‘The New Barbarians step out of a white void and into our world as if arriving through a time warp. 3.5 million years bridged in the gallery. But surely this evolutionary step between Neanderthal and Modern man wouldn’t be completely bald? Probably not. And surely he wouldn’t have his arm round her either? Well, who knows?… These uncanny creatures – shot, pot-bellied and hunched – appear anatomically grotesque to us, and yet their faces are oddly familiar. Of course, it’s Tim & Sue. They have had their own faces morphed with those of early man, modelling themselves as precursors to the entire human race. They are the first couple, a pop-evolutionist’s Adam and Eve’ (D. Barrett, ‘How to be a Young British Artist for fun and Profit’, Tim Noble & Sue Webster The New Barbarians, exh. cat., Chisenhale Gallery, London, 1999, p.7).
As a seminal double self-portrait of the artists, The New Barbarians stands as the definitive work from Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s ground-breaking practice. Two life-size sculptural humanoids cross the divide between their world and ours, caught mid-stride as they step out of the void. In a characteristic act of irreverence, the artists have transposed their own faces onto these two primordial bodies, casting their likenesses in the image of our primitive ancestors, and provocatively positioning themselves at the dawn of creation. Evoking the origin of the species and the evolution of man, they stage a profound moment of encounter. The stark nakedness of the figures recalls the biblical narrative of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, whilst also serving to induce a disarming self-awareness in the viewer. As their piercing eyes survey their new surroundings, we invited to gaze back, suddenly aware of our own presence. The New Barbarians has come to play a critical role within the artists’ practice. Widely exhibited, the work was shown at the Chisenhale Gallery, London, in the year of its completion. It has subsequently featured in museum exhibitions at the Artium Museum, Vitoria-Gasteiz, 2002, MoMA P.S.1, New York, 2003, and at the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga, Malaga, 2005.
Constructed from fiberglass and translucent resin, the figures are based on a reconstruction of the early human specific Australopithecus Afarensis which is displayed in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Staggering in their verisimilitude, the hyper-real quality of the primeval figures is heightened by their deliberately hairless appearance. Standing in contrast to the companion work Masters of the Universe (1998-2000), which is covered with hair, the bald appearance of the ‘barbarians’ heightens the work’s sense of primal confrontation. Coming to prominence within the young British art (yBa) scene of the 1990s, Noble and Webster imbue their work with the same sense of deep exposure and unflinching honesty that characterised their generation. With his arm draped around her shoulder, protectively guarding his companion against the unfamiliar surroundings, the work harbours a poignant sincerity. At the same time, The New Barbarians is tinged with the conceptual subversiveness that the yBas deliberately exploited: by transplanting their own faces onto the work, the couple align their practice and artistic personae with grandiose narratives of creation and evolution. As David Barrett has written, by positioning themselves at the birth of the human race they stake their ground as ‘the first couple, a pop-evolutionist’s Adam and Eve’ (D. Barrett, ‘How to be a Young British Artist for fun and Profit’, Tim Noble & Sue Webster The New Barbarians, exh. cat., Chisenhale Gallery, London, 1999, p.7).
Influenced by the Punk movement of the 1970s, Noble and Webster exploit shock tactics to great effect in their work. In The New Barbarians, which shares its title with a punk-rock band that rose to fame in 1979, implications of vulnerability and innocence are held in tension with an unnerving sense of menace. In his commentary on the work, Barrett teases out this relationship. On one hand, he writes, ‘Tim & Sue suggest that at the root of mankind lies skinheads, “New Barbarians” (American bike gangs). What if, they ask, we are thuggish and brutal at heart? But they also make clear that such characteristics do not necessarily preclude other emotions; they are holding hands after all. So these creatures are both vulnerable and repulsive, and suggest an ability to be both aggressive and loving. If we allowed our repulsion to get the better of us, we would end up demonising the brute. Which of their attributes would such a lack of understanding encourage, and where would that leave us, their descendants? Yet there is something else going on here; this is not a museum display based on current scientific standing. This couple is stepping out of a void … So again we have this idea of a carefully constructed image: a deliberate playing of roles for the audience. Tim & Sue don’t actually claim to be our ancestors, they only pretend to. As viewers we must recognise the tongue-in-cheek humour inherent in this provocation’ (D. Barrett, ‘How to be a Young British Artist for fun and Profit’, Tim Noble & Sue Webster The New Barbarians, exh. cat., Chisenhale Gallery, London, 1999, p.7).