Fates 2005 is composed of fifty-four large digital prints (each measuring 710 x 845 mm) on photographic paper in glazed black aluminium frames. The prints are installed in six horizontal rows of nine, with the frames joining together to form a consolidating grid, creating, in effect, one enormous image. The assembled work depicts the suited artists Gilbert and George at either end of the almost symmetrical composition flashing insulting ‘V’ signs with their fingers out towards the viewer. The pair also appear together in a Rorschach-style doubling in the centre with bright red hands and faces, bent over screaming. Below them is an arrangement of golden leaves, which echo the six gold leaves that run along the top of work against a deep blue backdrop. Two young men are pictured in the two bottom corners in front of a black and white urban environment. The artists’ interest in religious iconography is invoked by the grid composition and intense colouring of the work, which is reminiscent of stained glass windows, and by the stigmata visible in one of the open palms underneath the artists. The title and date of the work are rendered in English in the style of Arabic script, and the work is signed in the central panel of the second row from the bottom.
Fates is part of a series of twenty-five works, collectively known as the Ginkgo Pictures, which Gilbert & George made for their exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2005, where they represented Britain. For this body of work the artists dispensed with traditional methods of darkroom printing (which they had used consistently since 1971) by choosing instead to harness advanced computer-based image production technologies.
The title of the Ginkgo Pictures series refers to the Ginkgo species of tree, the leaves of which were collected by Gilbert & George from specimens in Gramercy Park in New York and incorporated into each work. The artists were especially attracted to the distinctive odour of the trees, which is reminiscent of faeces and served to draw connections between this series and examples of Gilbert & George’s earlier preoccupation with scatology (see, for example, George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit 1969, Tate AR00170, Naked Shit Pictures 1994, and In the Shit 1997, Tate L02923). The symmetrical nature of Ginkgo leaves – the tree’s full name Ginkgo Biloba, deriving from the Latin bis or ‘double’, refers to its ‘two-lobed’ structure – might also be seen as a play on Gilbert & George’s identity as an artistic duo. The use of digital technologies to make the Ginkgo Pictures helped to extend the theme of doubling, as the artists were able to select and perfectly replicate mirror images of themselves on multiple panels throughout the series. Another feature of the Ginkgo tree, namely its ability to thrive in busy and dirty urban environments, also links it to the imagery of east London, where Gilbert and George have lived and worked since the late 1960s, which appears throughout the Ginkgo Pictures. The particular area where the artists live around Brick Lane is well known for having undergone rapid cultural and demographic changes that have seen it become the centre of the Bangladeshi community in the capital and a fashionable location for young people.
Like Fates, the other Ginkgo Pictures contain multiple cultural and religious allusions, incorporating a variety of languages, scripts and texts with a particular emphasis on multi-racial urban youth culture. In 2005 the critic Michael Bracewell claimed that, ‘in all their violence, mystery and aggression’, the Ginkgo Pictures might be seen ‘as direct statements about the modern world in which they have been made. They speak perhaps of a time in which unrest, intolerance, anxiety and disquiet are every bit as common and pervasive as the ginkgo leaves themselves’ (Michael Bracewell, ‘Ginkgo Pictures’, in Birnbaum and Bracewell 2005, p.21). The title of Fates, the significance of which is not immediately apparent, may evoke notions of doom and apocalypse, perhaps with religious or mythical connotations.
Fates was acquired by Tate in 2006 after being shown in Venice in 2005. It subsequently appeared in the retrospective of the artists’ work titled Gilbert & George: Major Exhibition, which began at Tate Modern in February 2007 before touring to Munich, Turin, San Francisco, Milwaukee and Brooklyn.
Daniel Birnbaum and Michael Bracewell (eds.), Gilbert & George: Ginkgo Pictures, exhibition catalogue, British Pavilion, Venice Biennale, London 2005, pp.20–1, reproduced pp.60–1.
Gilbert & George: Major Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2007, reproduced p.175.
Rudi Fuchs (ed.), Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures: 1971–2005, London 2007, reproduced pp.1172–3.
Supported by Christie’s.