From 17 October 2007 to 13 January 2008
Curated by Jan Debbaut and Ben Borthwick
London 1967: two sculpture students meet at St. Martin’s School of Art. From then on, they decide to join their lives and their art in a unique, indissoluble entity. During the subsequent forty years, calling themselves simply Gilbert & George, the two artists investigate the complexity of the human condition.
Sometimes considered provocative, their art addresses controversial issues, such as identity, sexuality, politics, and religion. Conveying the aggressiveness of today’s world and the proliferation of stresses to which the individual is constantly subjected, Gilbert & George often portray each other in their pictures, thereby declaring their vulnerability and fragility.
Offering the public the opportunity to retrace the entire career of these two artists, Gilbert & George: Major Exhibition is the most extensive retrospective of their art that has been organized to date. Conceived by the artists, the installation at Castello di Rivoli includes the second and third floors and delineates an original layout, chronological in part. Although they create all their pictures in thematic groups, each defined by analogous stylistic choices, in this case Gilbert & George have preferred to juxtapose pictures belonging to different groups.
The choice to saturate the space, arranging the pictures according to a dense plan, transforms each room into a large fresco, within which some of the post urgent themes in contemporary discourse appear.
George (Plymouth, Devon, 1942) and Gilbert (San Martino, Bolzano, 1943) established their reputation in 1969 with their Singing Sculpture. Assuming the identity of “living sculptures,” together, standing on a table, they danced and sang Underneath the Arches, a song in which two vagabonds describe the pleasure of sleeping outdoors.
This choice indicates their intention to identify with the fringes of society. From that point on, Gilbert & George presented The Singing Sculpture in several exhibitions, as shown in the eponymous documentary film by Philip Haas that introduces the show (room 33). The World of Gilbert & George, 1981, the other film projected, is instead personally written and directed by the artists. It is a cross-section related to the life, places, characters, and themes that have given rise to their art. As they stated when they began putting it together, “we decided that the film should contain, explore and express ALL of our thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreads, dreams, loves, nightmares, disasters, prophecies, memories and tears.”
With the intention of reaching a broader public, since the beginning of their career, according to their motto “Art for All,” Gilbert & George began creating other art, utilizing postcards, drawing, video, photography, and film, considering each of these to be “sculpture.” The exhibition begins with a selection from the artists’ personal archive, including works in editions, signed statements, objects, and mementos tied to their life and their art (room 32).
Absolutely radical and avant-garde, Gilbert & George’s art initially alluded to certain aspects of Western culture and tradition. Classic suits, good manners, a love of nature, and a predilection for cocktails such as gin & tonic became fundamental features of Gilbert & George, without distinction between their private habits and the subjects described in their art. The total union between life and art is evident in the films and in the three videos the artists created in the early 1970s, A Portrait of the Artists as Young Men, 1970, Gordon’s Makes us Drunk, 1972, The Nature of Our Looking, 1970, and In the Bush, 1972, (rooms 27, 23, 24, 25).
The sustained consumption of alcoholic beverages that characterized their nightlife in the early Seventies also returns in numerous pictures, such as The Effect formerly known as A Drinking Piece, 1973 (room 30). Through their insistence on the intoxicating effects of alcohol – from blurred vision to a loss of balance – these pictures express Gilbert & George’s deep sincerity. As they have stated, at the time, many other artists were their drinking companions, “but the next day they went into the studio and painted an abstract painting.” While the art created by Gilbert & George in the early Seventies is made up of small-scale black and white images, installed according to schemes that are sometimes almost figurative, beginning in the mid-Seventies, the artists install their pictures according to orthogonal grids. The artists compare the juxtaposition of each of the panels that give rise to the picture to the superimposition of bricks used to construct a wall, or the succession of words needed to create a phrase. Cherry Blossom, 1974, and Bloody Life, 1975, are the first two groups where the grid is accompanied by the use of the color red, chosen for its evocation of blood, violence, and danger (room 28).
Inclined toward the complexity of the present and animated by a profound sense of psychological introspection, Gilbert & George’s art stems from a privileged viewpoint: their residence on Fournier Street, where they have lived since 1968. For the artists, their house – located in London’s East End, a neighborhood inhabited by diverse ethnic groups and marked by the encounter of various cultures and religions – coincides with their studio. The interior spaces of the building appear persistently in their Dusty Corners, 1975, and Dead Boards, 1976 (room 22).
In these, the image of each of the two artists appears between views of empty rooms, characterized by worn-out floors and dilapidated wood paneling. In the subsequent Mental, 1976, the artists’ self-portraits against neutral backgrounds are, instead, juxtaposed with images of public spaces (room 31). Foregrounds of flowering trees, streets enlivened by traffic or by chance passers-by, reproduce the image of a serene, pleasant city on a human scale. However, the images of each of the artists seem to delineate a sense of extraneousness with respect to the urban context, almost as if the London they are describing represents a reality that is difficult to achieve. The encounter with the harshest aspects of the urban reality becomes, instead, the subject of their Dirty Words Pictures, some of which are included in the exhibition (room 29). Created in 1977, they are characterized by images of writings collected by the artists during their explorations of London’s streets. Obscene words, insults, declarations of challenge: the broad survey of texts collected by Gilbert & George paints a picture of a climate dominated by violence, tension, and provocation. In the artists’ words, this is “timeless modernity.”
Following their art in black and whiten and then the use of red, in the early Eighties Gilbert & George deepen their interest in color. Limiting their chromatic choices to a few alternatives, their first pictures concentrate on green, red, yellow, and blue. Expanding the scale of their pictures, Gilbert & George begin using numerous images in panels to compose the image. The content of each square is determined ahead of time, through a series of preparatory drawings.
As a subject that is profoundly human and related to the daily life of every individual, sexuality is an issue that Gilbert & George often address. In 1982, in a group of pictures to which Hunger and Thirst belong, the artists use characters similar to animated cartoons, depicted while engaged in explicit sexual acts (rooms 19 and 20). The decision to employ a simplified type of drawing is explained as a way of confronting issues that are usually extraneous to museum galleries and which can generate a negative response on the part of some visitors. Gilbert & George almost always use themselves as subjects. However, in the early Eighties they create numerous pictures in which they depict other young people. In some cases, they invite chance passers-by to cross the threshold of their house and to enter the studio.
In World, 1983, as in similar pictures, the opening up to and interest in others manifests the artists’ desire to elevate and celebrate every person’s individuality (room 18). The close relationship between the looming presence of death and the fragility of life is a theme the artists have addressed frequently over the course of their career. However, the emergency tied to the spread of AIDS and the death of friends and acquaintances was such that in the late Eighties, many pictures by Gilbert & George were marked by a profound sense of isolation and desperation (room 18). In Flow, 1988, the two artists depict themselves beneath a sky filled with black clouds. As if incapable of acting, each figure is supported above an enlarged image of a male knee, the sole fragment of a body that is no longer visible. A blood-red road dominates the composition.
In keeping with their method, Gilbert & George appropriate a rich variety of graffiti, writings, and texts, often illegally posted in the streets near their house. After taking images of them, the artists devote themselves to a rigorous work of classification, based on subject and typology, and they file all the images, collecting them in separate files. Later, depending on the art they intend to produce, they use the material contained in their archives. Sometimes years pass between the time when they first encounter a specific piece of graffiti or writing and its use in a picture.
As stated in the title, Nineteen Ninety Nine, 1999, an imposing quadripartite picture, is a reflection made when the century was about to close (room 34). In order to create it, the artists selected material they had collected over the years, in search of themes that, in their opinion, characterized the Twentieth century. Images of human feces are recurrent in the art of Gilbert & George. According to them, “shit is people’s first adventure in form, and it’s one that everybody in the world understands, whether they are rich or poor, come from the desert or a city, or are three years old or seventy. It’s a great unifying theme.” In Shitty Naked Human World, 1994, part of The Naked Shit Pictures, the artists reproduce excrement on a gigantic scale, similar to the size of buildings and monuments (room 35). Placing these alongside their naked bodies, they underline their own frailty.
A continuous fascination with language and the defined codes within which communication is simplified constitutes the premise for New Horny Pictures. Produced in 2001, they center on classified ads for male sex adverts, which the artists collected, classified, and then organized into vast compositions. In Named, 2001, for example, ninety ads are brought together, exemplifying the trade in bodies that has fluorished from time immemorial (room 36). At the same time, the dense expanse of names, each followed by words that remain to commemorate a life and numbers, seems to assume the form of an infinite sequence of tombstones.
Always true to themselves, they live and work in London’s East End, in a neighborhood where the coexistence of different social strata and cultures allows them to constantly be in touch with every aspect of daily life in a large metropolis. In several pictures, they include maps, details of the dense network of streets surrounding their house-studio. In Chained Up, 2001, which belongs to the Nine Dark Pictures, maps are juxtaposed with images of people of different ethnicities (room 36). Along with diversity, the artists place fundamental human traits, including in the picture enlargements of bodily secretions. The Twenty London East One Pictures, 2003, also focus on the close relationship between Gilbert & George’s art and the area of London in which they live. The group, entitled like the postal code that identifies the area, includes Three Dozen Streets, 2003, and Twenty-Eight Streets, 2003 (room 38). In 2005, on the occasion of the Venice Biennale, Gilbert & George were invited to represent Great Britain.
The inspiration for new pictures came from the Ginkgo, a tree in which the artists recognized certain affinities. Like them and their art, the Ginkgo, in fact, is able to survive in any urban environment, including the most toxic and polluted. Moreover, it is characterized by symmetrical leaves, capable of assuming a broad variety of forms, always maintaining a perfectly balanced shape. The Ginkgo Pictures that resulted also marks the introduction of digital technology into the methods employed by Gilbert & George. The artists are always attentive to employing the most effective means to communicate their ideas (room 37). The preparation of this exhibition coincided with the dramatic events related to the terrorist attacks of July 2005 in the city of London. The day after the attacks, the artists began collecting headline boards advertising from the Evening Standard, the London newspaper sold in the streets and outside underground stations.
The posters, with their characteristic handwriting, were then reproduced by the artists and became an integral part of Six Bomb Pictures, 2006, that includes Bombs, Bomber and Terror, exhibited at the end
of the exhibition (attic, third floor). As in other pictures, in these Gilbert & George represent themselves as dazed and fragmented figures, drowning in the color red or washed out in dramatic black and white. Around them, one can glimpse the deserted streets of London, images of graffiti, and the pounding reproduction of words that express violence, anxiety, and terror.