Contemporary art is filled with shallow and pretentious works, but this dynamic duo is the real deal. Meet Tim Noble and Sue Webster.
Too often I feel contemporary art struggles to balance originality and relevance. Too frequently I find overly-pretentious works that presume to break barriers in technique and discourse yet fail to actually say anything interesting, different, or deep. But every once in a while I come across works that warrant more than a second look, that really baffle me and stop me in my tracks. The effect that such art can produce in me is nothing short of extraordinary. Years ago, I found just that in what is known as transformative art.
Meet London-based artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster, a prolific duo that manages to reach new heights in perceptual play by using nothing but light and trash. At face value, several of their works seem like random mountains of garbage. Literally. Just garbage. They take the everyday waste of our consumption-obsessed society and pile it up, but soon these piles are revealed to be anything but random: the bundles are calculated to such a degree of precision that they manage to project excessively clear scenes. You’ll have a hard time believing the shadows actually come from trash heaps.
(Dirty White Trash (With Gulls), 1998)
Noble and Webster don’t see these wasteful objects as actual rubbish. They see something more: untapped potential that reaches and strikes deep in the ordinary conception of our everyday disposal practices, and they turn that conception around. What was once unwanted can in fact lead to an act of creation; what was originally ugly can become a beautiful thing—if we’re willing to change our perspective. On their web page, Noble and Webster indeed refer to their work as a kind of “transformative art,” which employs processes whereby a seemingly ordinary object is transformed to produce something unexpected. And what is more unexpected than undifferentiated, apparently shapeless bundles of trash transforming into surprisingly crisp silhouettes? Light projection and shadows are representative of transformative art, and these artists make use of it to its maximum effect.
In fact, Noble and Webster have an interesting approach, whether intended or not, to Plato’s popular Allegory of the Cave. Imagine there’s a cave with several people tied to a rock in such a way that they can only see one wall inside. A fire burns somewhere behind them and on occasion something, be it animals or other people, walk between the light of the flame and the wall. All the prisoners see are shadows, mistaking them for true objects. The ancient philosopher used the example to argue that what we see with our eyes is like those shadows, whereas truth hides far behind, accessible only by the intellect. So, Plato thought the shadows were mere illusions, imperfect appearances of a higher reality.
But in Noble and Webster’s case there’s an inversion: the shadows are not a simple and misleading projection of a concealed reality. Instead, they reveal a whole different domain of truth hidden behind the heaps of trash. Indeed, the non-shadow aspect of the work is, quite literally, garbage, and it is the shadows that show a crisp reality. The artists cite the idea of ‘perceptual psychology,’ which evaluates how people process and interpret abstract forms. Ultimately, Noble and Webster use this general study to play with the senses and invoke extraordinary effects. Through creative and artistic navigation of the way we assign meaning to what we see, they explore the perceptual depths of human nature. Formless waste (or, even, dead things) transforms into abstraction, and abstraction transforms into figurative images.
(Dead Things, 2010)
This contrast, between shape and shapelessness, between garbage and art, between ugliness and beauty, springs from Noble and Webster’s drive to create what is effectively known as anti-art through anti-sculptures, which combine modern sculptural techniques with a punk-like spirit. Their style, then, is at its core a fusion of opposites: form and anti-form, male and female, life and death, sex and violence.
(Nasty Pieces Of Work, 2008-09)
For their significant contribution to British art and their considerable influence on other artists, Noble and Webster were each awarded an honorary Degree of Doctor of Art from Nottingham Trent University in 2009. They have received international recognition and were awarded the 2007 ARKEN Prize at Arken, Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen “for outstanding contribution to the international scene of contemporary art.” They have presented their works in several exhibitions since their first solo show in London in 1996 and recently moved on from shadow art to explore the world of copper sculpting. All in all, their work is nothing short of impressive, as it represents a great example of how contemporary art can successfully combine creativity, originality and meaning.
(The Gamekeeper's Gibbet, 2011)
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