When we look at art, we typically often wonder the ‘what’ – what is it? How was it made? What is its purpose? What does it do?
Rarely do we wonder the why – why was it made, why does it make us feel this way? Extraordinary artists’ Gilbert and George prompt us to ponder these ‘why’ questions in their recent and magnificent MONA exhibition, ‘Gilbert & George – The Art Exhibition’. In the past, many have been offended by their work, and others simply don’t understand it -but there is a reason why the duo are so successful. An artist’s work is, arguably, a representation of themselves. In their MONA exhibition, Gilbert and George push boundaries as they shock, confuse, offend, and delight their audiences by providing a glimpse inside their genius minds.
Italian artist Gilbert Prousch and British artist George Passmore are the dynamic duo known as Gilbert & George. You’ve probably noticed the posters around Hobart in the past few months, typically ‘Monaish’ in appearance and design. The pair are known for their conservative persona, manner and attire. In advertising publications, the two are often pictured with little expression, and dressed in their traditional tweed suits. After witnessing a photo of Gilbert and George for the first time, first impressions might be that they are old fashioned, boring, or annoyingly sophisticated. But these impressions couldn’t be more wrong. Little is conservative when it comes to the exhibition of artists Gilbert and George.
Gilbert & George – The Art Exhibition is a perfect representation of the artist’s purpose beyond their persona. As well as their distinctive formal appearance, Gilbert and George are known for their gigantic, vibrantly coloured, collage style artworks presented in a grid format. From the end of November 2015 through to the end of March this year, Gilbert and George showcased their first Australian retrospective of ninety-seven works, dating between 1970 and 2014 at our very own MONA.
The colossal exhibition occupied the entire lower level of the museum, and was split into several sections separated by large display walls. Upon entering the first section of the exhibition, my initial reactions were shock, fear, confusion and confrontment. However, by the time I had reached the final room I found it nearly impossible to stop laughing and smiling.
The unique compositions of the works provides viewers a confronting, evocative, and often disconcerting view of the contemporary world. Gilbert explained during an interview with MONA staff that the exhibition focusses on “the great universals: death, hope, life, fear, sex, money, race and religion”. All works in the exhibition are predominantly photographic, utilizing a combination of text, sections of bold colour, and an orderly grid display style. Each work is a reflection of the inner soul of these two men, and bluntly expresses their reactions to social, cultural, political, biological and cultural affairs.
Each work of Gilbert and George’s exhibition is a unique self portrait of the artists. Gilbert and George challenge the traditions of portraiture by incorporating unconventional poses and collage in their work. Their statuesque poses emphasize their seemingly uptight, and formal character. However, the artists utilize editing techniques to distort, colour, collage, and tear apart their bodies, and then display them on a large scale. The works are gigantic in size, some more than 10 meters long and many several meters high. The artists appear in almost all of the works, and as their name suggests, Gilbert and George are never depicted as individuals. They create each work entirely together working hand in hand. They are the photographers, the designers, the models, the painters and the curators.
The overall subjects of the exhibition are terrorism, the city of London, confronting news headlines, bodily functions, Christianity and homosexuality. I was particularly confronted by the first works of the exhibition, which made reference to ongoing political and religious violence. The works utilised black and white photography to depict Muslim people dressed in Burqas. Cut out images of Gilbert and George also featured in these works, but were contrastingly depicted in colour, outlined in red and pictured in a cut-out format. I found these works rather confronting, but I couldn’t pinpoint why. I believe this is the intent of all of Gilbert and George’s works: to shock and confuse.
Gilbert and George’s early 1970’s works also caught my attention at the exhibition. These works were smaller, and more simplistic in design. Before the commencement of the digital age, Gilbert and George worked entirely with traditional black and white film photography. The photographs at the exhibition depicted Gilbert and George in domestic and natural environments. They coloured selected areas of these photos by hand, before arranging them in a grid format, giving their works the recognisable Gilbert & George flare. These works were my favourite within the exhibition, because they were an emotional and mental relief from the confronting style of the duos later work.
As I wandered through the exhibition, I began to feel a strong connection to these two men. They quite literally present their most vulnerable selves to a global audience, in mammoth size and proportion. Alongside the exhibition, the audience could enter small installation rooms where a documentary about the artists was shown. One could also choose to use the O-device to listen to commentary and interviews with Gilbert and George. According to these sources, over time the subject of their work hasn’t changed, all their works are about themselves. Personally, I found watching even just snippets of this film incredibly useful to understand the artists and their work.
I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed this exhibition. From rumours I’d heard, I was prepared to be utterly confused and disinterested. But I soon realised after I walked into the exhibition that no matter your interests, gender, country, religious beliefs or political view, the Gilbert & George exhibition manages to evoke emotion in everybody. Whether you love it, loath it, are offended or made curious by it, the works of Gilbert and George never fail to confront and confuse viewers. Perhaps the most important aspect of their work is to remember, these artist’s work as one. They share themselves with the world in their own artistic style, and aren’t afraid to offend others to depict their ideas. They speak as if they are two minds of the same brain, and their inseparability is strongly reflected in their artworks.