British duo question identities

British artists Gilbert and George occupy a singular position in the art world. For them, art and life are often inseparable. Since the 60s, when they first appeared on the art scene, to the present day, this famous artistic duo seem to have intentionally molded their countenance, manner of speech and entire presence into a work of art in itself. Watching them in an interview given to Michael Bracewell in front of a live audience recently at the Benaki Museum on the occasion of the solo exhibition «Jack Freak Pictures» at the Bernier-Eliades Gallery, one indeed had the impression of observing a performance. The point where art ended and reality began was hard to determine. Combined with their poise, well-studied movements and sense of humor, this ambivalence seemed to win over the audience. But it is not so much Gilbert and George’s ideas about their art that makes a profound impression as the monumental and bold «Jack Freak Pictures» at Bernier-Eliades. A series of collages of colored photographs (referred to as Photo-Pieces) they are, according to Bracewell (who also wrote the exhibition catalogue), «the single largest group of pictures that Gilbert and George have ever made» and «among the most iconic, philosophically astute and visually violent works that they have ever created.» Gilbert and George – who have always addressed social issues such as racism, sexuality and religion, in their work – are questioning the value of national identity and the sentiment of national pride. The flag of the United Kingdom, or the «Union Jack,» serves either as a background or as a recurring motif in all pictures. Most of their photographic collages include their self-portraits and are computer-processed to produce a distorted, phantasmagorical or surreal effect. The artists, who have always depicted themselves in their work (they actually began their career as performers), may use self-portraiture in this particular body of work to suggest the tension between individual and national identities. The fact that contemporary societies seem to accord significance to both may have spurred Gilbert and George to consider whether this reveals an inner conflict. In their interview with Bracewell, Gilbert and George said they «believe in individuals, not in collectivism,» adding that they vote for the conservative party. The fact that national pride, however, is often associated with conservative notions makes their statement seem somewhat contradictory. Gilbert and George like exploring the larger issues in life – fear, death, religion – yet they say that their main inspiration comes from the most ordinary subject-matter, from the «raw material» offered by everyday life and their familiar surroundings. East London, where they have always lived, has provided them with a wealth of visual cues – maps of London are another recurring motif in their current work. Although both their work and lifestyle are rooted in urban life, Gilbert and George also incorporate images of nature – trees and foliage – in their pictures. City maps, flags, medals, trees, distorted limbs and self-portraits are combined in large images that are broken into sections and presented all together in the format of a grid. Gilbert and George paint a picture of an irrational, crazy existence, in which man is torn between his individual identity and a sense of collective belonging. They suggest that in this contradictory, multifaceted reality, each one of us ends up being a freak – the average «Jack» is a «Freak.» Their work captures the intensity of a split identity and contradictory experience. «Gilbert and George, Jack Freak Pictures» at the Bernier-Eliades Gallery (11 Eptachalkou, Thiseio, tel 210.341.3935) is on display through January 9.

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