Gilbert & George

Dead Heads


Not on display

Gilbert & George born 1943, born 1942
Photographs, colour, 20 parts
Displayed: 3380 × 3550 mm
frame, each: 845 × 710 × 23 mm
Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d'Offay 2010
On long term loan


Dead Heads is a photographic work by artist duo Gilbert & George, consisting of twenty individually framed prints arranged to produce a single image. The thin, black framing lines form a five by four grid of vertical rectangles across the composition. Depictions of Gilbert & George’s disembodied heads rest against one another at the lower edge. Overlaid in red, with eyes closed and edged with concentric purple, white, yellow and black borders, the two heads are superimposed onto a cloudless sky. Because of the large scale of the piece, the artists’ heads are nearly double life-size. Tree branches emerge from different sides of the composition, seemingly at different stages of seasonal growth: some are in bud, others covered in foliage. The title and date of the work, in addition to the artists’ signatures, are printed in black ink in the lower right panel.

The twenty prints that form Dead Heads were developed using the gelatin silver process, which produces black and white images. In the case of this work 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 twenty framed works are hung on horizontal tracks.

References to death abound in Dead Heads, from the title to the artists’ disembodied heads, which are evocative of death masks, and the upward view through the trees, as though observed from a grave. Although earlier in their career the artists used models in their work (see, for instance, Existers 1984, Tate AR00505), they gradually began to represent only themselves. This is to be understood within the context of the AIDS epidemic, due to which, as art historian Marco Livingstone has written, Gilbert & George had not only lost ‘some of their models but also some of their will to invite others into their studio, and they retreated, wounded, inside themselves’ (Marco Livingstone, ‘From the Heart’, in Tate Modern 2007, p.23).

The increased application of a greater range of vibrant dyes can be seen in the works shown in Gilbert & George’s 1989 charity exhibition For AIDS at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London. While Dead Heads was not included in this show, it was created in the same year and has similar formal qualities to the group of work displayed there. Additionally, Dead Heads can be seen to correspond with the overall sombre tone of the duo’s work from the late 1980s. The juxtaposition of calmness with an essentially tragic composition presented in vibrant colours permeates their work of this period (see, for example, Light Headed 1991, Tate AR00504). The use of bright colours, and most significantly the colour red, in For AIDS and in works such as Dead Heads has been interpreted as a response to personal losses due to AIDS. Specifically, the deep red of the artists’ faces highlighted by concentric rings of colour in Dead Heads can be seen as exploring the intense fear of blood that arose during the AIDS epidemic. In a 1995 interview with Keith Pointing, Gilbert explained: ‘Every drop is the whole world. Everyone became terrified of the whole idea of blood. But it’s funny because in some way blood is life.’ (Gilbert & George, ‘Boot, Blood Heads, Tears, Seen, Eight, Attacked: From an Interview with Keith Pointing 1995’, reproduced in Hans Ulrich Obrist and Robert Violette (eds.), The Words of Gilbert & George, London 1997, p.203.)

Gilbert & George first produced photographic work in the 1970s and gridded compositions made up of individual prints would become a major and lasting part of their artistic output. Dead Heads forms part of the 1989 series The Cosmological Pictures, which consists of twenty-five works. This series is notable for its use of strong complementary colours and the large scale of the individual pieces. Discussing the series’ influence, George explained that the artists ‘find it fantastic that every drop of moisture is a cosmology of the world’ (George in Obrist and Violette 1997, p.203). The Cosmological Pictures can therefore be interpreted as the duo coming to terms with death by considering man’s greater relationship with the universe as a molecular being.

Further reading
Jens Erik Sørensen and Anders Kold (eds.), Gilbert & George: New Democratic Pictures, exhibition catalogue, Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Aarhus 1992.
Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures, 1971–2005, vol. 2, London 2007, reproduced p.751.
Gilbert & George: Major Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2007.

Daisy Silver
The University of Edinburgh
August 2016

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

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