Rubbish self-portraiture

Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Dirty White Trash (With Gulls), 1998 ( months’ worth of artists’ trash, 2 taxidermy seagulls, light projector)

Tim Noble and Sue Webster make rubbish self-portraits. That’s not to say they made self-portraits that are rubbish (though of course that’s a matter of opinion). No. It’s that they make self-portraits from rubbish. If we are what we eat – as the old cliché susggests – then surely we’re also defined in some way what we throw away.

The materials for Dirty White Trash (With Gulls) six months’ worth of artists’ trash. Noble and Webster have assembled the trash into a pile that casts a shadow of the couple sitting back to back, smoking and drinking as seagulls seem to pick at the pile of rubbish that forms the image.

Miss Understood and Mister Meanor, 1997 (trash and personal items, wood, light projector, light sensor)

Miss Understood and Mister Meanor casts a shadow of the profiles of the artists as though their severed heads are being displayed on spikes. In both these works there is a fascination in looking though the rubbish; it’s always interesting to see what other people throw away. What food do they eat? Which beer do they drink? And so on… Though the shadow portraits lack detail – they are, after all, silhouettes – the rubbish assemblages say a lot about the two artists.

Real Life is Rubbish, 2002

In more recent works, such as Real Life is Rubbish, Noble and Webster have started working with different kinds of rubbish including the materials thrown away in their studio, along with tools and other studio contents. These works feel rather different. The same trick of shadow-casting is at play but here the sculptural aspects of the works seem more impersonal – with less opportunity for the viewer to make value judgments about the pair based on the information about their lifestyle the rubbish represents – and in works such as Metal Fucking Rats the artists have also removed themselves from the shadow.

Metal Fucking Rats, 2006

Though there is a certain fascination in, effectively, rifling through someone else’s bin, ultimately these pieces work because a simple idea has been well executed. Though in a way I think the work is quite slight – as jokes the works are one-liners – I enjoy looking at it. And there is something curious and interesting in the way the installations exist in the gallery; being asked to look at the shadow and not the sculpture challenges expectations of what we expect art to me.

I’m sure it’s possible to see Noble and Webster’s shadow works for the first time and completely miss the image (though often gallery security staff seem to be enjoying the chance to chat to visitors and make sure they don’t miss the point). The randomness of that amuses and intrigues me.

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