Gilbert & George Reinterpret the Union Jack


Working collaboratively for more than 40 years, Gilbert & George have consistently been at the forefront of British contemporary art. Starting out as “living sculpture” — making “Art for All” — they evolved into fearless “picture”-makers, willing to tackle a broad range of social subjects. Inspired — or traumatized, as they call it — by their own recent retrospective, which traveled to six museums in Europe and the US, the two set to work on a new series of pictures, their largest ever, and are now debuting selections of the 153 unique works from the Jack Freak Pictures in Berlin and Paris.

On view at Berlin’s Arndt & Partner through September 18 and Paris’ Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac through July 25, the Jack Freak Pictures portray the artists as dancing vaudevillians, robotic avatars, and mutating monsters — all set against a background patterned by the British flag, a map, old medals, and bits of nature and urban life. In a conversation with London’s Serpentine Gallery co-director of exhibitions and programs Hans Ulrich Obrist in Berlin, the artists revealed that, after their retrospective, they felt compelled to start all over again. The first picture they made had the Union Jack in it, and they decided to carry that symbol of national identity and subcultural revolt through the rest of the series, pulling every nuance out of it.

“We were amazed, when we finished making the pictures, to realize that we had used so few subjects in them,” said George. “The series involves one page from London A-Z, us, medals, and the trees from our backyard. There’s very little subject matter, all made in a complex machine of different thoughts, different feelings, different hopes, different fears, different dreads — every aspect of human emotions that lie inside everyone, wherever they live in the world.”

Working with black-and-white photographs and computer manipulations of those images, Gilbert & George construct reflections of the world they inhabit in London’s East End, a realm that functions as a microcosm for all urban soups where nationhood, tribalism, religion, and humanity interact. They call their pictures the “philosophical equivalents of automatic writing,” with each one evolving from an “empty-headed approach.” If that’s the case, however, we should all just close our eyes and let the world around us come filtering through. It could lead to a greater understanding of who we are, where we are now, and where we’re going.

View more of Gilbert & George’s Jack Freak Pictures in an image gallery at The Daily Beast.

Image: Gilbert & George, Brits, 2008