The Philosophy of Punk
An Interview with Tim Noble and Sue Webster
"We were pushing the shadow sculptures by using different materials, where the sculptures were becoming interesting in their own right; and there was a point where we were waiting for the moment we didn’t have to painstakingly make the shadow anymore – we could just stand by the sculpture and switch the lights on." -Sue Webster
American Robert Rauschenberg declared of art that “it is neither art for art, nor art against art. I am for art, but for art that has nothing to do with art – art has everything to do with life, but it has nothing to do with art.” Acting upon modern life, Rauschenberg saw everything as inclusive to a new kind of aesthetic. Going onto explain how “I don’t really trust ideas, especially good ones, rather I put my trust in the materials that confront me, because they put me in touch with the unknown”; whereby the ordinary and the unfamiliar had an aesthetic quality, and an adventure to explain itself as art. And as part of a Neo-Dadaist oeuvre Rauschenberg’s contemporary Jasper Johns saw beauty in the condition of things; saying of the object ‘I’m not interested in things which suggest the world rather than express the personality… the most conventional thing, the most ordinary – it seems to me that those things can be dealt with without having to judge them: they seem to me to exist as clear facts, not involving aesthetic hierarchy.”
For artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster, who have collaborated since their college days, the carefree as critical endeavor of artists like Rauschenberg and Johns, together with the philosophy of punk, as anarchist energy, have spurred the British artists to act entirely intuitively, in order their work be less conceptual and more born of their unconventional materials. Resembling one half of a post-punk band, Noble and Webster saw the disorder and affective determinism of punk as having contributed to their engaging with art as an attitude. “The philosophy of punk more than anything was something that we found natural to deal with. It is about there not being an excuse for making work – Punk happened from the bedroom, where you got a pair of scissors and you cut the newspaper up, and you glued letters and images to a piece of paper and made some art. And I guess for many years we were not selling any work but it never stopped us from making. We adopted that attitude – you make your own clothes, you cut your own hair. You always found a way.” Engaging with art more elementally, Noble and Webster have allowed themselves the liberty to react rather than act upon the ordinary and the everyday.
Their bloody-minded spirit literally taking them out of the shadows, with a new body of works that for all their labour appear as loose and light as when they were first conceived of by hand. Creating a series of colossal metal figures that appear to brilliantly abuse the situation and circumstance of sculpture, Noble admits to the unknowing of their new art.
“We worked in a material we had never worked with before, in bronze, and we literally drew in thin air.” “I think that was what I was trying to say to you before, ‘what is sculpture?’ that seems so archaic. When you think of sculptures as being ground-hugging things, with these works we were trying to make them as less so as possible, so they would occupy more space.”
The significance of creating sculpture has concentrated the artists on their ambition for the large scale, and by virtue their value. Which returns the artists to their less precious ethos, as Noble explains, “When you look at Jeff Koon there is a real sense of ‘do not touch’, and there the question of how much money has gone into the making of his works? As much as I love Jeff, I think that the economy of his works has almost corrupted it. We have almost had enough of that, and you do get a sense of everything being a bit base with our works, because it doesn’t stink of being worth millions of pounds. And you can get lost by something else, and the idea that materials can be about something else.” Arguing for risk over reward, Noble and Webster see the sheer enterprise of making work about tormenting oneself with the unruly condition of things, as Johns saw it, and less preoccupied with the measure of materials. Calling for dirty edges as a design for life.
It would be interesting to begin by talking about the new bronze sculptures that are part of the Sticks with Dicks and Slits exhibition at Blain Southern; which have been described as a departure for you both.
Sue Webster: I suppose it is that thing where we are well known for making the shadow sculptures and neon works using light. We have become famous and successful for making that sort of work for twenty years now. You are always wondering if there is another thing in you, and we were waiting for it to happen. You don’t want to sit on your laurels and say ‘well this is it’, and we make the shadow works for the rest of our lives.
RP: There are artists you have obviously made who made a career out of that; making signature works that are infinitely reproduced.
SW: Yes and I guess we were pushing the shadow sculptures by using different materials, where the sculptures were becoming interesting in their own right; and there was a point where we were waiting for the moment we didn’t have to painstakingly make the shadow anymore – we could just stand by the
sculpture and switch the lights on. So I guess this is the first show that we have done where we don’t need to black off the gallery, and it doesn’t need a plug attached to it.