Gilbert & George

Existers

1984

Artist
Gilbert & George born 1943, born 1942
Medium
28 photographs, gelatin silver print on paper with dye and silver leaf on board
Dimensions
Object: 2410 x 3510 mm
Acquisition
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008
Reference
AR00505

Not on display

Summary

Existers is a photographic work by artist duo Gilbert & George in which the pair are depicted in a collage-like composition with a large group of young men. The work consists of twenty-eight individually framed photographic prints arranged to produce a single image, with the thin black frames forming a four by seven grid across the composition. The artists are positioned on the left side of the scene, with George crouching, wearing a blue suit, and Gilbert lying down in a foetal position at his feet, wearing a red suit. Both artists look out towards the viewer. The other figures strike a variety of poses and each individual’s clothing, hair, ears and lips are tinted in several bright, unnatural colours. While some of the youths look to be on the cusp of adulthood, others appear to be prepubescent. The majority of the composition is occupied by these figures set against a grey background divided by an irregular grid. The title and date of the work, in addition to the artists’ signatures, are printed in the bottom right panel.

The twenty-eight prints in Existers were developed using the gelatin silver process, which produces black and white images. The photographs were printed on resin-coated paper and later hand-coloured before being dry mounted on thin board and framed in black-painted aluminium frames with Perspex glazing. When exhibited, the framed works are hung on horizontal tracks.

From the 1980s onwards Gilbert & George’s work increasingly included photographs of young men. In Existers these youths are arranged in a variety of poses, creating a powerful composition. Despite their adolescence, the models gaze steadfastly and unintimidated in various directions. Their conviction is further evidenced by the confidence of their stances. Some figures appear with arms raised, while others squat with hands pressed firmly onto the ground or on their thighs. The artists’ aim was to counter the negative stereotypes commonly applied to this demographic that cast them as loutish and uncultured. In conversations with art critic François Jonquet 2000–4, Gilbert explained: ‘When using models, we devoted all our power to making them totally beautiful.’ (François Jonquet, Gilbert & George: Intimate Conversations with François Jonquet, London 2004, p.121.)

When Gilbert & George first began to photograph people other than themselves it was from a distance, often through the window of their home on Fournier Street in east London. Only after several years of covert photography did they begin to invite strangers to model for them. With the installation of professional photographic equipment in their home studio, the artists could capture images of the youths with increased artistic control. This is notable in Existers, where the individuals are organised in poses that were likely directed by the artists. Art historian Anders Kold writes that as with Gilbert & George’s ‘living sculptures’ (see, for instance, their early performance The Singing Sculpture 1969), the youths depicted in Existers are equally ‘invested with a theatrical intensity and a certain pathos. These are not people at work, but on a stage’ (Jens Erik Sørensen and Anders Kold (eds.), Gilbert & George: New Democratic Pictures, exhibition catalogue, Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Aarhus 1992, p.17). Kold’s interpretation corresponds with art historian Brenda Richardson’s suggestion that Gilbert & George’s male subjects are cast in roles:

The figures that appear in the photo-pieces are selected precisely because they express the special vitality of those primal life forces – sexuality and religiosity – at their most formative and explosive states, namely, in the prime of youth. Like artists from virtually the beginning of time, Gilbert and George employ models and direct them in studio shooting sessions toward particular poses and expressions. The artists think of their subjects as material – a kind of clay to be moulded into a new image. The ‘campaigning artists’ view these youths that appear so often in their work as both knights and procreators, and they cast them as the heroes of their visual sermons, carefully composed narratives conceived as moral instruction.
(Brenda Richardson, Gilbert & George, exhibition catalogue, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore 1984, p.17.)

In this light the composed scene in Existers can be seen as the result of Gilbert & George’s guidance and directing of these youths. The title enforces this idea further, suggesting that the duo intended to confirm the ‘existence’ of these unwanted individuals to the art world. In conversations with Jonquet, George explained that the art world ‘couldn’t handle works of modern art showing young people from neighbourhoods where they themselves didn’t want to live, where they wouldn’t even choose to go’ (George in Jonquet 2004, p.116). To contradict this attitude, Gilbert & George adopt similar poses to the youths in Existers, implying that the artists occupy the same social standing as their models. This idea of a relationship with these boys is explored in greater depth later in their artistic career with Family Tree 1991 (AR00175), where the artists place themselves at the base of a tree with the faces of East End youths hanging on its branches. Unlike Existers, Gilbert & George’s separate positioning in Family Tree can be understood as Gilbert & George casting themselves as surrogate fathers to the disaffected youths rather than as equals.

Further reading
Carter Ratcliff, Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures, 1971–1985, exhibition catalogue, Musée d’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux, Bordeaux 1986, reproduced p.234.
Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures, 1971–2005, vol.1, London 2007, reproduced p.499.
Gilbert & George: Major Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2007, reproduced p.113.

Daisy Silver
The University of Edinburgh
May 2016

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.

Display caption

Many of Gilbert & George’s pictures from the 1980s include a cast of young men. Having installed special lighting equipment in their studio, they were able to capture images of the youths with a greater degree of control. ‘We devoted all our power to making them totally beautiful’, they have said. In pictures such as Existers, the youths are arranged into powerful compositions, living embodiments of potency and strength. Such depictions of young men aroused considerable hostility among critics, who accused Gilbert & George of being exploitative, and wrongly described the youths as rent boys or East End thugs.

Gallery label, February 2010

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