When I was in Berlin last spring to give a presentation on the Chapman Brothers and Goya, it was my good fortune to be taken through one of the strangest, most disorienting exhibits created by artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster in collaboration with architect David Adjaye and staged by Blain|Southern. My group was led into a seemingly innocuous building, but once inside, we were plunged into darkness. There was enough light that allowed us to see we were in a tunnel, which turned and turned, then turned again. The man in front of me couldn’t see that well and ran into a wall. I tried to stifle my laugh since he did hurt his nose, but I had to admire the artists for immediately robbing us of subjectivity by denying our sight. Not only could we not see where we were going, but we wandered long enough that at some point, we gave in to the disorientation. It was then, as the artists tell it, that we “turned the Seventh Corner” into a burial chamber.
I can’t tell you which I noticed first: the two shadow profiles on the wall, or the writhing mass of creatures on the spikes which created them. The foreground and background were engaged in a civil war for prominence, and I was caught between the liminal space between life and death. On further inspection, one notices that the the heads are made of “a cast of dried frogs, dried baby rats, crows feet, a pair of vulture’s feet with claws, a chicken’s foot – and at the centre seemingly spewing out from the mass – an offering of two mummified squirrels” (Mathieson). The move is brilliant. While the installation – called Turning the Seventh Corner–leads the view into a place of contemplation, the sculpture, The Gamekeepers Gibbet, throws us into the beautiful and horrifying grotesque. The light captures gold plated limbs that thrust out everywhere in abject delight.
One of my colleagues from the conference became livid at the sight – at using the corpses of vermin to display humanity. Therein is the violence associated with the grotesque, the push of boundaries that we wish to remain in place. Our culture often seems to be enthralled with death given the plethora of horror films, zombie stories, and CSI television shows. Yet we are afraid of any sign of decay in our actual lives, and such terror at have a line or wrinkle etched on our faces has procured an entire industry to keep us from ever crossing that threshold. Noble and Webster’s creations help shatter those illusions, while also propelling us not into a nihilistic cynicism, but into a strange kind of holiness. Decay is part of life and helps to sustain it while the smallest of creatures are needed in our ecosystem.
The next sculpture, Kiss of Death, is right out of a Edgar Allan Poe story, and perhaps a macabre Noah’s ark. Thirty four taxidermy animals – including six rats, one mink, 8 carrion crows, 8 rooks, 11 jackdaws – create a darker scene to wrestle with. Was this unfortunate pair simply a couple of criminals subjected to a more medieval like execution? Once again we stumble upon violent action as a crow plucks out the man’s eye and holds it in its beak. Are we being taunted by the natural world, reminded of how little we really see regarding our own mortality? Another crow has either burrowed into the woman’s head, and is about to nest there, or perhaps burst forth from it.
This grotesque bestiary gazes back at us through crow eyes presents us with an assortment of teeth, claws, and beaks. It is the vermin that have physicality while the human can only reside within the shadows, thus collapsing the binary between human and animal into a kind of invisible monster that lurks on the edge of consciousness. Do certain kinds of violence degrade us into the most horrifying of beings – from capital punishment to the scavenging, predatory relationships that capitalism seems to perpetuate?
Dirty White Trash tackles some of the same issues, although with more colorful zeal. A pile of refuse that can be found in almost anyone’s trash can over the space of six months creates another couple’s profile. The two lie against each other after a night of carousing, enjoying the last cigarette and glass of wine, oblivious to the chaotic decay their pleasure both creates and feeds upon. In the foreground two seagulls look ready to engage in a fight for the last of the fries. The artists have taken a pejorative term reserved for a lower economic class (who are thought to have little taste) and with it, indicted everyone – unless you can disavow yourself of ever needing food and toilet paper and like. A topsy-turvy world is presented to us as all the toiletries and sneaky snacky things we guiltily consume and wish would be kept out of sight are laid bare as the bulk of our identities. It begs a more disturbing question: have we become so plasticized that to buy less and conserve more feels like we are participating in our own dissolution? Such issues must be pulled out of the cliched mantras we recite without any revolutionary action to actually change our course. Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s work – through shock, horror, and beauty – exposes the deeper infirmities of our shadow selves. In bringing such sickly corpses to light, perhaps we can begin to reconfigure our relationship with the natural world we seem so bent on destroying.
To view more of Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s work, visit their website
Mathieson, Frankie. “Art Talks — Tim Noble & Sue Webster.” AnOther Magazine (3 May 2011).