Gilbert and George
A Portrait of a Young Man (1972)
Gilbert Prousch (b. 1943) and George Passmore (b. 1942)
This is a very funny work of art. The title suggests all the bursting passions associated with youth: anger, energy, ambition, libido. But we don't get any of that. Instead, this black-and-white video, which runs on a continuous loop, gives us a study in stasis. It begins with a title card bearing their royal-looking crest, as if this was the start of an old Gainsborough Studios film. The "action" begins. Gilbert and George pose, weakly and lifelessly. They just stand there, in bespoke suits and tight collars, moving ever so slightly, their faces impassive, their hair flattened. George feebly smokes a cigarette.
Of all Gilbert and George's works, this is the one that most acutely raises the question of whether their works are "portraits", in the sense of representations of a person that tell us who they are and what they are like. Does this artwork contain any personal information, or is the washed-out, superlit image a mask concealing nothing?
Gilbert and George have become celebrities on such a scale that it is sometimes hard to see their work at all. They are jokers, storytellers and the patron saints of contemporary British art. Like Andy Warhol before them, Gilbert and George present a flat, unemphatic image to the world and somehow, because of this emptiness, they become charged with meanings from the wider culture. Their art is porous to social history. Indeed, the best way to understand this artwork may be in relation to pop music.
The year in which this video was made, 1972, was the peak of Glam in pop culture and this is a Glam work of art. The ultra-stylised poses of Gilbert and George are those of self-con scious decadents, infinitely refined aesthetes, just like the image created by Roxy Music or David Bowie. Even the deeply shadowed, whited-out look of this video, which according to the artists' instructions must be shown with the contrast unnaturally high, is the same blank aesthetic we see in the portrait of Lou Reed on the cover of his 1972 album Transformer.
The title of this work seems to be a joke. James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a study of the development of an artist, of the experiences that make a sensibility. Gilbert and George on the other hand deny they ever "developed" at all. They simply became Gilbert and George one day in a convulsive change, instant and absolute. "We have never seen a young artist", they said in an early manifesto.
A Portrait of The Artists as Young Men is about masquerade, play-acting, about becoming something other that what you were told you were. Gilbert and George assert the right not just to reinvent themselves but to resemble an alien life form. They are not hiding behind masks but assert that they are the mask, the "sculpture". To be an artist for them is to be a kind of monster, a new species in the world. Like their contemporaries in pop, they liberate themselves by erasing the usual marks of human identity. -- The Guardian