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Joanne Tatham / Tom O'Sullivan

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Rhetoric Works & Vanity Works & Other Works
Newhailes, Musselburgh, East Lothian
8 October – 12 November 2006

The commission

Photo: Tom O'Sullivan

In 2006, Joanne Tatham and Tom O'Sullivan were awarded a major commission through The Scottish Arts Council to create a substantial and ambitious new work of art for Scotland.

The resulting project, 'Rhetoric Works & Vanity Works & Other Works' comprised a suite of objects, sited within Newhailes, a 17th century house owned by The National Trust for Scotland in October and November 2006.

The project encompassed the suite of objects within a larger narrative that included a visit to the house and an engagement with its history and current use. The objects drew on motifs previously developed with Tatham and O'Sullivan's wider body of work– specifically, shapes, patterns, textures and signs. Made from lead, marble, porcelain and wood, they worked in sympathy with and in contrast to the 17th century domestic interior of Newhailes.

The particular fusion of history with the contemporary was instantiated and experienced via tours of the house during an extension of Newhailes' usual opening hours.

Photo: Tom O'Sullivan

The National Trust for Scotland were delighted that the artists chose to work in Newhailes and felt that it brought a new audience to the house with a wider public understanding of its history. Mark McLean, Education and Interpretation Officer at Newhailes, National Trust for Scotland said:

'This commission is especially exciting for Newhailes because Joanne Tatham & Tom O'Sullivan's work emphasises a key aspect of Newhailes' history, one of collecting and commissioning cutting edge artists and designers to create works for the interior of the house.'

Installation at Newhailes

Photo: Tom O'Sullivan

A record of the installation at Newhailes exists in the form of a publication, which also provides a document of the commissioned work. It includes a text by Mungo Campbell, Deputy Director, Hunterian Art Gallery, which can be downloaded here.

Innovative joint 'commission-accession' project

'Rhetoric Works & Vanity Works & Other Works' was and continues to be a particularly innovative project, in at least four key respects:

  • as a commission undertaken jointly by six museum partners
  • as a 'commission-accession' initiative, whereby the new works created would be accessioned into one of the partner collections
  • as a 'linked access' initiative, whereby the museum partners participating in the commission can access and host the suite of works
  • as an integral suite of objects that effectively constitute an 'artwork-as-exhibition' and therefore will take on a highly specific relationship with each new context of display.

On-going installation and Iteration: The Hunterian Art Gallery

Photo: Tom O'Sullivan

Subsequent to its installation by the artists at Newhailes, the suite of objects integral to 'Rhetoric Works & Vanity Works & Other Works' was accessioned into the collection of The Hunterian Art Gallery and Museums in late 2006, with the purpose that it be available to, and shown in, the contexts of the other NCSS museums.

Beyond its initial and very specific installation at Newhailes, 'Rhetoric Works & Vanity Works & Other Works' might be best understood as a single work incorporating eight discrete parts that are 'relational.' In effect, it is an 'artwork-as-exhibition' for which the disposition of the eight art objects - intended to function, with, through, or against their context of display – is crucial.

'Rhetoric Works & Vanity Works & Other Works' was installed in the Hunterian Art Gallery early in 2007. Its installation in any of the NCSS partner museums, certainly for the first occasion, requires the close participation of the artists. This participation derives from their intention for 'Rhetoric Works & Vanity Works & Other Works' to be 'relational.' Insofar as it constitutes 'artwork-as-exhibition,' different approaches are required for its re-presentation in the new contexts that the NCSS museums offer.

Reviews of Rhetoric Works & Vanity Works & Other Works at Newhailes

Maclaren, Duncan. 'House of Enlightenment', Map, Issue 9 2007, pp 40-43

Mullholland, Neil. 'Heroin Kills, Rhetoric Works', Texte Zur Kunst, March 2007, pp 165 -167

Vincent, Martin. 'Joanne Tatham & Tom O'Sullivan', Art Monthly, November 2006 No. 301, pp 25 -26

Gale, Ian. 'Making history the modern way', Scotland on Sunday, 22 October 2006, Review p 9

Donald, Ann. 'Collection that shows the shape of things to come', Scotland on Sunday, 8 October 2006, Review p 12

Mottram, Jack. "Home in on objects of their affection", The Herald, 6 October 2006, p 5

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