How to be a Young British Artist for Fun and Profit

Exhibition Catalogue Essay

Tim Noble & Sue Webster: The New Barbarians, Modern Art Inc, London, February 1999

Since 1994 flyposters have been appearing in New York, London and Berlin. The black and white images show two stiffly-suited gentleman facing the camera. They fill the frame like statues, which is appropriate enough because they are British artists Gilbert & George. You wouldn't know though, because their heads have been replaced by badly-scaled images of a thuggy-looking skinhead and a rather smug tomboy. A red strip across the bottom tells us that this is Tim Noble and Sue Webster: The Simple Solution.

Solution to what, we must ask? Are these election posters? They certainly have the ring of campaign advertising, and the suits are convincingly civil servant. But the ludicrousness of the botched cut and paste job negates this reading. So what are they then? Well, they're advertising this Noble and Webster - whoever they are - but why so clumsily executed? Perhaps they're suggesting that, in order to become a famous British art duo, all they have to do is look the part: employ the low-grade magic of a head-through-the-hole sideshow and - Hey Presto! - celebrity artists. In one fell swoop they get their faces into the general public's consciousness, while specifically targeting Gilbert & George's in-the-know artworld audience, and at the same time exposing the mechanics of hype. No wonder the work is called Hijack.


A quick biography: Tim was born in '66 and Sue in '67. They studied together at Nottingham '86 to '89, and then worked in residency at the sculpture studios in Dean Clough, Halifax until '92. After this Tim went to the Royal College to study sculpture for two years, while Sue didn't. Finally, their first two-person exhibition was in London at the Independant Art Space. This was in '96 and the show was called 'British Rubbish'.

'British Rubbish'. 'British...'. Rubbish...'. Now there's a statement of intent for you. Yet in order to really understand it, we have to grasp the cultural context in which it was used. This in turn means a quick recap of the London artworld's much-mythologised recent history.

What concerns us in relation to the work of Tim & Sue is how contemporary art became a suitable subject for the mass media, since this is the wellspring of their work. The publicity machine really sprang into life in '92 with the first of Saatchi's 'Young British Artist' exhibitions (remember we're only talking about the publicity here, the artists themselves had emerged years earlier). One of the exhibitors in this show was Damien Hirst, and this was the first showing of his shark. Soon the acronym 'yBa' appeared in Art Monthly and then everywhere else, even getting out to the style mags. Now the tabloids were starting to exploit the situation and suddenly the whole world knew that Goldsmiths was an art college. Brit Art was doing it for itself, or so the story went. By now the hype has formalised into the self-congratulatory 'Cool Britannia', which is only really used by politicians, so you know it doesn't mean anything.

This first Saatchi show was important for two reasons. One, his influence bought mainstream media attention. And two, the institution imposed a nationalistic definition onto the artists: the artists were Young and British whether they were or not. These two effects are not unrelated; not only does the press need a particular angle on contemporary art, but it absolutely cannot resist a bit of 'local boy done good'. Saatchi, being an ad-man, knows exactly how the press operates. So from being cool 'New Internationalists', suddenly this whole generation were colloquial again. The label and the stereotype stuck, finally being sledgehammered home by the 'Brilliant: New Art from London' survey exhibition in Minneapolis at the end of '95. The agenda was set, not just nationally, but globally. By '96 it was officially hip to be Brit. Enter 'British Rubbish'.

Tim & Sue, then, are second-generation 'Brit Artists', coming to prominence during the yBa hype-fest. The stereotype that had formed-media-savvy celebrity youths with don't-give-a-shit attitudes and in-your-face artworks-could hardly be ignored, and so it was tackled head-on. To this end Tim & Sue deliberately made the popular imagery of the young British artists central to their work.

Taking on the stereotype was only logical because a straight denial would have done nothing to stem the tide. And yet their approach was more than just a subtle parody of Brit Art; it was a critique of the hype mechanism itself. Tim & Sue adopted many of the yBa's defining attributes. At a time when young artists were becoming celebrities, Tim & Sue acted as if they were too. As second-generationers they deliberately set out to stretch the definintion, problematizing the celbrity artist phenomenon.


At the 'Live Stock Market' '97, an artist-organised streetfair in Rivington Street, Tim & Sue had a tattoo stall. Working all day with a set of felt-tip pens and a catalogue of images, they set about tattooing - for a small fee - hundreds of visitors. You could have skulls or love hearts or lucky dice or flaming words. The drawing style was hit-and-miss and they washed off whenever you washed them off. But this was a chance for the visitors, mostly artworld types, to decorate their bodies with a brutal styling that they would never agree to if permanent. The look was tough, the techniques childish and the effects teenage. It was fun, it was work and, as a market stall, it was hugely successful. Well-bred gallery girls had BITCH scrawled on their bodies. Children had flaming skulls on their arms. Young artist's finally had the hard-core tattoo they'd always wanted, and they strutted up and down Charlotte Road like a bad actor doing the LA Bloods.

But it was a hot day and the inks ran in the heat. Then eveyone started to worry that the colours would stain their Agnés b cardies, or their Carhartt jeans. Suddenly the sneering attitude was gone. Classic Tim & Sue: layering contradictory meanings, all the better because other people had to carry them. Everybody knew how silly they looked even when they looked tough, and that they never really looked tough anyway because they simply weren't tough in the first place. The bottom line was that everyone bought it, willingly paying to be part of the work, so the artists got exactly what they wanted.


Big Ego appeared on a billboard. Tim Noble Born London 1968 it said. A flat red background, a black and white star and, in the middle, Tim's rough mug grinning out at the street. The poster was commissioned by the London listings magazine Time Out: part of a competition celebrating their 25th anniversary. Only those who had lived in London for at least 25 years were eligible to enter. Now Tim was actually born in Gloucestershire in '66 and only moved to London in '92. The competition was in '93.

So Big Ego not only looked the public in the eye and lied to them, but it also lied to its patron too. Quite rightly; a pompous competition celebrating 'true Londoners' deserved to be hijacked by a west-country boy (regionalism is embryonic nationalism). Beyond this, though, we can again discern the common Tim & Sue tactic (the billboard was Sue's idea): the artist adopts whatever persona the media wants, wins the commission and gets the magazine to pay for what is, basically, a billboard advertising themselves. The artists use the magazine to their own ends while quietly subverting its competition. You scratch my back and I'll stab yours.


We could consider Big Ego a punk work, but not in the obvious, graphic sense. Today we can split the word 'Punk' into two different meanings. Firstly, we can recognise the original movement and take a historical look at its radical aesthetics, while recognising that such a style could no longer serve the same function, because it has lost the vital characteristic it had when it was new: its very newness. Secondly, we can concentrate not on the form that punk took, but its content, attitudes and methods. Its method was to undermine the mainstream media and it is this technique that is at work in Big Ego. Yet Tim & Sue recognise both aspects of punk, certainly they employ the latter, but they also reinterpret the former. Sure, they employ a punk aesthetic: slipshod cut 'n' paste, found images, the lo-fi reproduction techniques of bedroom fanzines circa '77. But the whole point is that they are doing it 22 years later.

Is this not 'real' punk then? Of course not. The original punk aesthetic pierced the slickness of the megavisual media in order to critique it, it was both dissonant and dissident. And revolutionary too, because anybody could do it; no skill was required. Now, though, the punk look has been absorbed, digested and reconstituted by the media industry. How can it possibly be shocking? How can a graphic style that's old enough to be David Carson's dad still be radical?

Punk used to be quintessentially bad, anti-establishment and enemy of all middle-class values. Now it's mainstream and ubiquitous. The irony of its flag waving has been lost, found, reinterpreted, forgotten, found and lost again. And Malcolm McLaren is everywhere. Punk has been carrion to the media industry ever since it stopped being dangerous, ever since the kids found other ways piss their parents off. There may still be punks around, but the punk style has accepted a job in the media and drives a Saab convertible. Punk sells Time Out, punks sell The Big Issue.

But there is a particular attitude which lives on, and that is this: I'm a product of your culture whether you like it or not, and you'd better learn to deal with that because I won't let you ignore me. Conversely, just as the middle-class have to accept that 'undesirables' are part of their culture, equally the disenfranchised must accept that the mainstream is their's too. You cannot live outside of the culture, at some level you always refer to it. So take it and use it, like the Absolut Webster & Noble advert that they later reprinted as Absolut Arseholes: hardly the message the company wanted to put across. This is what Anarchy in the UK proposed:

Of many ways to
Get what you want
I use the best
I use the rest
I use the enemy
I use anarchy

This is how Big Ego operates, but in a much more underhand way. The confrontation is no longer overt and mannered, but covert and subtle. Playing the part of neo-punks is just what the magazine wants, but they misrecognised it. It may look the same, but it is not the same; it is deployed purely as a show, as a means to an end. The artists give us a lesson in how to speak like the media's wet dream for fun and profit.


Having become interested in the trash culture of neon signs and fairground lightbulbs Tim & Sue took their art on the road, to Las Vegas: the filament in this world of brash light. The term 'megavisual' could have been invented for Vegas, and this paradoxical town - both unbearably tacky and enthrallingly beautiful, both pretty and vacant - inspired new light works, most notably Vague Us. This could be read as either critical of the unrelenting dumbness of neon, or it could be seen as simply expressing the desire to be 'vagued'. If the latter, then this emphatic, theatrical embracing of daze culture suggests a kind of contemporary experience of the sublime; we can't hope for ecstasy through religion, or the blinding lights of visionary conversion. All we can pray for is to be vagued.

While in Vegas, they took a drive out to Death Valley. This is what you do in Death Valley, you drive. There's nothing there but heat and rocks. It's a folkloric place, etched in the American - and hence global - consciousness as a bad place, a place where ordinary, decent folk fear to tread, a place where desperadoes hide and die. More of an idea than a place, a setting rather than a location. A perfect place, then, for a Tim & Sue intervention. They brought the car to a halt, got out, and went to work. The result: a stone circle.

Ripping off Richard Long, one of Britain's most respected international artists, Tim & Sue recontextualised his sculpture within the pop iconography of Death Valley and Vegas. A little piece of artistic mischief. But what makes it even more interesting, what turns the dial up to 11, is the fact that a park ranger pulled up and got himself involved. He insisted that they had ruined the natural beauty of the area and told them to return the rocks to their original places. By now they had not only managed to hijack Long's work, but also coax a state official into - by implication - dismissing Long's work as vandalism. The artists played their 'rebellious kids' role to the full, while getting a 'serious' artist insulted at the same time. Would Long laugh at the irony of vandalism being done to desolate wasteland by a public artwork? How could he not?

Here Tim & Sue turned the tables on a renowned artist, something they repeated - albeit in a different manner - with the Turning the Tables event at the Chisenhale Gallery in '97. For this they invited artists and gallerists and critics - all female - to spin the decks at a fundraising disco evening. Artistic celebrity was the fascination here, and this event gave Tim & Sue a chance to toy with this celebrity in the slightly fawning manner of Just Seventeen and Radio 4: a live disco version of Desert Island Discs.


The New Barbarians step out of a white void and into our world, as if arriving through a time warp. 3.5 million years bridged in the gallery. But surely this evolutionary step between Neanderthal and Modern man wouldn't be completely bald? Probably not. And surely he wouldn't have his arm round her either? Well, who knows? These 'barbarians' are based on a reconstruction of the early human species Australopithecus Afarensis which is displayed in the American Museum of Natural History, and he's got his arm round her there.

These uncanny creatures - short, pot-bellied and hunched - appear anatomically grotesque to us, and yet their faces are oddly familiar. Of course, it's Tim & Sue. They have had their own faces morphed with those of early man, modelling themselves as the precursors to the entire human race. They are the first couple, a pop-evolutionist's Adam and Eve. Yet they are entirely hairless, unlike the original version in the New York museum. Tim & Sue suggest that at the root of mankind lies skinheads, 'New Barbarians' (American bike gangs). What if, they ask, we are thuggish and brutal at heart? But they also make clear that such characteristics do not necessarily preclude other emotions; they are 'holding hands', after all. So these creatures are both vulnerable and repulsive, and suggest an ability to be both aggressive and loving. If we allowed our repulsion to get the better of us, we would end up demonising the brutes. Which of their attributes would such a lack of understanding encourage, and where would that leave us, their descendants?

Yet there is something else going on here; this is not a museum display based on current scientific understanding. This couple is stepping out of a void. Or, more accurately, a professional photographer's studio backdrop. So again we have this idea of a carefully constructed image: a deliberate playing of roles for the audience. Tim & Sue don't actually claim to be our ancestors, they only pretend to. As viewers we must recognise the tongue-in-cheek humour inherent in this provocation.


What can we say about the work of Tim Noble and Sue Webster? What can we identify as primary themes and what are the artistic tactics they employ? The main issues explored in their work revolve around the mechanics of the media and advertising industries, particularly focusing on the rise of the celebrity artist (what else was Turning the Tables about?). Their methods have been to play dumb, to act out the role of a yBa in order to expose the economy that it functions within. You don't believe that they play a role? Why else would they both dye their hair black when they already have black hair? They needed the dyed look so they could play the role and then make a work about playing the role (Simply Natural). Why else would they stick their faces over Liam and Patsy's on the cover of Vanity Fair (London Swings) if it wasn't to play a role?

We could say that their work is about image manipulation of the non-digital variety. All of their works deal with this issue, but one in particular makes it quite clear: Dirty White Trash (with Gulls).

The gallery is filled with rubbish - the empty packaging from Tim & Sue's last six months of food - piled up into a large heap of filth. A couple of gulls scavenge what they can. It's a mildly stomach-turning scene, as if several large wheelie bins had been roughly tipped into the gallery: more like vandalism than art. The pile sits in semi-darkness, lit only by a slide projector lying on the floor. It points at the work, throwing intense white light onto one side of the pile. This in turn casts a shadow onto the wall behind. Only now do we see the point: the silhouette on the wall is a perfect profile of Tim & Sue sitting back to back, heads resting against each other, Tim holds a cigarette and Sue a glass of wine. Relaxing after a job well done.

The cast shadow is an indexical sign. That is, its relation to the garbage is that of a trace, and hence a direct physical connection. We know this about shadows: they tell us what to expect. But to look at this shadow we can expect nothing other than for it to be indexical to Tim & Sue: their presence is indicated, their trace is manifest, but they are absent. What does this mean? It means that, semiotically speaking, Tim & Sue are rubbish. Of course its the role they love to play, dirty white trash living it down. But Tim & Sue are not as dumb as they would like to be because, despite appearances, this is not a pile of trash. It is a sculpture. That it uses trash is not in doubt, but it is a sculpture none the less. The objects are not naively scattered, but glued and bolted together. Their form is acutely considered, pieced together in an extremely sophisticated manner. And this, perhaps, is the most literal of Tim & Sue's works: they would love to be no good trash, but in the end they are artists.

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