Sunday, 9 February 2014

Joanne Tatham & Tom O’Sullivan - HK

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.

What play 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 kicks in.

"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.
Elisabeth Mahoney 

HK began with the exhibition, in 2001, of a phalanx of 11 black, six-metre-high letters spelling out the words ‘Heroin Kills’ at Glasgow’s Tramway. The following year the same words adorned Tatham and O’Sullivan’s HK Necklace (2003), a piece of hand-cut 18-carat gold jewellery worn by an invited selection of high-profile, Venice Biennale-bound artists, art dealers and curators, which the artists then subsequently incorporated into the sculpture HK Necklace with Jester (2003), in which the El Lissitzky-meets-LL Cool J-styled necklace is embraced by a shop-bought Swarovski crystal harlequin; the piece appeared, at the artists’ insistence, on their dealer’s stand at Art Basel 2004.

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.
Tom Morton

HK marble (Absolute Black Zimbabwe), 2004

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 rave 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 with intelligence and a keen satirical eye for some of the more wearisome cliches of installation art. 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 bereaved parent. 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 No. 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.
Moira Jeffrey

Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan, Artists from Contemporary Art Society on Vimeo.


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