The Corpsing Pictures by Gilbert & George are the most profoundly personal and confrontational pictures they have ever created.
In the art of Gilbert & George, meaning is inferred through feeling and atmosphere, and these possible meanings can be in stark contrast to one another. They can be read like a paradox or aphorism in which the juxtaposition of apparent opposites creates levels of interpretation beyond those first encountered.
Such a high-velocity interplay of meanings is acutely felt in ‘THE CORPSING PICTURES’, beginning with the arresting or even shocking title of the group, which could refer, dizzyingly, to both death and dead bodies, and the theatrical slang for an actor who suddenly steps out of character during a performance, by either forgetting their lines, or laughing, or causing another actor in the scene to lose their composure. To break the spell, therefore: to admit the illusion of acting, to revel in revealing the ‘pretence’ of theatre.
As such, ‘THE CORPSING PICTURES’ present the viewer with ambiguity, contradiction and enigma, as much as pathos, poignancy, sepulchral eeriness and a visceral sense – conveyed by the attitude and expressions of Gilbert & George within the pictures – of sudden helplessness and somnolence in the face of entombment and entrapment. Might Gilbert & George be ‘corpsing’ therefore, in both meanings of the word? An unanswered question; an oscillation between different senses of an ending.
This tension between feeling, interpretation and meaning is created by Gilbert & George from a very small number of visual devices. In addition to the figures of the artists themselves, the tableaux of ‘THE CORPSING PICTURES’ are comprised primarily of bones, string knotted or cut into lengths, and decayed plant stems, stalks and leaves. The palette is red, black, white and gold. The artists are most often depicted lying side by side, diagonally across one another, or top to toe. Sometimes they appear to be sleeping; elsewhere, they cover their mouths or eyes or ears, as though ritualistically, acting out responses in a charade, or signals in a game.
As always in the art of Gilbert & George, from its extraordinary beginnings with the living sculpture, ‘UNDERNEATH THE ARCHES’, as early as 1969, the progress of the artists through a visionary journey of life is depicted in a manner at once mysterious and vulnerable, overtly physical and mystically emblematic. In this, Gilbert & George have always been strangely eternal agents of modernity, acting out a mix of seer, stooge and everyman, thrown between the city and the supernatural, who travails piteously and entertains uproariously, at the heart of modernism itself. A dualism that might well be summarised by both principal meanings of ‘corpsing’, as well as by their seeming contradiction.
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