Gilbert & George had included images of excrement in their art as far back as the 1983 picture SHITTED. In the mid-1990s, however, they embarked on THE NAKED SHIT PICTURES, in which they appear naked alongside giant turds, combining two taboos that seemed guaranteed to offend viewers. While their confrontational aspect is undeniable, these pictures enabled the artists to question the way society shies away from this most universal of materials. ‘Fundamentally, there’s something religious about the fact that we’re made of shit’, they have said. ‘We consist of the stuff. It’s our nourishment, it belongs to us, we’re part of it, and we show this in a positive light’.
At the same time, the pictures explore ideas of mortality in its rawest form. ‘It’s like our pictures of cemeteries, all that dead matter. Shit is also the end of a life, a left over’, they explain. The nakedness of the artists is deliberately exposed, an image of humanity reduced to its essentials, without shelter, status or dignity. As the critic David Sylvester commented, while many twentieth-century artists tried to break out of the prettifying conventions of depicting the body as ‘nude’, only Gilbert & George truly succeeded in portraying it as ‘naked’.
Their investigation into the body led Gilbert & George to look in detail at all of its fluids and excretions. They bought a microscope to study samples of piss, and were astonished to discover complex patterns forming and dispersing on the slide. They found they could even pick out recognisable images. ‘Out of these drops of blood come stained-glass windows from fourteenth-century cathedrals, or Islamic writing’ they explained. ‘To see daggers and medieval swords in sweat: that’s our aim. In piss you find pistols, flowers, crucifixes. Spunk amazes us… it really does look like a crown of thorns.’