Shadows of Perception

Specters of material meaning in Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s choreography of life’s debris

These are sly works. Deceptively careless heaps of trash littering a gallery floor. Or the fragmented remains of the farm cat bonded together on a stick like a vagrant’s shish kabob. The stuff you throw away. In the basest way of experiencing the work, your brain wants to quickly file it away as mounds of waste, but then the shadows these sculptures cast bare an astounding revelation: human silhouettes.

It is this thrill of perception and illusion that make the staggering works of British artists Sue Webster and Tim Noble so gratifying. Meanings oscillate between the non-art trash materials and the shadowy figures they emit. Animal remains draped and joined on a post create vicious shadows of human heads impaled on pikes, à la Old London Bridge’s notorious display of traitors’ severed domes.

The direct relationship between the materials that Webster and Noble choose triggers literal associations that are humorous, ironic, evocative and well-conceived. “Much of our shadow-based work is an art of direct circumstance where the use of material adds meaning through its interpretation,” says Webster. “The process often feels like you’re giving three visual experiences in one work. First of all, you have the sculpture which is intriguingly abstract. In many cases, the material content adds narrative, and when the light source is activated, it transforms the abstract into the representational through its shadow.” The idea came about as they were working on one of their neon light pieces in the dark. A beam of light hit a pile of crap that cast a shadow Noble mistook for his wife’s face. “Necessity is the mother of all invention,” says Webster romantically. “It was a happy accident.”

The couple met in art school, under the influence of circumstance and bad habits. Webster, already in trouble for late enrollment after having followed a Siouxsie and The Banshees tour across Europe, met her counterpart in passing through the principal’s office as he too was late. “I guess it was bad timing,” she jests. As they struggled financially after college, traditional art materials were scarce. Resourceful invention was a compulsory act, a survival tactic. Says Noble, “When you’ve no gallery representation or institutional support structure, your imagination goes wild; you start improvising, and once you start improvising, you start to make things out of anything just lying around. You just seem to give birth to something.”

It is a sort of alchemy: this transformation of perception and the systematic pushing back of the light to reveal a different world of equal matter. Heavy and dark are both the material and the shadows they form, in different, vacillating ways. The proliferation of trash and refuse are somewhat disappointingly true bodies of a society of conspicuous consumption, but they also obstruct light to form these entities that have a nature all their own.

In a way, this is self-portraiture. The piece “Dirty White Trash (with Gulls)” was created using the discarded packaging of products Webster and Noble used over six months, the time it took to create the piece. And the shadows they form? They’re the silhouettes of the artists themselves.

Relying on the balance of light and dark, much of their work depends on the physical presence to engage with the sculptures and understand the intentions behind the works, many of which have to be exhibited in darkened environments for the sharpest visual intensity. “We often like to show both shadows and lights simultaneously,” says Noble, “but in separate rooms for opposite experiences. The viewer can have a rather sobering relationship by looking at one of our shadow works. The pupils dilate due to the straining, then get blasted when they turn the corner into complete visual overload.” From this primal duality of forces, Webster and Noble require a complex experience of their work, responding to perhaps a primitive idea of an ascent through darkness to the light. Susceptible to transformation, the works find new meaning through the amplification of light and dark, neither one the hostile opponent of the other but both constituent parts of the whole just as the illusion and the materials must be accepted together.

The primal matter of their mummified animal pieces came from the carcasses the untamed cat brought them, ritual killings bestowed to the humans the creature worshipped. “Each tiny field mouse, garden shrew and juvenile rat was captured, teased and tortured by our feral farmyard cat and left as gifts for us everyday,” says Webster, “and so I devised a box titled ‘Dead Things,’ where I would collect the bodies and let the flies lay eggs and maggots that would clean out the flesh for me. Each carcass was dried out on our studio rooftop in the sun, or whatever sun we had, being in England; this accelerated a process of mummification.” Saved over three years, over 200 mummified creatures were used in an exhibition at the British Museum titled “Statuephilia” with theDark Stuff” piece used specifically for the Egyptian Gallery. Again pulling from the matter of dead things, their work “British Wildlife” came from taxidermy animals that Noble’s father willed to the couple. “Although we had little money at the time and many of the inherited creatures were collectable in their own right, we felt the best way of preserving the collection was to transform it into a sculpture.”

Like any piece of art, creating a work is like a puzzle with all these small ideas that you have to try and fit together. For Sue Webster and Tim Noble, this process is a spontaneous choreography of found, discovered and curated materials with no precise end result in mind. Eventually, however, these images deploy a method of portraiture with an astonishing precision that plays with viewers’ expectations.

– Jolene Torr