Walking into Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s Shoreditch studio, the first thing that strikes me is the panoramic view of the city.
Floor-to-ceiling windows are the only barrier between interior from exterior. White fog which lingers around Bishopsgate’s skyscrapers. It’s surprisingly warm in the David Adjaye-designed factory conversion. “It’s alright,” Sue grins, waving at the view, “unless you’ve got a minimal designer warehouse like this because then when the light is really low you start seeing fingerprints on the glass.” These days, the so-called “dirty house” is anything but.
In the 21 years since their first solo exhibition British Rubbish at the Independent Art Space, Tim and Sue have confused the art world and polarised the public with their shadow sculptures – towering piles of rubbish and refuse painstakingly piled-up to make beautiful accurate profiles of the two artists visible only through shadow, and light sculptures – light-bulb and neon works which take pop culture and twist it into something more sinister.
“You can sort a lot out by fucking off and trying your own stuff.”
– Tim Noble
The couple’s personal life is equally full of shadow and light. Fuelling red top gossip columns, in 2008, Tim and Sue married on the Thames, on board Queen Elizabeth, the same boat the Sex Pistols used for their debauched Jubilee party, with a service conducted by Tracey Emin, but by 2012, Tim and Sue’s first major London solo show in six years, Nihilistic Optimistic, revealed some major cracks in the couple’s relationship. Shadow work portraits depicted the pair both together, and more crucially, apart. In 2013, Tim and Sue announced their divorce. Now, four-and-a-half years after Nihilistic Optimistic, Tim and Sue have returned to BlainSouthern’s London gallery with a show of towering bronze stick figure self-portraits, provocatively named Sticks with Dicks and Slits.
“When you’re in your 20s, you’re doing a major show every year… You’re churning it out, trying to get visible. You can afford to sit back and spend a bit longer experimenting once you’ve established yourself,” Sue says. Post-divorce, the pair have been spending time apart, pursuing work on their own terms. ”It’s been interesting recently because we both went off and explored our own separate stances,” Tim says. “That’s been good, to go all the way around in a giant circle, and then reconfigure things that were uneasy and unsettled. You can sort a lot out by fucking off and trying your own stuff.”
“It enabled us to open the mind, to open another door in our heads,” Sue says. “We were making shadow works, and we were known for making light sculptures, and we just thought, you know what, I don’t want to be doing this for the rest of my life. It’s taken that division to go off and experiment to come back with a totally new idea that felt like quite a natural progression. If you look at the story of our work, it doesn’t look out of place at all. But it took massive upheaval in our relationship to come to this point. That’s why it’s even more poignant and natural.”
With metaphor bouncing off the white walls of the dirty house, Sue tells me the story of how the Sticks with Dicks and Slits sculptures came to life. While cleaning out the studio about a year ago, Sue opened a box containing two tiny wire portraits of the couple that Tim had made out of stripped electrical cable ten years before, when the couple were on a residency on the Caribbean island St Barts. “I saw them again with fresh eyes,” she says. “I put them out on a pedestal and kept looking at them and thinking, actually, they’re really beautiful. At the time [he made them] they were throwaway, but suddenly they felt very precious.”
Sue began crafting some wire self-portraits of her own: an idea was forming. Working with AB Fine Art Foundry in Poplar using a labour-intensive metal casting process known as the lost-wax method, where liquid metal is poured into a mould that has been casted from wax. As the metal takes on the shape of the mold, the wax is melted and “lost”. The process meant the artists were able to reproduce the same one-off, handcrafted effect found in the tiny wire sculptures and blow it up into three-foot high bronze sculptures. “Each one is a one off,” Tim adds.
“It’s wonderful to find a new way of working,” Sue admits. “We’ve never worked in bronze before. It doesn’t need a shadow — that’s liberating: we don’t have to black the gallery out, we don’t have to switch the lights off. I think they fit in perfectly to our oeuvre.”
“I think they’re quite loose and free, I think they’re quite liberating,” Sue says of the sculptures. Is that what you’re trying to say about yourself? I ask. “It’s funny because we made one pair which was supposed to be appear in opposition so they were running away from each other,” Tim interjects. “But somehow during the whole process they’re now facing each other so it appears that I’m now chasing Sue with a great big hard on. They were definitely the other way around before! The Foundry switched them.” “… To make it look more like what you want!” Sue interrupts, triumphantly. “To how they think it should be,” Tim replies. “It was supposed to be about opposition.”
Strip back the sparring bravado, look past the self-aware swagger and there is an unmistakable connection between the artists which moves deeper than their relationship status. “We started working together naturally, we never thought about it – it just fell into place, didn’t it?” Sue says. “We just trusted each other’s instincts and thoughts. I still do. Something feels so natural and so right: why fight it?”