Roadkill, Dildos and Nazi Typewriters – Afternoon Tea with Sue Webster
The artist known for giant dildo sculptures has made a cookbook.
Sue Webster's art has never been for the delicate of soul. The work of the prolific post-YBA generation artist, famously created in tandem with her partner in crime – and, until recently, love – Tim Noble has ploughed a surreal, highly personal furrow since she graduated from her role as Gilbert & George's assistant in the late 90s. They have been called art punks for years and the term – however hackneyed – still fits.
Noble and Webster are, perhaps, most famous for their shadow work. If you've not seen it, the pieces are huge piles of ephemera – rubbish, crisp packets, old beer cans, exploded splinters of wood, dead rats and seagulls – that become, at the receiving end of a spot light, shadows of the artists, relaxing, champagne glass in hand. Or, you know, pissing. Or maybe instead of rubbish, you're looking at a cluster of dildos and its corresponding shadow of Noble and Webster's decapitated heads, tongues dryly hanging out. They are masterful, magical feats of engineering that command the whole room and have to be seen – much like their parallel light sculpture work – to be truly believed.
Basically, they're two artists that have consistently kicked against the pricks. Their work has always been a punch in the face and immediately accessible. Shock is an accessible, universal thing because you can't escape from it – something that the modern art world tends to think of as gauche these days. Noble and Webster's isn't a message of erudition. It's: here's what you can make with the tangible shit that society has left on the street. Here's what you can make if you pull your finger our your arse and look hard enough.
Webster, a proud Leicester native with both the wiriness and soft footing of a flyweight boxer, once told me that she wanted to marry a chip as a kid because she loved them so much. Grayson Perry was once scoffed at for doing pottery because it was so anti-establishment, but now she's done something not many artists have done before and has written a cookbook. Only, don't expect any kind of neat, macro-lensed art-direction and Jamie Oliver-style gurning – she's written it all on Nazi typewriter, replacing every "s" with "SS".
There are recipes that include roadkill and a chicken's foot that a fox left tied to a post, but there's also much more mundane, everyday stuff like carrot cake and pea soup. Her and Noble spend most of their time – especially when they are working on a show – in London, in a huge, black, David Adjaye-designed building in Shoreditch dubbed "Dirty House", but The Folly Acres Cookbook is focused on their country lot of the same name – a sprawling 44 acres of verdant, Gloucester green where they let rip with two feral-but-loving cats, an ever fluctuating number of chickens and an outside toilet in a shed.
VICE met with Webster in her London home for a chat over a cup of Northern tea, i.e. heavily stewed and with a palette-stripping lack of milk.
VICE: Hi Sue. How much has doing this book changed your relationship with food? At the start you say you only ever saw food as fuel, but over the course of the book it becomes apparent that you really enjoy it.
Sue Webster: I was brought up surviving off frozen food in Leicester. My dad worked in the Findus factory and would bring back carloads of frozen food with no labels. It used to sit in the freezer and we'd go, "What's this?" before thawing it out and eating it. I'm sure there was dog food in there. I didn't have Linda McCartney cooking for me. Mary McCartney's just done a cookbook, actually and it's full of pictures of her kids picking strawberries from a strawberry bush. I didn't have that kind of mother – I was brought up thinking that you just ate tinned and frozen food, that cooking a meal didn't last any longer than the time it cook to eat it.
When did that change?
When I met Tim. His mother would slave over the oven. I'd never seen an aubergine or an avocado before then – I didn't know what to do with them! I guess I learnt a lot from her, she was a wonderful cook. And having Folly Acres, our farm, where you can just plant seeds and grow ridiculous, giant parsnips... I saw all that as free food. Although it probably cost more if you count labour.
There's always been a found element in your shadow sculptures, whether it's piled-up trash from the street or roadkill cast in silver. Do you think the free element of growing food has appealed to your resourceful nature?
Are you making an analogy to my work? Scavenging for materials and scavenging for food?
Yeah, I guess.
Ha! It comes from naturally wanting to make things, I think. Making recipes is like making art, and it's more rewarding to eat something you've cooked and grown yourself. When we bought Folly Acres we inherited a vegetable garden and an apple orchard and, because it's quite remote there, it made us live off the land and learn about seasons. I started off making things to eat and photographing them on my phone, but after a while it got really boring; like, "Ooh, another bowl of soup with the sun behind it and the spoon at an angle."
I remember looking at the garbage and making little faces with the peelings and eggshells and thinking that I could sculpt with the garbage in a way I couldn't with the food.
Did you ever set out to make a cookbook?
No. I'm fascinated by people who have written cookbooks who aren't cooks, though. I found one on the shelf of Tim's mother's house by the crime writer Len Deighton. I mean, my mother didn't have a shelf of cook books – she had a shelf of Jackie Collins! I love the idea of people going off on a tangent.
So we had a farm, I was learning how to cook, we were growing vegetables, I was making things out of what ever was available. Like, apples and parsnips are in season at the same time, so I'd put them in a dish together. You just become aware of things. So I'd make my apple and parsnip soup and jot it down so that, when I came back next week, month or year, I'd have accumulated a pile of paper scraps. Then I acquired the typewriter and I decided I'd like to make a little book, so I don't have to keep searching through all these scraps of paper. I just started typing them up. Everything was grown, cooked and written down there, even the little tips like, "Cook this for as long as Neil Young's On The Beach takes to play."
Some of the pictures in the book I'm familiar with as your work – like the blindfold drawings like the one of Frida Kahlo you did for the cover of the ad-hoc food quarterly, Wolf – but some feel like new territory for you.
I did initially start doing normal photos of food and sending them to friends, but it didn't last long. One Christmas we were down there and had a big pile of garbage, all the peelings and stuff, and I was just so fascinated by it. It reminded me of the way I work in the studio, making stuff out of what people throw away. There's not many pictures of actual food. There's Party Squirrel and Jesus Rabbit and the Carrot family and a drawing made of beetroot juice.
Oh, and I suppose eggs on crumpets is more traditional, but it's supposed to look like a pair of tits.
OK. Why did you use an SS typewriter?
I felt like the typewriter would be a big issue. I'd tell people about [writing a cook book] and they'd say that it was a great idea, following in the footsteps of Andy Warhol's cookbook, and stuff. And then I'd say, "Oh, by the way, I typed the whole thing on a 1940s Nazi typewriter and I don't know why but I've decided to omit the S and use the SS." People got quite worried about that. But when you see the typed manuscript you realise that, in the overuse of that symbol, you dilute its importance.
Well, you've taken it out of context, too. You don't expect to see the SS symbol on a page talking about spinach soup.
Once you've seen it, you realise how ridiculous it looks. It's two lightening flashes. You have to wake yourself up a bit as to what it means.
Do you still think it's important for art to shock?
As an artist I don't think you can help yourself but be drawn to things that are wrong in the world, to things that people don't know happen. I think it's more dangerous to pretend that something didn't happen than to remember something bad that did happen. You almost have a responsibility to preserve signs of evil to remind people that they did exist. Did you know that the biggest collectors of holocaust memorabilia are Jewish people?
Shit, really? Why do you think that is?
Fascination. Those are the people who want to preserve signs of evil to prove it existed. I have a German friend who was really excited that I was using this typewriter. She gave me a cookbook, In Memory's Kitchen, which was written by women in Terezin concentration camp. The original exists on parchment paper or something similar, which the women in the camp wrote recipes of what they ate on when they were free from memory.
On a practical note, did working with a 75-year-old typewriter old ever get a bit annoying?
It did break down a couple of times and the book got put on hold. I couldn't find another one that hadn't had the SS key filed down. I had typed the recipes but not the stories, but thought: 'I'm a sculptor. I can make things. I can fix things.' So I became at one with it. I spoke to it and, rocking it, it came back to life for me. If you love a machine it will love you back. Does that work for digital technology?
Typing on an old 1940s typewriter, it's thud-thud-thud. The screws come loose and keys get stuck. I had to maintain, grease and tighten it. It's part of the family now. Fred West actually used to refer to his tools as humans.
And humans as objects?
That's a different tangent altogether, Sue. What have people's reactions been like to the book so far?
People are shocked. Forget about the SS symbol, though – it's the thought of me writing a cookbook! I went to my dry cleaner the other day and he asked what I'd been up to. I said I'd just been to New York as I had an opening there, but that I'm also putting out a cook book. And he looked at me, like, what the fuck? He looked at his wife, then back at me again, and said, "What kind of recipes?" I said, "Things like roadkill. You know, you pick something off the road that you've killed and take it home and cook it." He kind of looked repulsed, but at the same time that he thought it was a good idea. Like, why don't more people do that?
How different is what you eat at Folly to what you eat in London?
I can't be bothered in London. I'm too busy. I just revert to my past and eat fish fingers. In Folly I have time on my hands and look forward to creating food. I'll have people round – something I don't do in London. Although I did once have people round when we just moved in. It was my birthday so I got excited and invited a load of people round. I was going to cook something with rice and put a whole packet in the pan and it quadrupled in size and then I didn't rinse it through with hot water so it was just this... splodge. I remember Isabella Blow turning to Tim and whispering, "I don't think Sue cooks very often, does she?" And then Mark Hix came round and cooked this mushroom he found on the golf course, just with oil and salt and pepper. It was delicious. The whole flat was filled with this stink because one of the rings on the cooker had never been used, though – it still had its plastic sheath on.
So no, I don't really cook much in London. To be honest, it took me ten years to work out what all parts of the oven did.
More on art from VICE: