Gilbert and George

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The prevalent themes in Gilbert and George’s work are religion, nature, sex and tolerance; however, for me the one that stands out the most is nature. Gilbert and George elevate nature over the industrialized world because they feel it is the place where human beings can develop to their full potential. By nature I mean the physical place (the woods) but also an abstract view of it which is compromised of the human instincts. With this in mind, I will first look at human nudity’s positive portrayal in Gilbert and George. The artists celebrate it as nature’s chef d ‘oeuvre and urge us to let go of our prejudices against the naked body. Secondly, I will discuss the artists’ negative depiction of conformity in their sculptures. For Gilbert and George, conforming to established rules is tantamount to selling yourself for a plate of lentils, or in other words, killing instead of preserving the individuality of each human being. Thirdly, I will discuss nature as religion. Critics might denounce Gilbert and George for disparaging God and religion -- especially Christianity -- however, they fail to understand that Gilbert and George do have a religion, they worship the natural world. In this essay I would like to argue that Gilbert and George show us through sculptures that humanity should get away from the modern, industrialized world to protect the nature within each human being.
Nudity and Gilbert and George go hand in hand. As was mentioned in the John Tusa interview, “ [David Sylvester] once said -- this was of the Naked S*** Pictures -- Most artists this century have tried to do naked, and have only succeeded in doing nude. Gilbert and George have done naked.” What Sylvester is trying to get at is that while 20th century artists created nudes very often, the subjects -- almost exclusively women -- were beautified and unrealistic (a nude). Gilbert and George didn’t do either of those things, they portrayed themselves completely naked and showed off all their flaws and imperfections creating a truly ‘naked’ picture. Gilbert explained in an interview, “We realized that is enormous freedom in that, we are able to free ourselves and no one is able to…not able to attack you after that [sic]” (Tusa). To better understand this quote, I would like to look at ‘Naked’. At the top are the faces of the artists surrounded by moss, their mouths open as if they were preaching. Below them on each side are the naked artists standing over clothed versions of themselves. In the quote, Gilbert reveals that they appear naked so that the critics won’t be able to attack them, but I also feel that it is done so that the critics will become jaded and will focus on the messages instead. Also, in this particular sculpture, the placement of the naked artists over the clothed versions of themselves is -- in my mind -- a literal depiction of them holding the natural world over modern, industrial society. Another interesting point in Naked is the third image of the artists where they stand with their backs towards the viewer while pulling down their underwear as if pointing out where the three large turds that stand between them came from. The connection between excrement and the naked human body is best explained by Razzanti and Gimenez, “[It] Represents a blunt way of recalling our origins.” Naked as a whole pays homage to the natural world, Gilbert and George show in this sculpture the holiness they find in the primal connection between humans and the natural world. In Razzanti and Gimenez’s words, “In Naked, nature is all divine: a landscape where the phallic obelisk of pagan looms. Here God and Man are united in nakedness.” It also, “Evokes man’s original state, a stare both physical and existential: his nakedness before destiny, his quest of being” (Razzanti and Gimenez). I agree with this idea of ‘quest of being’ and that is why for me, the message in Naked is that humans should go back to a simpler, more natural lifestyle.
Gilbert and George celebrate the human body by showing it without cover or touch-ups. They show it how it is, flaws included so that we will come to accept and love the human body instead of conforming with mainstream thinking and considering it as something shameful that needs to be covered up constantly. However, critics might have a problem believing this considering the artists’ uniform, their suits. They are seen without their suits just as much as without each other, never. There is nothing more restrictive and unnatural than a suit, so why would Gilbert and George choose to wear it? In David Gauntlett’s view, “Gilbert and George want to be ‘normal’… to get attention from people who wouldn’t be interested in conspicuously ‘wacky’ artists.” In other words, their respectable appearances are used as a lure to attract as many people as possible and have their messages reach diverse audiences. In their sculptures, however, the suits represent conformity. For example, Inside, where we see the artists standing rigidly in their suits facing each other while in their shadow stand two tree-like monsters. On top, Gilbert and George’s faces with leaves coming out their open mouths. For me, this sculpture depicts what a person is inside (their nature, instincts) as represented by the tree-like beasts in the artists’ shadow, and the image people project of themselves (Gilbert and George in their suits.) Clearly, the message is that conforming causes a loss of identity and an uncomfortable life (the artists look very unhappy). “There is nothing in the world that is not also inside of you or us or anybody” (Tusa interview).The conclusion from this quote and the sculpture itself would be that the nature inside should be given a place in our lives rather than being shut off completely. Another sculpture that is very much like Inside in that it deals with conformity is Eyes. However, while in Inside the viewer is told what they should do, in Eyes the panorama is much bleaker in that it is an observation with no direct call for action. Gilbert and George walk along stiffly while giant blue eyes look at them closely. The eyes’ cold, blue stare is fixed on the artists’ hands, heads and feet which are blue as well. In my view, this means that what they do is being watched, what they believe in is being monitored and where they go is scrutinized. The artists are telling the viewer that they are being subjected to forced conformity instead of the voluntary conformity shown in Inside. For me, the eyes represent the critics. In the Tusa interview Gilbert said, “We hate them [critics] but we wouldn’t tell them that.” So if they can’t tell them directly with words, what better way than by a sculpture? Fortunately for the artists, while the critics might have them under constant scrutiny, the public and most galleries have come to accept them. Razzanti and Gimenez made the following observation: “Despite its widespread uneasiness about their subject matter, the art establishment has accepted Gilbert and George as artists crucial to contemporary times.”
Up until now, I have discussed the celebration of the human body by Gilbert and George as well as their negative depiction of conformity. Both of these tie into my third point, nature is religion because the naked human body stands for the natural world, and conformity (which calls for people to be ashamed of their naked bodies) is looked at in a negative light. I will first look at the sculpture All where we see a giant daisy with two red roses (one on each side) in front of which a man is crouched down in child’s pose. The message in All is that nature is what all people should be worshipping. In other words, nature is religion. An interesting parallel I found in this art piece that ties it in with religion even further is that Gilbert and George created a holy trinity made up of flowers. God the spirit is represented by the daisy in the background, God the father and son are roses, and if one were to draw a line connecting the center of the flowers, it would form a triangle. The second piece I would like to discuss is Good, in it there is a cross made of roses; around it, faces of men floating on leaves. The roses on the cross symbolize love as well as nature. The faces of the men reinforce the idea of nature is religion through the leaves behind their heads which act as a type of halo. The title itself, ‘Good’ tells the viewer that humans worshipping the natural world as the true religion is what they consider ‘good’. Gilbert and George clearly worship humanity, “We believe in the human condition as the supreme ideal. Man is the most amazing thing of all” Gilbert and George were quoted as declaring in Razzanti and Gimenez’ essay. So taking their word for it, by worshiping humanity they are on a larger scale worshipping nature.
If Gilbert and George consider nature to be of more importance than the industrialized world, then does that mean they hate technology or embrace it so long as it helps nature? In other words, are Gilbert and George to be considered Environmentalists or Neo-Ludittes? They clearly aren’t against technology as Neo-Ludittes are because even though they advocate for humans to get more in touch with their human nature, they employ technology in their artwork. Their sculptures are photographs that have been formatted on computer programs to render the final product. Also, the artists donate money to AIDS charities to fund research to find a cure which involves the advancement of technology. For me, they are environmentalists. They appreciate technology and how far humans have gotten because of it, but they don’t want it to take over their lives as it has been doing the last few years. This is why they are so concerned with making sure people take care not to squish their inner ‘beast’ and become subservient to the technological, fast-paced modern times of today. Gilbert and George are environmentalists because they want to convince the viewer that nature is the only thing that is simple and real enough to be worshipped. As Gilbert stated on an interview with Wolf Jahn, “We just want this clear simple vision of ourselves.” The artists embrace their humanity and its connection to nature and urge the viewer to do the same through their sculptures. In my opinion, they urge us to protect nature not only for environmental purposes, but to protect the essence of humanity and its most rudimentary traits. In Gilbert and George’s words: “Our reason for making pictures is to change people and not to congratulate them on being how they are” (Gauntlett).





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