Practicing collaboratively since 1995, the Glasgow-based artists Tatham & O'Sullivan reanimate the margins of conceptual art, emphasising the repressed elements of Conceptualism's concern with opacity and myth while retaining its more well rehearsed legacy of transparent systems building. To this end they produce work that as densely layered with cultural references as it is minimal in its form, as cold and mechanistic as it is folksy and physically inviting, that is both alienating and playful.
A 17th century stately home near Edinburgh is a particularly loaded setting for Tatham & O'Sullivan's recent commission. While the house has only been in the hands of the National Trust for Scotland since the 1970s, it is a time capsule in terms of its exterior and interior design. Largely untouched since the 18th century, it is peppered with inlaid oil portraits by Alan Ramsay and his Enlightenment peers, and packed with delicate Chinoiserie and Rococo ornamentation. Place anything remotely modern in here and it couldn't fail to produce a curious spatial violation, destroying the sense of historical wellbeing and cobwebbed intactness. But this isn't all that happens with Tatham & O'Sullivan's sculptures.
Tatham & O'Sullivan's objects have to be viewed by taking a tour of the old house accompanied by a National Trust Guide. The tour guides are informative about the family that built the home, the key role its huge library once played in the Scottish Enlightenment, but they generally ignore the artworks, which appear as ghostly presences in the rooms watching over unwanted guests. Given the obtrusiveness of the works, it's almost comic that they are not mentioned. There is, nevertheless, the sense in which this silence allows the works to correspond with the character and experience of the house. Many are hewn from lead, marble, porcelain and wood, and flaunt a sumptuous antiquated patina. Despite this, they are primarily very bold iconographic works that signify as distant visual schema - as shapes, patterns and signs. Much in the way that strategically placed holly leaves subtly ensure that visitors don't sit on any of the old chairs, the National Trust Guide trusts that we don't touch anything. Visitors never get to experience the artworks through their textural qualities, and in this sense they conform to our expectations of precious domestic objects displayed in heritage environments. The invitation to touch at a distance via a haptic visuality is crucial to the way in which Tatham & O'Sullivan's work can imbue a sense of awe while remaining wholly transparent in terms of its means of production. This drama is particularly heightened in the Library, which hosts a sizeable triangular wedge and a small marble version of "HK", the "Heroin Kills" leitmotif premiered in gargantuan scale at Glasgow's Tramway in 2001. The logo has been resurrected in numerous forms since, notably as the 18 carat gold "HK Necklace" worn by selected gallerists, artists and curators at the 2003 Venice Biennale. The "Heroin Kills" legend appears here as a bizarre parlour game, a grave government health warning re-scaled as a luxury objet d'art for an aristocratic pile. It's a deliberate vanity work, not the genuine Colossus. Much like the public information advertisements it lampoons, it is so far removed from the grim horrors of heroin addiction as to fail to signify.
As a whole, the project at Newhailes has associations with the three stages of the magic trick - the pledge (showing something ordinary that soon won't seem quite so ordinary), the turn (making something ordinary do something extraordinary) and the prestige (returning the collateral of something ordinary while retaining an experience of something that your audience cannot wholly figure out). The turn operates simply enough here - a change of scale, material and site is all that's required to create the "vanity works" and the "other works" promised in the project's title. The prestige, the trick of making the familiar appear again as if for the first time, is here something that occurs rhetorically - through the process of repetition and word play. Using repetition to create a closed system of self-reference has long been a key aspect of Tatham & O'Sullivan's practice, one that endows it with a ritualised quasi-magical significance. The tropes of Tatham & O'Sullivan's works - mirrors, pyramids, monoliths, chess boards, strip lights, barbed wire, "heroin kills" - have accumulated exponentially over the years into an absurd vocabulary akin to those beloved of secret societies. Their iconic works are the nuts and bolts of a signifying system that stops short of interpretation. Despite these self-mythologising tactics being completely evident, the prestige, or the magic still happens. Rhetoric works.
Joanne Tatham & Tom O'Sullivan, "Rhetoric Works & Vanity Works & Other Works", Newhailes, Musselburgh, October 8th - November 12th, 2006.