the most crass that culture has to offer. As far as the artists are concerned, it’s all worth recycling.
Yet the idea of reusing materials to create art gets one of its most visceral treatments in this last piece. Casting the by now familiar shadows of the artists’ profiled heads – severed and impaled on spikes in this case – the sculptures are composed of various mummified animals. A nod, perhaps, to aspects of popular culture like vulgar living history, it’s another work by this irreverent pair that might mean you now look at all kinds of trash and waste in a rather different light.