Artist Sue Webster Talks Bukowski, Breaking Taboos and Punk

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Forever, 2015Sue Webster and Tim Noble

The post-YBA pioneer considers the eclectic references that fuel her creative practice

Walking around the streets of East London's Shoreditch, it’s almost impossible to go unaffected by the area’s vapidly consumerist transformation. A Versace store now sits alongside opaquely pretentious coffee shops, surrounded by a smattering of patronising street art and the last remaining cab offices and off licenses. Where once Shoreditch was an epicentre of radical new change within the British art industry, now it has become a capitalist parody of itself.

When artist Sue Webster first moved to the area with her partner Tim Noble 23 years ago, however, she entered into a dramatically different situation. It was Webster, and her peers in the YBA and post-YBA generation, that shaped the East End to become the creative hub it once was. Artists moved to the area because of its reputation for cheap studio space – not for an opportunity to immerse themselves in a faux alternative lifestyle. Considering Shoreditch as a socio-cultural space is essential when talking about the work of Webster and Noble; the very core of their work explores the grit and aggression of the streets’ past.

The duo’s most prominent work can be divided into two different camps: Light Works, and Shadow Works. The former pieces take as their subject the abrasive nature of flashing lights. The Shadow Works, on the other hand, invoice the creation of intricate shadows by shining light on taxidermy, scrap metal, and sculptures made from the rubbish found on Hackney’s streets.

Considered the punk rock duo of the turn-of-the-century art scene, Webster and Noble’s work is unforgivingly raw and abrasive. They play with working class ideals in the face of the grandeur of the art industry, separating themselves decisively from the snobbery which emanates from much of it.

More recently, Webster has been working alone on a few particular projects, one of which takes the form of a cookbook called The Folly Acres Cook Book – a semi-autobiographical account of recipes made for friends, along with drawings, photographs and her own thoughts, and accompanied by a foreword by PJ Harvey. Webster is also working on editing her teenage diaries, and she and Noble have work on show in Sotheby’s current exhibition, The Nude in the XX & XXI Century.

AnOther visited Sue’s impressive home and studio, ‘The Dirty House’, to discuss the changing space which surrounds her, and her own unpretentious inspirations.

On Bukowski...
“I wish I’d been given Bukowski to read at school, rather than having Shakespeare rammed down my throat; if I had, I think I would have excelled in literature. [Artist] Danny Fox recently introduced me to Bukowski's work – it’s funny how I’d never heard of him before – and ever since then I’ve passed on the love to other people. He’s infectious. He tells it how it is; he’s not a ‘worthy’ poet, expanding on the colour of the sun. It’s more like street poetry, or dirty realism. I just thought, this is exactly the way I live my life. I walk out of the front door and there’s dog shit in a Red Stripe can looking at me, with fag butts all over the floor. To me that’s poetry, because that’s where I come from, it’s what I’m faced with every day. It’s the stuff of life that Tim and I were collecting to make our work from.”

On Siouxsie and the Banshees...
“Siouxsie Sioux became my surrogate mother when I was a teenager. I guess I needed a role model whilst growing up in suburban Leicester. At the time I didn’t feel like I fitted into society; I knew there was something out there, but I didn’t know what it was. My mum was wearing heels and permed hair, and my elder sister just followed in her footsteps. While I was studying art at school my teachers would force feed us Italian Renaissance painting, so there were no role models in art, music became everything.  

So when I discovered Siouxsie, through reading the NME [magazine], I didn’t just fall in love with her music – she also introduced me to a new form of womanhood which I hadn’t known existed. I heard that it was alright to feel that way, to break away from this other life that I’d been born into. I suppose this has always stuck with me. The band introduced me to Europe, too: I had a boyfriend who was also a Banshees fan, and we followed them on tour, all around England and then onto Amsterdam, France and Germany.”

On her fascination with Fascist Germany...
“I’ve got this obsession with Fascist Germany, and I don’t know where it comes from. I recently wrote a cookbook, called The Folly Acres Cookbook, and I typed the whole thing using a 1939 Olympia Robust typewriter, from The Third Reich, which I sourced on the interweb. It has an ‘SS’ key on the upper level, so I sellotaped the real ’S’ key down and whenever an ’S’ came up, I’d replace it with the SS... For instance, there’s a recipe, which reads SSpinach SSoup. After a while I felt the power of the symbol gets diluted, because its overuse somehow renders it impotent.

My obsession doesn't make me a fascist: I think artists are always drawn to taboo subjects, to extremes. I suppose I want to try and expose peoples’ moral comforts. I think as an artist you have a duty to test people.”

On the value of repetition...
“Have you ever watched The Fly? There’s a moment when Jeff Goldblum, who plays the mad scientist, opens his wardrobe to reveal a collection of identical grey suits hanging in a row. Somebody told me that Steve Jobs’ wardrobe was full of black turtleneck sweaters. It's like their brains are so complicated that they just don't have time to worry about fashion. I can relate to that. I can't be bothered to shop. I try to buy everything from Amazon instead, and on the rare occasion that I do find something I like, I always buy two or three at the same time in case they wear out.

I need to force myself to have a structure because you have to – if there ain’t no structure, then all hell is going to break loose. When I find a favourite song I put it on repeat, play it over and over and over again, until people are forced to leave the room. I like to repeat until the message reaches you.”

On the gentrification of Shoreditch...
“I’ve lived in Shoreditch for 20 years, and in this house, just off Redchurch Street, for 13 years. I used to be able to tell the time from Spitalfields Church, or St Leonard’s on Shoreditch High Street from my balcony. Now, however, the Hostem clothes shop has expanded and gone up a level, and the overground has built a Berlin Wall in front of my house and blocked my view.

My good friend Rachel Whiteread was my neighbour for years, and she recently got to the point where she had had enough. At first I thought, ‘God, you’ve let the side down,’ but then again, she’d lived here longer than I had. It was driving her crazy. But I wasn't quite ready to give up, I felt I needed to be inside the buzz of it in order to work, but I must say, in the last month or two, I do feel I’ve had enough. Now the streets are full of the very people that I came here to escape from.”