Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan work in collaboration to produce provocative and interrogative works that are often concerned with the mythic potential of art.
Utilising sculpture, painting, architecture, performance, literature,
institutional critique and curation, the artists re-stage and
re-present a vocabulary of images, phrases and forms that are part of a
common history to create carefully crafted paths, displacements and
diversions. These act as a tool for exploring the world of art - with
its own collective mythology of forms, objects and histories.
The Glasgow artist duo Joanne Tatham (born 1971 in West Yorkshire) and
Tom O’Sullivan (born 1967 in Norwich), who have worked together since
1995, attracted attention last year in the Tramway exhibition space in
Glasgow with their installation "HK“. Six-meter-high black letters
formed the three-dimensional slogan "Heroin Kills“, undermined by its
monumental nature. Tatham & O’Sullivan, whose works are in the
tradition of concept art, are concerned with the questioning of the
parameters of art, the investigation of what contemporary art can be and
what it can accomplish. The installation "HK“ therefore operated in the
realm between purely artistic statement and social reality (given that
Glasgow is the British city with the highest rate of heroin addicts).
Tatham & O’Sullivan draw their image and form vocabulary from a rich
store of existing languages, extending from art history over applied
arts, esotericism, and pop music to theater, while their interest is
primarily in hyper-encoded and iconic forms. Their installations are
however more than merely a sampling of various quotes; they are a clever
play on the multireferential nature of the characters employed, not
least of all satirically referring to the clichés of installation art.
Heroin kills. Smoking kills. Alcohol kills. These things we know,
even as we reach for a dram, a puff or a fix. The odd status of such
warnings, these axioms of addiction, is what Joanne Tatham and Tom
O'Sullivan explore in an astonishing, epic sculptural installation.
Three-dimensional letters, 6m high, stretching right across the vast
main space at Tramway, spell out their message (heroin kills) in
monumental form, one that is both shocking and playful.
there is comes from the references to other famous groups of letters -
those that spell out Monty Python and Hollywood, the black letters
saying "The Ramones", held by the group in a photograph. It's also about
the scale of the piece, and its dour monochrome of white walls and
coal-black letters, echoing the atmosphere of those 1980s Don't Die of
Ignorance health warnings about HIV that featured tombstones and were
lit like a morgue.
But HK is more than smart intertextual
references. Our first sight is of the message back to front, and in its
stark beauty, with chinks of light spilling through the gaps in the
letters, the slogan forms a mirror to Glasgow's vexed relationship with
smack. At the heart of one of its key former industrial spaces, we
cannot miss the impact of the message; it's a fact of life in the
post-industrial reality just beyond the gallery. This is where the shock
"Heroin kills" are not the only words in this
exhibition, though. Pasted on to noticeboards in the foyer, you will
find, in comparatively tiny lettering, testimonies of former addicts and
those who are still struggling with addiction. And it's in the space
between the two - these sad tales, and the giant, meaninglessly obvious
slogan - that Tatham and O'Sullivan's interest lies. Their sculpture
suggests that, somewhere between the individual struggle with drugs and
the hysteria of much of the media's coverage of heroin, perhaps other
words and other stories lie.
This set of transpositions is a lot to swallow in a single gulp, so
perhaps it’s best to begin by rolling the phrase ‘Heroin Kills’ around
our mouths, to get used to its peculiar flavour. While it functions, in a
sense, as a warning, it is worryingly unspecific. As Lars Bang Larsen
has written: ‘It’s not a slogan but it sounds like one, like “smoking
kills”, or “speed kills”. But opacity of meaning succeeds the bombast:
how does heroin kill? Does it kill everyone or just a few? Who is
telling us? Don’t we know already?’1 We do know, of course (we all saw
the ads on TV), and that’s what makes the project so uncomfortable.
Uttering ‘Heroin Kills’ in Glasgow, a city with a substantial smack
problem, seems glibly after the fact, while uttering it in Venice and
Basel, especially in the language of fashion, or of rich men’s
fripperies, seems glib full-stop. However, what is in play here, and
what is important, is not only the continuous emptying-out of an already
empty phrase’s meaning, but also the set of permission-giving
discourses that allowed this emptying-out to take place. Among these we
might number the New Labour idea of art as a public good (Glasgow), the
willingness of art world bigwigs to wear Tatham and O’Sullivan’s
heroin-chic bling to glamour-heavy openings, dinners and parties
(Venice), and even the art market’s adoption of Jeff Koons as a favoured
son, on which HK Necklace with Jester depends for much of its
commercial lustre (Basel). Ultimately the project exists not in objects,
or even in ideas, but in their traffic with, and misappropriation by,
power structures. HK is not subversive, if by that we mean something
that comes out of the blue to overturn established meanings. Rather, it
is an inside job, an act of faux subversion, and one that pleads for
itself as the only type of subversion we have left.
There has been a healthy air of anticipation around Joanne Tatham and Tom O'Sullivan's new Tramway show.
There were the occasional rumours of ''something really big'' going on
in what is, after all, the largest gallery space in the country. Then an
unusually elegant private-view card, emblazoned with the mysterious
letters HK, arrived, along with the information that the pair, who
graduated from Glasgow School of Art's master of fine arts course in the
mid-nineties, have been working with the controversial issue of drugs.
Tatham and O'Sullivan are consistently intriguing artists. Their
sculptural works have included references to such diverse subjects as
culture, amateur craft, eighteenth-century painting, surrealism, sixties
minimalism, studio ceramics, and teen movies.
Their installation, The Glamour, shown at Transmission Gallery last year
and then at the Berlin Biennale, involved barbed wire, pink fluorescent
lighting, mirrors, and literally tons of rubble. It's as though they
feel quite free to rummage round the skip of art history for anything
they can recycle and put to good use. They're not just ragpickers,
though, but astute construction workers, putting their pieces together
and a keen satirical eye for some of the more wearisome cliches of
By forcing these contradictory elements to sit down together in one
room, they are constantly begging the questions of whether art is any
more than just style, and why it has developed its own language, so
divorced from our everyday conversation. Ultimately, they are asking if
art and the rest of life can rub along, or if they're destined for a
series of misunderstandings, secret admiration, and mutual mistrust.
Although all of this had aroused my curiosity, none of it had actually
prepared me for the jaw-dropping experience that is HK, an artwork that
at first sight is so simple and so audacious it actually made me gasp
out loud. The installation starts in the lobby of Tramway, with reading a
wall of moving, complex stories,
transcribed from interviews with
people affected by heroin use, including a user, a drug worker, and a
Entering Tramway 2 you see HK for what it really is: an empty and
enormous slogan. The words HEROIN KILLS writ out in three-dimensional
black letters, each some six metres high. They tower above you, looking
like something from Stonehenge or The Flintstones, something dropped out
of the sky like the opening titles of Monty Python's Flying Circus. The
words are huge, empty, fatalistic, and indisputably true. HK is
physically overwhelming, yet so woefully inadequate a response to the
stories relayed outside, that it's almost laughable.
Tatham and O'Sullivan know what they're up to. The slogan recalls the
government's spectacularly unsuccessful Aids campaign from the 1980s,
featuring creaking tombstones and equally creaking logic. And the
embarrassing plotline from school soap Grange Hill, where cute and
cheerful Zammo became a desperate drug-addled junkie, and the cast made a
hit record admonishing schoolchildren across the country to Just Say
There's art in here, too. The 1980s sloganeering of Jenny Holzer and
Barbara Kruger, the cool conceptualism of Lawrence Weiner. The letters
are so large that you can walk through them and under them, find
yourself nestling under the crossbar of the H, tempted to dive through
the centre of the O. It's like seeing one of those immense metal
sculptures by Richard Serra, which are so big that when you walk around
them you are secretly terrified they're going to fall on you.
BUT HK is also kind of thrilling, in a punk, 1970s New York kind of
way. You think of Lou Reed's miserable album Berlin, of the writer and
addict Alexander Trocchi. You find yourself seduced by the seedy glamour
of it all, aware Tatham and O'Sullivan are pushing at the edge,
knowingly opening themselves to accusation of triviality and
exploitation over such a serious issue.
Last week new research showed that 3.8% of Glaswegians between 15 and 54
are misusing hard drugs such as heroin or methadone. There are
2.6million drug-related crimes every year. If it's a commonplace cliche
in art that truth is beauty, what do we do when the facts are as ugly,
as unconsoling as this?
HK isn't going to answer that, but it's an admirably provocative and somewhat bloody-minded contribution to the discussion.
Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan, Artists from Contemporary Art Society on Vimeo.