3am ESSAY: Book Review of Michael Bracewell’s -
‘Gilbert and George: The Rudimentary Pictures’ Milton Keynes Gallery, Gagosian Gallery.
‘Besuited or naked, but always side by side, Gilbert and George are both embodied in their art and the embodiment of their art. Their art is love immortalised as a kind of shrine to mortality itself: the fundamental facts of existence, the reality check.’ This is part of what Bracewell wants us to recognise in their works, the defiant Romanticism in a world (and art world) of cynicism and hard nosed commercial realism.
by Richard Marshall
COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
When Gilbert and George’s ‘The Rudimentary Pictures.1998’ were exhibited at the Milton Keynes gallery between 8th October 1999 and 9th January 2000 and then at the Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles from February to March 2000,the novelist and cultural critic Michael Bracewell was asked to write an essay about their work. This, with an extraordinary interview between the artists and the late great art critic David Sylvester, who died only a few weeks ago, makes up the text of the book of the exhibition. It is the Bracewell essay, a meditation on the borderline between reality and romanticism, alongside the extraordinary images, which makes the book such a compelling and searching artifact. .
Bracewell begins with ‘An Arundal Tomb’, the poem by Larkin which gives the essay its title – ‘What will survive of us is love’. It’s a poem which describes the monument to the earl of Arundel and his wife in Chichester Cathedral. Bracewell relates this to the relationship between Gilbert and George, the two people who make up the single artist Gilbert and George. ‘Besuited or naked, but always side by side, Gilbert and George are both embodied in their art and the embodiment of their art. Their art is love immortalised as a kind of shrine to mortality itself: the fundamental facts of existence, the reality check.’ This is part of what Bracewell wants us to recognise in their works, the defiant Romanticism in a world (and art world) of cynicism and hard nosed commercial realism. And of course, the Larkin who wrote this poem was also able to deny its Romanticism, by saying ‘Love isn’t stronger than death just because statues hold hands for six hundred years.’ Here is the other side of the equation Bracewell elaborates with his usual graceful but incisive prose. .
Gilbert and George, then, are fighting on the boundary between Romanticism and Realism, Love and Death. For Bracewell they are ‘essentially modernist extensions of Dickensian characters’ and as such are part of London’s seething landscape, its ‘mutating nature’ where this battle ground cooks its big eros / thanatos urban stew. Where they live, Fournier street, ‘built in 1724 and once housing Heugenot weavers’ is an essential part of what they are and what they do for it is here, out of this real London that they imagine their strange, disturbed and eerily beautiful visionary geography. ‘Piss City,’’Blood city’, ‘Sex City’, ‘Gum City’, and ‘Crying City’ all come from this and make up the ‘Rudimentary pictures’ of the exhibition. .
The dandified nature of this brooding art, its pop arcadian longing inside the heart of the urban bang is what so appeals to Bracewell: ‘As dandies and living art works – what Quentin Crisp described as ‘becoming an autofact’- Gilbert and George are Wildean outcasts – perfect pop material; but in one significant sense they short circuit Oscar Wilde’s famous decree from ‘The Decay of Lying’: “ – it is none the less true that life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”And they short that circuit by making the distinction between art and life completely irrelevant,’ he writes. .
In the discussion with David Sylvester at the beginning of the book Gilbert and George explain this feature of their weirdness. ‘In the end we are becoming this object that everybody is allowed to look at…Even in the pictures where people say, ‘You’re not in that picture’, we don’t see it that way. We are not pictured as artists anyway. We don’t have any equipment. You know, the artist usually stands with a bloody brush and palette! We don’t have that. We are there like the viewer is there… we are not in the canvas , because we are the canvas.’ .
This is what makes them so exciting and in fact they seem to reach back to a different kind of relationship between art and its public, a more democratic, dissenting relationship if you like. For in breaking down the distinctions between viewer and artist and in working as a radical single artist embodied in two different people they have moved radically away from ideas of individualistic genius. Of course this is a pretty commonplace attitude with our contemporary artists if we believe critic Matthew Collins – the idea of the super genius, Picasso say, has probably gone now. Although you sometimes get tempted to think like that sometimes when some big superstar artist comes on all superstarish. But it’s the way Gilbert and George really want to relate to ordinary, non-art specialists that really brings about a transformation in the way their art has to be viewed. ‘The most important thing is that our art has to be so human, so based on life, that it is not based on art.’ For many critics this is threatening talk. .
Sylvester, in an essay not in this catalogue, is able to concur with Bracewell’s reading of the pictures. ‘These pictures are a vision of the human race as lost souls… glimpses of the emptiness of existence after the death of God… heirs of Beckett as well as Bacon, but more especially of Bacon because despair has a particular force in a body of images where the only acts of love are between males, are therefore acts which partake of a tragic finality… but at the same time grants the consolation that through deep partnership our solitude can be repaired.’ As George says to anyone who would read them as merely pop cynics, surface glam boys having a bit of a laugh – ‘ I’ll tell you where there’s irony in our work: nowhere, nowhere, nowhere.’ .
Finally turn to the images – turn for example to the ‘Love Spunk’ page. There we find a strange London geography of orphanages, lovers walks, love groves, hills, lanes and so on all laid out inside the chartered black and white grid lines that form their square frames. Blake’s ‘chartered streets’ are eerily present. But outside these straight lines are the wormy, greasy fluidity of the wank-spunk images. And centrally, Gilbert and George themselves in their suits and bankers-looks seem to float on their backs on the flow of this flood, lift out from this landscape, staring at the pitiless, commercial, real universe, defying it with an immense visionary landscape that takes up Blake’s challenge, an enormous acknowledgement of the disaster that life is through a reawakening of a crucial ghost. How? What ghost? It’s Bracewell again – ‘… because they believe that their pictures are about everyone. But the end comes first: what will survive of them is Love.’ Ah, that ghost! .