Pietà (first version) is a photograph of the artist, naked and slumped over the arms and lap of a stuffed gorilla suit that is sitting on a sofa covered with a white drape. The artist lies with his head thrown back and his eyes closed, gripping the camera’s cable release in his right hand. The title of the work derives from the famous Pietà 1499 (St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City) by Michelangelo (1475–1564), and its composition mimics the pose of the dead Christ in the arms of Mary in Michelangelo’s sculpture. The photograph was taken in the studio that Fairhurst and his former partner, the artist Sarah Lucas (born 1962), hired in 1995 in Clerkenwell Road, London EC1. The curator Gregor Muir has recalled that: ‘here, they cleared space in the centre of the room to take photographs, sometimes resulting in one artist’s work appearing in the other’ (In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, p.92). A small portion of one of the large Pietà prints appears in the background of Lucas’s Black and White Bunny #1 1997 (P78227). Fairhurst produced three different versions of Pietà during 1996. As its title indicates, the one presented here is the first version of the better known upright Pietà 1996 (reproduced in In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, p.92) which Fairhurst made later in the same year, and it was shot at a different location in his studio.
Fairhurst had been using the image of the gorilla since 1993. He started by developing sequences of animated drawings and cartoons, conceived as loops, whose main subject was the attribution of human characteristics to animals, often using the figure of the gorilla. Engaged in absurd and at times comic situations, the gorilla was represented painting its bottom, beating the side of passing cars or drinking at a bar in the company of other animals. Exploring the gorilla’s potential to express human qualities, this series of drawings also hints at animal qualities inherent to humans, as curator Clarrie Wallis has commented: ‘[representing] a struggle at the boundary between man and beast, Fairhurst’s gorillas highlight the mechanics of our primate minds’ (In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, p.101).
From these early drawings Fairhurst made a series of bronze casts in 1995 and, soon afterwards, the gorilla image was brought to life in videos of the artist dressed up in a gorilla costume. The artist has recalled how at this point the gorilla became an expression of his own self, a double:
I started using the gorilla as a kind of everyman. I had used it in my work, A Cheap And Ill-Fitting Gorilla Suit . It was a bit tawdry, this huge chunky suit. I showed myself getting out of it. Underneath this big hairy masculine thing, there I was in the end, a skinny lanky geezer. Pietà is an image of tenderness, about the struggle between the alter-ego – the gorilla – and the self and, of course, the mother.
(Quoted in Liam Duke, ‘You Show Me Yours’, The Independent, 11 April 1998, http://theindependent.co.uk
, accessed 22 January 2010.)
More recent works continue to play on the boundaries between man and beast and place the gorilla in absurd situations. For example, in A Couple of Differences between Thinking and Feeling II 2003 (reproduced in In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, pp.43 and 102), a life-size bronze cast of a one-armed gorilla looks at its missing arm lying on the floor, while in The Birth of Consistency 2004 (reproduced in In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, pp.70–1) another bronze cast of a gorilla is absorbed in the contemplation of its own reflection in a mirror.
Angus Fairhurst, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Analix, Geneva 1992.
Angus Fairhurst: The Foundation, exhibition catalogue, Ursula Blickle Stiftung (Kraichtal), Cologne 1999.
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2004.