the art rockstars

a chat with tim noble and sue webster

People seduced by Berlin's sexy swagger often liken it to other cities in their hardcore hay-days. London's gritty glamour of the Nineties is the most common comparison and best embodied by Tim Noble and Sue Webster, two artists launching Berlin Gallery Weekend. Countrymen Gilbert & George and Fiona Banner are also showing this week, but the YBA couple remain the best role models for retaining raw sex-appeal while also demonstrating maturely tender, romantic values, intellectual integrity and old-fashioned niceness. Few people are more fun to talk to than Tim and Sue whose Turning the Seventh Comer sculptural installation launches the Berlin branch of London-based Blain|Southern gallery. The exhibition itself turns mummified gold-platted rats and a black labyrinth into an ode to intimacy. During Gallery Weekend, Noble, Webster and architect David Adjaye (who also built their home) turn the former printing press of the Tagesspiegel into a pyramid-inspired tomb for their newest shadow sculpture, in which the shadows from two gilded casts of dead animals turn into a perfect portrait of their faces in profile. Two days before the gallery and exhibition opening, we discuss the golden work's history and Berlin's increasing glittering future.

Ana Finel Honigman: I am just reading in The Economist that the British economy is doing better. Congratulations.

Tim Noble: Thanks.

AFH: Speaking of numbers, what’s up with the number seven? Why are there specifically seven turns to the entrance hallway? Is that a reference to ancient numerology or something else?

TN: That just unfolded. That was from a conversation we had with David [Adjaye].

Sue Webster: When we first decided to do the project, Tim and I had the idea for a long time of making a work from a precious material. We have been collecting mummified creatures for a long time. We had made one piece from mummified creatures for the British Museum. We then decided to take one step further and cast the creatures in gold. The Egyptian tombs influenced us. We wanted to make an underground tomb. We proposed this idea to friends of ours who had just bought eighty-eight achers of land in the Josepha Tree. We proposed this to them as a collaboration with David. We wanted to do an underground sculpture that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to access.

TN: They could own it but they couldn’t see it. Maybe their children could see it but they couldn’t. It would be sealed off.

AFH: Like Piero Manzoni’s tin of shit… or tunafish if rumors are right.

SW: Exactly. But our friends couldn’t get their head around it. But when we were invited to show here, we decided to do it here.

AFH: But this is totally different because it’s not only above ground, and third-floor is skyscraper level in Berlin, but its super public.  That must change the meaning entirely.

TN:  But people will always want to get in there anyway. If you have a secret, people are always trying to unlock it. And, when we were talking to David about the idea, we all agreed that the Egyptian tombs are really accessible now, anyway.

AFH: Well, when there isn’t a revolution interrupting peoples’ sightseeing.

TN: Right. Well, we also thought we’d just delay the moment when you see the final thing for a bit. Not too long. Just a bit. We wanted to make people weave through this intestine.

SW: We were drawing the plan and before we knew it, there were seven corners to the drawing. David said “when you turn the seventh corner…” and got really excited about turning the seventh corner. Plus there are all these connotations with the number seven in Egyptian myth.

AFH: What are those?

SW: I don’t know but someone told us the number means something.

AFH: I’m sure its googleable. But beyond that, this project is so intimate.

TN: Yes.

AFH: I mean, David designed your house. You live there.

SW: Yes.

AFH: What about the animals. I just heard from someone in the gallery that they come from around your house?

TN: Again, it’s very personal. My Mum has a cottage in the country and she’s always had three cats.

AFH: And they were your interns? Wait… are the cats mummified and gilded in there?

SW: No!

TN: Not at all. Just their gifts. You know how cats bring presents. They’ll give you half-alive rodents and creatures they catch.

AFH: I don’t know if those are gifts, as much as rent. Cats know who really feeds them.

TN: No one ate them. Those things were getting tortured and then crawling under the armchairs to die. We would lift up the armchair cushions and find these petrified, dried frogs and baby rats.

AFH: Your cats sound good. They were good hunters?

TN: Phenomenal, yeah. We started collecting them. Then we went for a walk in the woods and there was a gatekeeper near us who would shoot creatures and hang their carcasses like trophies on the fence. There would be dried squirrels hanging by the neck.

SW: Over the years, their bodies would sag and we just kept them. The sun steamed them and the wind dried them out. They became naturally mummified. If you look inside the sculpture, there is a male and female squirrel doing a little kind of dance at each other.

AFH: Awww. When I first saw the dead animals, I though they signified all the shit in a relationship that might counter-balance the impression that you were creating a timeless monument to your bond. But actually the animals just add another layer of real intimacy because they originated from your totally private life together, in the country with your Mum and cats. It’s super-sweet.

SW: Sure. And although the base elements to the sculpture are dead, once they are cast and put in this ball, they become perfectly alive again.  They are cast in silver and then platted in gold, so they really become solid.

TN: And they are hand-made, so that intimacy really comes into the details. There is nothing manufactured about them. All that energy is just rolling around. Their spirits are alive again.

AFH: And it’s nice to think that lots of those things were victims of the same predator.

TN: I never thought of that.

AFH: Maybe the same cat killed a third of them, potentially. They can spend eternity in group therapy.

TN: But then the hunter comes in. That’s something else. And I guess a few just had heart attacks, so they might feel left out.

AFH: What about Berlin? How does this relate? You know that there is almost a trend here of art about pyramids?

TN: No. What?

AFH: Well, there is this work and Cyprian Galliard’s beer pyramid. One more and it’s officially a trend. Does this almost relate to the Pergamon and issues of art repatriation—or whatever the beer was about.

TN: I am afraid that we’re not that politically engaged but I like his stuff, whatever it’s about.  And Berlin.

AFH: I read that you, Sue, had particular associations with Berlin before coming here that actually sound like many people’s image of London thanks to you guys. Can you describe your image of Berlin before getting here?

SW:  I have been fascinated by Berlin for years. Did you see that film Christiane F?

AFH: No.

SW: Well, you have to watch it! It was made in 1981. It was the story of one particular teenage girl with a boyfriend with whom she just hangs out around the train station getting addicted to heroin and prostuting themselves. It’s a really edgy story. It’s based on fact and set in Berlin. It shows the people living in the train stations and their lives. But there is this undertone by David Bowie and they actually go to a Bowie concert together. That image of Berlin stuck with me forever. It was the first city that I ever wanted to visit when I was old enough to leave the countryside. I came here with my Dad in 1984 when the wall was still up. I picked up a Time Out-kind of guide and saw an ad for The Sisters of Mercy. I grabbed by Dad and we went to see them in an underground Goth club somewhere.

AFH: Creepy coincidence but I just thought of them, apropos of nothing, two nights ago. Maybe it was a premonition of me being jealous that you saw that show.

SW: It was great and I’ve been absolutely addicted to the city ever since. We went over Checkpoint Charlie before the wall fell and I remember that everything was grey, except for these red banners. That image has stuck with me forever.  We came back later to see all the excitement of the squats and all that. I still feel the associations with all the musicians who came here and made great albums like Bowie’s Berlin trilogy or Nick Cave. There has always been a fascination with Berlin and music. So it is bizarre that we’re only just now doing a show here.

AFH:  It is bizarre because you’re literally at the final five seconds of Berlin being all that. My favorite bar on Torstr. just turned peach coloured last week.

SW:  Every time I come back here, history keeps getting diminished—all of it, less and less. There is less of the wall and a rubber line on the road is replacing it.

AFH: It’ll always be haunted, but there are more and more souvenirs of that haunting and less actual evidence.

SW: It was really different when you saw it first-hand, when it was immediate. We came here and posted posters on the wall when it was still very much up. We pasted posters near that mural of Regan snogging Gorbachev, or was it Brezhnev?

AFH: Gorbachev.

TN: Brezhnev.

AFH: You’re right. I like how even then gayness was the immediate antidote to atrocity.  I keep talking about how neat it is that traumatic spaces here are first gay clubs then art spaces. Why did you decide to show here, and not some Nazi building?

TN: There are so many spaces here.

SW: But this neighborhood has changed so much in the past few months.

TN: It’s being tarted up already.

AFH: My bar is pink.

TN: Condolences.

AFH: People are ideologically interested in maintaining scrappiness, but then they just start tidying up anyway. It’s almost instinctual.

TN: It’s an obsession with progressions. People want to move forward and keep the old behind them but it’s important to realize how history resonates. You must trust your eyes and ears. They feed your mind, don’t they?

The new location of Blain|Southern in Berlin is located at Potsdamer Str. 77-87

[Images: Time Noble and Sue Webster, photographer on-site, by Maxime Ballesteros]