How terribly kind

Edmund White

  • Gilbert & George: A Portrait by Daniel Farson
    HarperCollins, 240 pp, £19.99, March 1999, ISBN 0 00 255857 2

Daniel Farson was polite, self-deprecating, impressed by modesty and authenticity, grateful for favours, careful to keep track when it was his turn to buy drinks (which he often did). Gilbert and George, by contrast, are utterly stylised: they speak in relays, move like robots and strongly hint that there is no within within. This book, left incomplete at the time of Farson’s death and tidied up by Robert Violette, is touching and illuminating in part because there is such a mismatch between the author and his subjects.

Gilbert and George can only be defined in a series of paradoxes. They have photographed and exhibited their shit and their arses, not to mention their Bum Holes, yet no one knows much about them and the least effort to probe their lives sends them into an alarm-ringing panic. How many people even know their last names? (Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore.) Or that Gilbert is Italian, born in the Dolomites, with Ladino his first language? Or that George grew up fatherless in Plymouth? That they met at St Martin’s School of Art at a time when Anthony Caro was teaching there and Barry Flanagan a fellow student? That George was once married and has children? A few years back, when gay activists were outing closeted gays, an enterprising journalist decided to ‘in’ George and put it about that he lived in the suburbs with a normal family.

And yet G–G could be thought of as Britain’s (or the art world’s) most famous gay couple (or artistic couple of any sexual stripe), as celebrated as the earlier musical duo Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, though they rigorously resist all efforts by the gay community to assimilate them. When Farson asked them for details of their sex life, George became vehement: ‘That’s part of a different story. Not part of the G–G story!’ And Gilbert added: ‘It would take all the magic away – it would be boring. We believe we deal with sex in the gentle way we want to in our pictures. If sexual confession was a way of changing society we’d do it, but we believe in doing it through our pictures.’

Their pictures are anything but gentle: they are instead shockingly confrontational, even if they are also very cool in a deadpan, Warhol way. Warhol could deal with any subject-matter, from movie stars to dollar bills, from the Hammer and Sickle to electric chairs, so long as he could present it in his bland, photographic-silkscreen manner, eliminating any sense of decision-making, of perilous painterly choices – of personality. In the same way Gilbert and George bring their vast range of subject-matter under the domination of a technique which, like Warhol’s, has erased every trace of the artist’s patte, or his temperament. In G–G there is no hint of process, just as there is none in Warhol. Warhol made multiples in order to mock one of the classic criteria of the fine arts (the fashioning of a unique and unrepeatable object): G–G undermine the cult of the genius by being not one person but two – a team. Romantic geniuses do not engage in teamwork.

To continue analysing the paradoxes, G–G made precedent-setting trips to the USSR (in 1990) and China (in 1993) in the full glare of the international press, yet their shows in Moscow and Peking offered not a single work for sale. Moreover, their pictures are too large and too unpalatable (too ‘strong’ in artspeak) to be hung in anyone’s house; like Frank Stella’s late sculptures, say, they are suitable only for museums, and most museums already have one.

Finally, they are ‘artists’ of some sort, but they first became celebrated in 1969 for covering their faces and hands with metallic paint and posing, uninvited, as Living Sculptures at the London end of an international travelling exhibition called When Attitudes Become Form. Soon they were performing in museums and galleries all over the world as The Singing Sculpture, moving stiffly while holding a stick and glove and singing along to an old recording of Flanagan and Allen belting out ‘Underneath the Arches’. G–G had enough stamina and discipline to perform the same song in exactly the same way for eight hours on end (even when it seemed that no one was watching, according to a concealed spy: George Melly). In fact they are credited with being among those who created performance art.

When they visited New York for the first time, in 1971, the American critic Carter Ratcliff and his wife and friends took them on a walking tour of the city. They responded with pat phrases to everything on the tour – much like members of the Royal Family:

‘That’s the 52nd Street pier.’
‘Marvellous.’
‘Super.’
‘Would you like anything to drink?’
‘How terribly kind.’
‘It’s a nice day, isn’t it?’
‘Oh, yes, absolutely splendid.’

All of life, it seemed, could turn into a performance piece, as it seemed to be for Duchamp when he decided to stay in the Green Hotel in Pasadena in 1963, which was seen as an allusion to his much earlier Green Box, a miniature portfolio of his principal work; or for Vito Acconci, following strangers and recording their movements – or masturbating under a ramp in New York’s Sonnabend Gallery, imagining the people as they walked overhead (Seedbed, 1972).

Like many other performance artists, Gilbert and George began to produce marketable objects in the late Seventies: today they are best known for their huge ‘pictures’, as they call these works of 16, 18 or 21 square panels, often as big as a snooker table, which are almost always brightly coloured, though the colours seldom correspond to those found in nature: a black man is assigned pink skin, Gilbert and George are themselves given red faces, and so on. The images are composites of photos of all sizes, the sizes seldom reflecting relative dimensions in the real world (a flower is shown as bigger than a human face, a turd bigger than a body, a man the size of a microscopic slide of his Blood Tears Spunk Piss, to cite another title). Nor are all the elements oriented in the same perspective; figures of Gilbert and George will radiate out from the centre of a picture or be arranged head to foot like the figures on a playing card.

Such displacements play down the documentary or anecdotal aspect of photography in favour of its potential for pattern-making, as if these giant works were images d’Epinal. Warhol leeched out the force of an image of Marilyn or Liz by endlessly reproducing it in slightly varying formats and colours: G–G recycle their own portraits, varying them dramatically from one work to another. They are more obviously industrious and inventive than Warhol, who would have disdained G–G’s hard work and obvious ambition.

Roland Barthes said that it is the human detail in a photograph that always catches our interest or sympathy, but these pictures have no such puncta. Even though we are shown G–G’s buttocks and penises and turds, not to mention their naked middle-aged male bodies, in reality they are no more exposed in these pictures than they are when they pose with metallicised faces. They are intimate here but impersonal. In fact they present in clear, focused detail every anatomical, even ‘shameful’ detail, without ever arousing our interest, much less our disgust – or desire. Barthes argued that the photographic portrait always leads to thoughts of death, by making us aware of the mortality of its subject, but G–G’s pictures defuse this buried content by making it manifest. Often their pictures are explicitly about death; Dead Heads or Death over Life or Down to Earth, just to choose three 1989 works, all deal with dying. Down to Earth, for example, shows G–G’s small, yellow-suited bodies rising out of a row of graves in order to poke their heads into their own mouths in much larger blow-ups of their faces: they look like damned souls being swallowed by devils who are their twins.

Curiously, these pictures never seem transgressive, even though the male nude has remained one of the few disturbing subjects of the modern age. As George, who’d obviously been reading his Linda Nochlin, told Farson, ‘The male nude is still shocking ... Nudes have always been women because men have the money, look at advertising. If a woman artist painted women, her work would not be described as lesbian.’ Men who paint men have long been thought of as dodgy. In the 19th century, for instance, America’s greatest artist Thomas Eakins was fired from his teaching job in Philadelphia after he painted The Swimming Hole, a canvas that shows without any Greek or Roman alibi the contemporary male body – in fact several of them. Similarly, the Impressionist Frédéric Bazille was forced to put his nude swimmers into swimsuits before he could exhibit them. Even the unambiguously heterosexual Renoir chose never to show – at least not during his lifetime – his beautiful but disturbingly erotic nude boy with a cat.

The male nude remains hot subject-matter, though G–G have somehow managed to cool it off. We cannot make up real-life stories about these naked men, Gilbert and George, because they are shadowless, stripped of context and never guilty of an unguarded, unconscious moment. They are never caught unawares in a snapshot doing something without cognisance of the camera. Nor are they pictured in dreamy, erotic repose. Instead, you see them in the studio doing something highly stylised (walking in synchrony, hands over their eyes; or standing side by side, George’s head on Gilbert’s shoulder). Nothing can be deciphered, nothing interpreted or added, because everything is already fully intended as a sign, totally saturated with meaning. Their terribly average nakedness, in which no detail is either monstrous or enticing, functions as a depersonalising uniform much as their suits do, always cut to the same mould, all three buttons invariably buttoned. A short film about them, directed by David Zilkha and shown at Edinburgh in 1996, was appropriately entitled Normal Conservative Rebels. That G–G are at the same time photographers and principal subjects obviates, as with Cindy Sherman’s pictures, any sense of exploitation, so often an aspect of looking at photos.

When G–G started earning big money in the late Sixties they became heavy, angry, quarrelsome drinkers, but so potent is G–G’s personal and professional style (where draw the distinction?) that they were able to turn these dark days into subject-matter, too.

Gilbert: Reality is much more complex
George: Than anything they can imagine.

From 1971 to 1980, Gilbert told the critic WolfJahn:

We went through this big destructive period of the drunken scenery, exploring ourselves, exploring our dark side, going out, getting drunk, all those destructive elements, mucking about, being totally unhappy. We felt it all had to do with us, we were always looking inside ourselves. And that’s why we never even looked for another person to be in our work. We felt we didn’t need it. Like Dead Boards (1976), it all had to do with us.