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Joanne Tatham and Tom O'Sullivan

The Artists

‘We consider our work as being in a tradition of conceptual art; its about questioning the parameters of art, what contemporary art is – what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. We’re interested in making art that is very public; art that has a physical and intellectual effect on the viewer – whether you like it or not, you have to engage with it’. (Tatham & Sullivan interviewed by Will Bradley, Berlin 2001).

Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan have worked collaboratively since 1995 creating work that is concerned with the mythic potential of art, and how art can exist as an event in a particular space and time. Their installations are often a re-staging of a vocabulary of images, phrases and forms which are part of a common history.  Tatham & O’Sullivan's That is the way, it is, it is, that is
Courtesy the Modern Institute

Though these reference rather than directly quote specific artists and artworks or reveal the origin of a motif: ‘There’s always more than one meaning. The pink lights in ‘The Glamour’ are Dan Flavin, but then they’re too camp, a backdrop for a seedy strip club … and in a way they refer to a whole genre of bad art’. (1)

Tatham & O’Sullivan's A routine sequence of external actions; Photo: The Modern Institute

Employing theatricality, Brechtian absurdity and Wittgensteinian word-play, the viewer is playfully complicit in the construction of meaning, for example,  both ‘HK’ (2001) and ‘The Slapstick Mysticks’ (2002) use words as found things that can misdirect or mislead a viewer; ‘The Blacks’ (2002), a sculptural work, is both the title of the work and the work itself: ‘a title, a label, a reading, a social indicator, a presentation, a construction… and a theatrical design… ’. (Cubitt, London, 2002)

Helen Hirsch writes, ‘Tatham & O’Sullivan proceed to the brink of intelligibility with their work, in as much as they play with the viewer’s expectations and irritate them by means of technically diversionary manoeuvres. The title ‘Think Thingamajig and Other Things’ is symptomatic of the artists’ complex rapport with form and speech. This installation begins with a tiny, enigmatic sculpture placed under glass on a made-to-measure wooden pedestal, standing almost unnoticed in the entrance corridor of the Glarus Kunsthaus. … ‘Whoever engages with it will irritably have to search for clues, since coded messages belong programmatically to Tatham and O’Sullivan’s strategical thinking. (2)

‘Think Thingamajig’ [is] a ceramic cube decorated with pink diamonds on a black background that the artists have described as an esoteric object, a thing for thinking. Thinking about what, though? About the artist’s straw-and black paint-plastered monolith ‘This Has Reached the Limit Conditions of Its Own Rhetoric’?...

Tatham & O’Sullivan's Think Thingamajig and Other Things; Courtesy The Modern Institute

...About their recent sculptural work ‘That is the Way, it is, it is, that is’, in which the ‘The Glamour’, ‘HK’ and ‘This Has Reached...’ projects are smooshed together in what is at once a caricature of the artists oeuvre, a mini-retrospective and, quite possibly, an endgame in which each element cancels the other elements out?

Tatham & O’Sullivan's Slapstick Mystics with Sticks 2; Courtesy The Modern Institute In fact, it does not help us to think about these objects at all. It, like them, is a prop, a decoy. Its only purpose is to get us to think about thinking, and who might want us to do that thinking, and why. This may seem meagre, but it has its consolations....

...Thinking doesn‘t disappoint us or compromise us. Thinking guides us through glamour. Thinking is where compassion lives.’ (Tom Morton, ‘Mirror, Mirror’, Frieze, issue 87, November-December 2004, pp. 90-93)

New work for Venice

Their work for Scottish Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale 2005 entitled ‘A routine sequence of external actions’, is a choreography of sculptures and motifs that exist both within and outside the exhibition space, and includes a mischievous outdoor piece adjacent to the Giardini. Part of a project entitled Selective Memory, curators Jason E Bowman and Rachel Bradley have sought to encourage the public to explore the notion of artistic labour and the process of making art.

Each artist has developed what is an ‘expanded practice’, adding to the social vibrancy of their community through their roles as ‘cultural development agents’.
The curators state: ‘Scotland is home to one of the world’s most stimulating contemporary art scenes; the artists chosen reflect this vitality and the project is about the cultural role of artistic practice and its impact on the development of Scotland’s greater cultural fabric.’

Tatham & O’Sullivan's HK Necklace with Jester; Photo: Courtesy The Modern Institute

Tatham & O’Sullivan (b. 1971 & 1967) are based in Glasgow and have worked collaboratively since 1995. Recent solo exhibitions include:

  • ART BASEL Statements, 2005
  • Oh We Will, We Will, Will We, Studio Voltaire, London 2005
  • That is the Way, it is, that is’, Sutton Lane, London, 2004
  • Think Thingamajig and Other Things, Kunsthaus Glasus, Switzerland, 2003

Recent group exhibitions include:

  • (My private) Heroes, MARTA Museum of Art & Design, Herford, Germany
  • Reflection part II, Sutton Lane, London, 2005
  • ‘Aint no love in the heart of the city’, Cardiff, 2004
  • Zenomap, Venice Biennale, 2003

Following the exhibition in Venice (10 June - 6 November), Selective Memory will be shown at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh in December 2005.

Tatham & O’Sullivan's Slapstick Mystics with Sticks 1; Photo: Courtesy:Modern Institute Tatham & O’Sullivan are currently showing in Sutton Lane in Paris, a group exhibition at Galerie Ghislaine Hussenot, Paris, featuring works by artists represented by or collaborating with Sutton Lane, London (23 June – 20 July 2005).  They are represented by The Modern Institute, Glasgow and Sutton Lane, London.  Both artists are Research Fellows at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen.


1. Interview with Will Bradley, Berlin Biennale 2, Kunstwerke, Berlin, 2001
2. Helen Hirsch, Kunstbulletin 6, 2003, pp. 36-37

    Related links
    * Art Basel
    * Venice Biennale (Scotland and Venice)
    * Venice Biennale
    * Sutton Lane
    * Open Frequency
    * Axis
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