While British art duo Gilbert & George are clean-shaven in real life, their latest series of surreal self-portraits sees them don beards made of wire mesh, foliage, flowers and even rabbits.
The set of 172 pictures are divided across six shows, in Paris, New York, London, Brussels, Naples and Athens from now till next March.
A darker leitmotif of “The Beard Pictures” is barbed wire, which crosses behind or in front of the two men’s faces, evoking the pervasive pictures of war and refugees rather than the hipster fashion for facial hair.
“Every time you switch on the television you started to see barbed wire all over the world,” said Gilbert, 74, in an interview with AFP in Paris. “And you started to see holes… in the barbed wire, and you started to see human beings with beards sticking out of it.”
George, 75, chimed in: “When we were teenagers, it would be impossible to get a job in England if you had a beard. And barbed wire when we were the same age was all to do with farming. Now it’s more than that.”
The contemporary art duo, who have created as a single provocative force for half a century, are set to open “The Beard Pictures” at the Thaddaeus Ropac gallery’s Pantin site northeast of Paris on Wednesday.
The septuagenarians — British in style even though Gilbert speaks with the accent of his native Tyrol in northern Italy — are dressed impeccably as always in tweed suit and tie.
“We started to make ourselves the artwork,” Gilbert said of the famed art duo and real-life couple who have described their work as “living sculptures”.
Much of their output consists of large-scale photos, often of themselves, drenched in glaring, super-saturated colours and dealing with far-from-neutral subjects such as sex, religion and ethnicity.
“If it doesn’t ask questions, art is for nothing.” Gilbert said. “It has to be provocative in a good way.”
“We don’t like to do our art for art’s sake, but an art that is based on the human person,” he added.
– ‘Immoral. Immortal? That too’ –
Beards are prominent in Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the pair noted.
“And of course the most famous beard in the world is?” George asked, and the two intoned together: “Jesus Christ’s”.
While conservative in their politics, Gilbert & George, who won the prestigious Turner prize in 1986, are staunchly anti-religion.
“We say ban religion and decriminalise sex,” George said.
“We should all be more and more aware that at this moment in some other time zone, people are in hospital or in prison or awaiting execution for doing nothing more than what we’ve all done today,” in a reference to countries where homosexuality is considered a crime.
The couple have been inseparable since they met in 1967 at Saint Martin’s School of Arts, and still live in a flat in the formerly working-class area of Spitalfields in East London .
“We do not collaborate. We are two people but one artist,” George said, to which Gilbert added: “Absolutely”.
Asked about their creative process, George said: “It’s a great mystery, because when we go to the studio in the morning we don’t have plans of what to do. We go with empty heads.”
The pair, who hope to set up a foundation within the next two years to immortalise their art, have bought a building near their home.
“We say to our friends we do it because we want to be immoral. They say, ‘Don’t you mean immortal?’ We say, ‘That too’.”
Asked whether they would ever grow beards, George said: “Certainly not. We want to be the artist that a mother wouldn’t be ashamed of.”