A piece about two artists who challenged taboos and social “diktats” by magnifying the sometimes disgusting materiality of the body
Our blog already has an entry about Jan Fabre and his truly corporeal work. However, he was not the only one to see the essence of human beings in the naked body and its hidden components. Along a similar line of thought, in the Eighties and Nineties the artist duo Gilbert & George created a series of paintings that were focused on bodily fluids and even excrements. Some artworks include a combination of two or three elements, but one includes them all. We are talking about “Spunk, blood, piss, shit, spit” (1996) – the title is quite telling. These biological components were photographed under a microscope and then literally magnified. Almost unrecognisable in their molecular dimension, they confront the viewer with their vivid colours: red, yellow, brown, besides black and white, of course.
The scatological work was meant as a provocation against society's taboos: it hit its underbelly, made the privates public, and irreverently ridiculed established norms. This was not only dirty humour that showed what should be kept hidden. It was also a reaction to those arts critics who claimed Gilbert & George were creating “shit”. The 1983 Shitted presents a superimposed picture of the artists facing one another in front of several enlarged pieces of excrements. Their mouths carry traces of a similar brownish substance. In 1993 a whole collection on the subject was exhibited in Wolfsburg, Germany. In 1995 Cologne hosted The New Shit Pictures, while London challenged its public presenting the Naked Shit.
Furthermore, for the artist duo showing semen, blood, faeces, and urine was a way to thematise homosexuality and the risks related to gay intercourses, such as AIDS. Gilbert & George often referred to the church's negative attitude towards homosexual relations. Whereas a passage from the Leviticus that condemns men coupling with men appears at the centre of Spit Law (1997), Bloody Faith (1996) comments on this too, and so does the triptych Urinal (1991). In the latter a photograph of an urinal is superimposed over an image o the interior of a church, alluding to the altarpiece. The artists are portrayed on the sides, both as full bodies and as halves (from the waist down). In this way, the place of male public sex is almost sacralised and the taboo surrounding male nudity is challenged. Together with bodily fluids and excrements, the theme of nakedness is definitely recursive in Gilbert & George's artworks. In the Piss (1997), for instance, shows once again a larger than life representation of both men without clothes against a yellow background of urine crystals. Instead, Spit Naked (1997) mimics Michelangelo's Pietà with the duo superimposed over a red background.
Even if they did not mean to celebrate the concrete worth of our bodily materials, but rather use them as vehicles to talk about other problematic issues, Gilbert & George's fundamental pictures brought to the fore what disgusts us. Their work - openly confronting the viewers with their most fundamental biological components and necessities - can thus become part of a larger reflection about society's taboos, fears, and habits. Rather than flushing your urine straight away, you could start thinking of its symbolic and practical values.
See more works here.