Deatho Knocko is a set of fifty-six framed photographic prints, installed close together on the wall to form one very large, nearly square composition. Thin black lines surrounding each print lend the work a gridded pattern. At its bottom-centre the work depicts two figures dressed in armour, who are shown holding shields and attacking each other – one with a sword and the other with a flail. Above them are two large spiders, facing towards each other and dominating the middle and upper part of the work. The spider on the right seems to have been crushed, with its legs flattened and bent at awkward angles. Running down both sides of the work and in its four corners are images of various plants, shown at different scales. While the plants and figures are all depicted from the side, as if in silhouette, the spiders are represented from above. The title of the work and the artists’ signatures are written in the bottom-right corner.
This work was made by the British artists Gilbert and George in 1982, when they were living and working in east London. The artists were christened Gilbert Prousch (or Proesch) and George Passmore, but since 1968 they have produced all of their work collaboratively using only their first names. The individual photographs in this work are all silver gelatine prints on resin-coated paper. Each is dry-mounted onto laminate board and held inside a metal frame that is painted matt black and glazed with 10 mm-thick Perspex. All fifty-six frames are affixed to a single piece of thick hardboard that has been coated with melamine, and the inscriptions in the bottom-right were applied using poster paint.
Despite its reference to death, the title of this work is a nonsensical phrase that feels light-hearted or even humorous. Since the early 1980s Gilbert and George’s work has often alluded to weighty themes such as death (see also Death on Hope with Love 1982) and faith (see Good 1983). However, as the writer Michael Bracewell has noted, they also consistently combine ‘absolute seriousness’ with a ‘comic inflection’, generally treating these subjects in an irreverent manner (Michael Bracewell, ‘“Fournier World”, The Art of Gilbert and George 1967–2007’, in Tate Modern 2007, p.37). The immobile-looking spiders and the violence depicted between the knights in Deatho Knocko suggest two visual references to death, although George has stated that both artists ‘like the idea of these two medieval figures standing in for us’ (Gilbert Prousch, George Passmore and David Sylvester, ‘Gilbert and George with David Sylvester’, in Gilbert and George: The Rudimentary Pictures, exhibition catalogue, Milton Keynes Gallery, Milton Keynes 1999, unpaginated). Given the knights’ incongruous context, this statement lends a sense of play-acting or even slapstick performance to the image, which would resonate with the work’s light-hearted title.
This was among the first of many works that Gilbert and George produced at such a large scale (see also Fates 2005, Tate T12168). The artists have often stated that the grid format, which has commonly featured in their practice since the mid-1970s in works such as Young Saint 1982, was initially partly used to enable the production of large-format works since they had no way of printing individual sheets at bigger sizes (see Slava Mogutin, ‘The Business and Satire of Gilbert and George’, Whitewall Magazine, 14 December 2014, http://whitewallmag.com/all/art/full-version-the-business-satire-of-gilbert-and-george, accessed 6 July 2015). The art historian Marco Livingstone has noted that Gilbert and George’s large-scale works often ‘fill our field of vision’. Along with their ‘endlessly shifting and surprising’ images, he has argued that this scale produces an immersive but pleasantly unpredictable experience that is akin to ‘swimming in a sea of imagination’ (Marco Livingstone, ‘From The Heart’, in Tate Modern 2007, p.15).
Gilbert and George have frequently used photomontage since the 1970s (see, for instance, Red Morning Drowned 1977, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia). In 2014 Gilbert noted that since the beginning of their collaboration, they had always tried to ‘eliminate the artistic hand’ by avoiding any overt display of technique, and this has partly been achieved through the use of photography (Gilbert in Mogutin 2014, accessed 6 July 2015). Indeed, Livingstone has argued that although their photomontages ‘are actually arrived at through an elaborate and convoluted procedure – involving the shooting of large numbers of negatives, the sketching out of compositions in small drawings (never exhibited), the printing of the separate components’, among other practices, in their finished works such as Deatho Knocko these processes are generally impossible to trace (Livingstone in Tate Modern 2007, p.15).
Gilbert and George, exhibition catalogue, Galeria d’Arte Moderne Bologna, Bologna 1996, reproduced pp.148–9.
A Arte de Gilbert & George, exhibition catalogue, Fundação Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon 2002, unpaginated, reproduced.
Gilbert and George: Major Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2007, p.22, reproduced p.95.
Supported by Christie’s.