Nihilistic Optimistic, Tim Noble and Sue Webster

Anyone who enjoys a bit of magic cannot fail to be enchanted by the shadow works of art duo Tim Noble and Sue Webster. Their latest exhibition at London’s Blain/Southern gallery, entitled Nihilistic Optimistic , features six large-scale shadow ‘sculptures’. The exhibition is their first major solo show in the capital since 2006, and the pieces included in it have been years in the making.

Noble and Webster in the studio

The works, which boast titles such as Self Imposed Misery and Nasty Pieces of Work, may at first appear to be piles of junk. Splintered planks of wood are attached precariously to one another, hung in weird forms from the frames of old step ladders along with other scraps of worthless detritus. Typical modern art, you may think. Quite literally a load of old rubbish.

But shine a powerful spotlight at the correct angle across these messy, angular forms and something entirely magical emerges, because the shadows that these intricate constructions cast form stunning shadow portraits of the artists themselves. Standing in defiant punk poses, the monumental dark figures produced are bold, intricate and awe inspiring.

Nihilistic Optimistic
Image courtesy of the artists and Blain/Southern
Photographer: Peter Mallet

I first discovered the work of Noble and Webster at the opening night of the 2008 Statuephilia exhibition at the British Museum. The private view offered a rare opportunity to visit the galleries by night, crowd free and candle-lit. The discovery in a dark corner of the Egyptian Hall of the striking Noble and Webster piece Dark Stuff, in which the impaled heads of the artists were recreated in shadows by lights shone across two apparently chaotic clumps of mummified animal corpses, is an experience that has stayed with me ever since.

   Dark Stuff, 2008  Tim Noble and Sue Webster     © The artists

Perhaps the most magical creation by the two artists is their portrait of the late English eccentric Isabella Blow, known for her distinctive style and avant-garde hats. This work, which is now held in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, recreates Blow’s unmistakeable silhouette from a mass of stuffed animals, including the sinister forms of a snake, a rat and a crow. A fittingly complex representation of an intriguingly complex woman, this shadow portrait transforms something ostensibly chaotic into a crisp portrait which perfectly captures the very essence of its subject.

Isabella Blow
By Tim Noble; Sue Webster
Isabella Blow, Tim Noble and Sue Webster
Photograph by Andy Keate, © National Portrait Gallery, London; sculpture
© Tim Noble and Sue Webster

In these shadow works, Noble and Webster utilise the power of light and darkness; the simplest idea, executed with absolute perfection. The results are pure magic.

2 Responses to “Nihilistic Optimistic, Tim Noble and Sue Webster”

  1. This is ingenious. And more spooky than that old John Lewis ad!

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