The art of making two into one
Sometimes a partnership between two can create something far beyond the simple sum of one plus one. The combination produces something completely different from what the individuals involved would create as individuals. Think Laurel and Hardy, Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, Scorsese and De Niro. It can even add magic when the couple are creating separate works, like Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, or one half is providing inspiration, guidance or criticism, as was the case with Francis Bacon and George Dyer.
We decided to explore the subject by talking to creative couples who we know personally or have admired from afar. We were curious about how they sparked one another’s creativity, whether their relationship predated their work. And whether they believed that the whole is always greater than the sum of its two parts, or just something different.
Isabel + Helen
Since graduating in 2012, Isabel Gibson and Helen Chesner became Isabel + Helen, and set up studio together in south London. Describing themselves as kinetic artists, they’re also the creators of noodle chairs and a window display examining the nature of Universal scale. Their works are as likely to appear in Selfridges as the Tate Modern or the V&A and their client list spans Hermès, ITV and Adobe. We asked them about how and why two works better than one for them.
How did the two of you meet?
We met at Chelsea College of Arts back in 2009 and became great friends before we even thought about working together.
One of the first projects we collaborated on involved throwing a tyre off a roof and steam-rolling a cake. This resulted in our tutor telling us to ‘never work together again’.
We bonded over our love of the analogue, in a predominantly digital world. Our work was initially a counteraction to this environment we found ourselves in, which encouraged a more physical and tangible approach.
How quickly did you find yourselves working together?
Not long after graduating we started collaborating. We never intended to set up a studio straight away, but it all happened quite naturally. We would often take trips to the Science Museum and were drawn to the simple kinetics that are found in childhood toys such as jumping jacks and Newton’s cradle. We now specialise in creating contraptions and sculptures that come to life once a kinetic motion is added, whether that be by mechanics or by human energy. We always aim to create a visual delight which makes the audience question how it was made.
Could you imagine working any other way now?
We have only ever really worked together and so can’t imagine doing it individually. I’m sure our work would end up down the same path and ideas would be evolutions of each other, subconsciously overlapping. It’s great having each other to bounce ideas off and gain an extra perspective, which always strengthens our practice. It makes our work a lot more instinctive, often leading to more experimental outcomes. And it always helps to halve the load when carrying a big piece of wood!
Do you work together physically in the same space?
We have worked together for 6/7 years now and have a studio in Forest Hill with a large workshop that has plenty of space to test out ideas and create prototypes. We have been learning to work in separate spaces over lockdown, doing lots of phone sketches and Facetiming, using lo-fi materials such as card, straws and wooden barbecue sticks to test our ideas. With working apart, we realised how often we do need to discuss and go through things. We’d both often end up with the phones glued to our ears for hours, trying to describe specific spins and flicks. With a lot of our work, you kind of need to be in a studio environment with all the tools and materials around you to work with.
Do you have distinctly defined roles when working?
Every day is so different, so it is quite hard to define our separate roles. We think the collaborative process is constantly changing, with the type of projects, but also where we are both at individually. We just naturally split the roles, but there isn’t one who is more or less dominant, or one that is better at one thing than the other. We’re like a coxless pair rather than a jockey and its horse.
Do you always see eye-to-eye on everything or does work come from more of a sense of competitiveness or argument?
Of course, there are a few debates here and there which are mainly about practical processes, like how best to cut a straight line, or a common dispute is whether a colour is orange or red. We both often spot things or consider things that the other might not, and it’s important to have that constant dialogue.
Images provided by Isabel + Helen.
We also spoke to illustrators Craig & Carl about how they work together with an ocean in the way. You can read the interview here.