Gilbert & George

Light Headed


Not on display

Gilbert & George born 1943, born 1942
15 hand-coloured photographs, gelatin silver print on paper on board
Unconfirmed (displayed): 2535 × 3550 × 23 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
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


Light Headed is a photographic work by artist duo Gilbert & George consisting of fifteen individually framed pieces arranged to produce a single image. The thin, black lines of the frames form a five by three grid across the composition. In Light Headed two arms emerge from the bottom edge of the image, each clad in a maroon, buttoned sleeve with a pink shirt cuff. Tinted red, with one forming a ‘V’ between thumb and fingers and the other forming a fist, the hands at the end of these arms support the heads of Gilbert & George, depicted without bodies. George’s head is on the right, staring directly out at the viewer; Gilbert’s is on the left, seeming to direct his gaze into the middle distance. Behind the artists’ heads is a coastal landscape with several boats resting on the shore at low tide. The artists and scenic background are overlaid in three bright dyes – red, pink and yellow. In keeping with this palette, the title of the work is printed in pink drop-shadowed letters on orange in the lower right panel.

Gilbert & George first produced photographic compositions in the 1970s, and gridded assemblages formed by individual prints would become a major and lasting part of their artistic output. The fifteen prints in Light Headed 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 fifteen framed works are hung on horizontal tracks.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Gilbert & George increasingly used vivid dyes in their works, such as those exhibited in For AIDS at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London, in 1989. The use of bright colours in For AIDS and in subsequent series has been interpreted as an expression of Gilbert & George’s personal losses from the AIDS epidemic. The artists’ emotional honesty is evidenced by the exposed, outward gazes that the duo present to the viewer in Light Headed. In the pair’s 2000–4 conversations with art critic François Jonquet, Gilbert discussed the importance of including themselves in their pictures: ‘We project our feelings about the world, the ideas it inspires in us. Our sadness. Our own world… Not all artists do it this way. They paint things from the outside, they’re not part of the work, but we are’ (Gilbert in François Jonquet, Gilbert & George: Intimate Conversations with François Jonquet, London 2004, p.127). The artists’ grief over the loss of their friends is reflected in Light Headed in numerous aspects of the composition. Their bodiless heads rise into the frame supported by hands formed in archetypically contemplative gestures. The background seascape presents a quietly mournful vista reminiscent of a Viking ship burial. The title, Light Headed, perhaps implies the emotional drain from the loss the artists have experienced.

While the duo’s work from this period has been interpreted as simply fantastical, this analysis neglects the deeper significance of these pictures. Art historian Michael Bracewell writes that in these works, ‘the artists appear like travellers within cosmic, magic-realist visions, fables and dreams’ (Michael Bracewell, ‘“Fournier World”: The Art of Gilbert & George 1967–2007’, in Tate Modern 2007, p.35). While Light Headed is imbued with a surreal, fantastical quality due to the visual cacophony of colours, this interpretation perhaps sits awkwardly in relation to a scene whose apparent tranquillity is in fact misleading. Art historian Marco Livingstone has written that in these works one finds a ‘tragic sense of AIDS-related loss that worms its way insidiously through their work, haunting even the most apparently benign motifs’ (Marco Livingstone, ‘From the Heart’, in Tate Modern 2007, p.23). This juxtaposition of overall calmness with an essentially tragic composition presented in vibrant colours is seen in many of the pair’s works from this period (see, for example, Dead Heads 1989, Tate AL00195).

Light Headed was created as part of the 1991 series New Democratic Pictures that was exhibited at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London the same year. Consisting of twenty-seven monumentally scaled pieces, New Democratic Pictures is notable for its strong complementary colours (see, for example, Faith Drop 1991, Tate AR00176). Most significantly, the colour red had gained new meaning in relation to the AIDS epidemic in Gilbert & George’s work since their series The Cosmological Pictures 1989, in which the colour represented the newfound fear of blood that the epidemic had prompted. Light Headed and Sea View 1991 (private collection; reproduced in Sørensen and Kold 1992, p.77) stand out in the New Democratic Pictures series as the only two pieces that do not depict city scenery.

New Democratic Pictures was the first series by the artists that depicted Gilbert & George entirely naked (see, for instance, Family Tree 1991, Tate AR00175). Removal of their clothing can be seen as a continuation of the artists’ stated aim to present an honest account of their vision of life. In the artists’ 1986 statement ‘What Our Art Means’, Gilbert & George declared: ‘We want to learn to respect and honour “the whole”. The content of mankind is our subject and our inspiration.’ (Gilbert & George, ‘What Our Art Means’, reproduced in Hans Ulrich Obrist and Robert Violette (eds.), The Words of Gilbert & George, London 1997, p.149.) Although Gilbert & George are represented without bodies in Light Headed and as a result are not seen naked, the artists’ open gaze seems to offer a psychological ‘nakedness’ to the viewer.

Further reading
Jens Erik Sørensen and Anders Kold (eds.), Gilbert & George: New Democratic Pictures, exhibition catalogue, Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Aarhus 1992, reproduced p.67.
Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures, 1971–2005, vol.2, London 2007, reproduced p.787.
Gilbert & George: Major Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2007, reproduced p.133.

Daisy Silver
The University of Edinburgh
June 2016

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

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