Gilbert & George
- Gilbert & George
ten gelatin silver prints, in original artists' frames
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1974
London, Tate, Gilbert & George, 2007
Rudi Fuchs, Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-2005, London 2007, Vol. I, p. 140, illustrated
This very early photo-piece by Gilbert & George epitomises their groundbreaking output at a pivotal moment in their career. It encapsulates their unprecedented ambition for life to make art, and art to make life, as announced by their maxim "Our lives are one big sculpture" (the artists cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Bordeaux, CAPC Musée d'Art Contemporain and travelling, Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-1985, 1986-87, p. x). Gilbert & George had invented the concept of 'Living Sculpture' soon after having met at St Martin's School of Art in 1967 and by the early 1970s their creative fervour increasingly focused on a unique brand of self-mortification. Adroitly recording their Living Sculpture in isolated, reclusive contexts, the extraordinary cycle of 'Drinking Pieces', initiated in 1972 and with Two A.M. at its centre, became the perfect vehicle for this undertaking. The ten black and white photographs of the present work record their pub-based drinking spree, revealing details of the iconic duo standing in a drinking den flooded with daylight and narrating the heady atmosphere generated between a staged event and the social emancipation of drunkenness. Each image acts like a window onto the same frozen scene, trapping the twin protagonists between union and fragmentation as alcoholic hysteria is pitched against the all-consuming pathos of their Living Sculpture.
The multiple images are presented in identical frames, but are hung in both horizontal and vertical formats. As an immediate reference to the everyday, their arrangement echoes the cosy clusters of pictures to be found hanging on pub walls all over Britain. At the same time the artists intelligently exploit the internal rhythms and cadences achieved through the juxtaposition of subtly differing images. Our automatic ocular response is to scan this arrangement of photographs for similarities and differences, and in this process and almost unconsciously we unite the disparate visual information into a single holistic image. Nevertheless, it becomes clear that a solitary image of the two artists has been dissected, with fragments emanating from the more centrally positioned photograph.
The scene consists of Gilbert & George standing in a bar, dressed in their trademark suits, ties, white shirts and polished shoes. As Living Sculptures, they are their own theme and material, exercising tight aesthetic control on themselves and abiding by their own 1st Law of Sculptors, decreed in 1969: "Always be smartly dressed, well-groomed relaxed friendly polite and in complete control" (the artists in: "The Laws of Sculptors", in Gilbert & George 1968-1980, Eindhoven 1980, p. 51). The composition is highly artificial: the two mirror each other's poses in near symmetry, with hands in their pockets, slightly smiling, and fractionally turned towards each other, with gazes directed towards the floor, away from the camera lens. The edges of the photograph segments are uneven, occasionally having been distorted in development, so that the warped floor is aped by the grid-like arrangement of the frames on the wall and edges and angles are all somewhat askew. The chequered lino, square panes of window glass and wooden panelling, tumblers of whiskey on the table, unused dart board, and curl of cigarette smoke all feed into an image of surreal stasis.
The title, in archetypal Gilbert & George style, is an intriguing, slow-burning witticism. Two A.M. certainly does not account for the bright sunlight blazing through the windows, and this juxtaposition culminates in an uncanny atmosphere. The title suggests the idea of duality and in this vein connects to the key aspiration of the 'Drinking Pieces' to reflect life. Gilbert explains: "artists would get smashed up at night, but in the morning they would go to their studio and make a perfect minimal sculpture. They were alcoholic but their art was dead sober. We did the Drinking Sculptures as a reflection of life" (Gilbert in: Gilbert & George: intimate conversations with Francois Jonquet, London 2004, p. 88). However, Gilbert & George emphasise that they are not interested in the 'documentary': for them the concerns of life cannot be separated from the concerns of art. Insistently subverting attempts at easy categorisation of their output they have declared: "None of our works are documentaries. They are thoughts, spiritual" (the artists in: Gilbert & George: the Complete Pictures 1971-1985, London 1986, p. xxi).
Gilbert & George make a point of using direct means to convey complex ideas, and Two A.M. is fantastically rich in thematic and narrative content. Their work is truly ground-breaking in the way it insists on dissolving barriers between art and life, between the artist and audience. Stridently egalitarian and all-encompassing, the artists state "we believe that people should be different having had contact with our works" (the artists in: Gilbert & George: the Complete Pictures 1971-1985, London 1986, p. xvii). In the 1970s, with the onset of impermanent performance and process-based art, the need for recording artistic events – whether 'documentary' or 'spiritual' - was keenly felt in artistic circles. This impulse became integral to the communication of Gilbert & George's artistic vision and their 'Art for All' conviction that art must strive towards social betterment. Pioneering a new art form, their work ignores the usual divisions between sculpture, painting and photography while also rejecting the modernist habit of seeing a difference between art and life. Framed by this contemporaneous context Two A.M. should be seen as the perfect tribute to the courageous artistic experimentation and invention of two exceptional young artists, combining performance, sculpture and photography in a way that no one else had dared to before.