The Horrific Pleasures of Gilbert and George

There is something strange about Gilbert and George, something unnerving about them, a type of not-quite-rightness that Lacan might call the objet petit a; a term that he used to describe what exists outside of language, but drives the individual towards subjectification (Lacan, 1998: 268).  It is not just that their live performance is uncanny, although this helps, it is more to do with the way that their live performances intersects with their picture series.  Using their Law of Sculptures as a starting point and ending with Eight Shits (1994) I argue that by locating their bodies next to enlarged images of their bodily waste the artists perform the potential horrific pleasures of the male body. 

The Uncanny in the Performance of Hypermasculinity

Gilbert and George are well known for their careful and controlled public presentation of their image, which as a performance was established in 1969 under their first manifesto Laws of Sculptures. Out of the four commandments contained within the manifesto, the first states: ‘Always be smartly dressed, well groomed and friendly, polite and in complete control’ (Gilbert and George, 2011). Curiously, their public persona differed dramatically from artistic and cultural fashioning at that time.  In Britain, during the 1960s and 1970s many artists attempted to reject the tightly controlled presentation of self that was defined by the 1950s.  Rather than wearing formal suits and observing acceptable forms of etiquette, these decades gave way to ‘rebel’ culture where fashion, music and art allowed for a greater expression of self.  However, in reaction to this Gilbert and George self-consciously styled themselves in an Edwardian manner (Saurisse, 2013: 104). Always dressed in suits that compliment each other, but are never entirely the same, they refer to these as their ‘responsibility suits, which aimed to eliminate issues of choice and vanity so they could focus on making art (Çakirlar, 2011: 96). This was not just a sartorial choice, but also one that they applied to the construction of their identities and subsequently their bodies.


Over the last forty-six years Gilbert and George have continued to demonstrate high levels of rigidity, control and coherence in order to maintain their identity as ‘living sculptures’.  Referencing their training at art college, this term also refers to their choice of blurring life and art by never deviating from their performance in public where they always adopted a contrived and affected posture (Saurisse, 2013:107). Always formal, reserved, emotionally resistant and mirroring each other’s body language, in many respects this level of control might be considered indicative of hypermasculinity. Yet their use of hyperbolic formal manners and style actually exposes the artificiality of their public identity (Saurisse, 2013:108).  When watching them mirror each other’s postures almost exactly, finishing of each other sentences, agreeing on almost everything, and sounding the same, I begin to feel uncomfortable.  The experience of this discomfort is as a result of them attempting to provide ‘some delicate way of seeing an aspect of life [with regards to] what a person is or is not’ (Dutt & Gilbert and George, 2004: 38). I think they achieve this by performing an uncanny masculine identity.


Sigmund Freud describes the uncanny as being ‘that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar’ (Freud, 1971: 219). It is the manifestation of what is repressed by the subject in something that is familiar, or, it can also be something strange that at its core has something ordinary about it. Kristeva also suggests that there is an uncanniness about the abject ‘which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome’ (Kristeva, 1982: 4). For Freud, the uncanny can be identified in three main categories: those things that relate to the double; castration anxieties regarding the fear of female genitalia or dismembered limbs; the feeling associated with a familiar or unfamiliar place (Creed, 2007: 53). Rosalind Minsky considers in her discussion on uncanny literature, that when faced with social norms art can reveal certain knowledge about an otherwise repressed, nocturnal, secret and unconscious universe. This is because it redoubles the social contract by exposing the unsaid (Minsky, 1996: 259).


One explanation into the workings of the uncanny that Freud offers forward is that it destroys the distinction between imagination and reality (Freud, 1971: 244). In Lacan’s articulation of the realms occupied by subjectivity, the real, as discussed earlier, is associated with the bodily drives that exceed signification, whereas the imaginary has a double meaning, which is drawn from the mirror stage (Lacan, 2001).  It refers to the moment where the child sees her image in the mirror for the first time and in turn perceives her self as a unified self-image.  At the same time though, this image is also alien to her because it is not indicative of the fluidity and fragmentation experienced with the body (Lacan, 2001: 3–4).  In this respect imaginary means both image and imagination, and if a coherent masculine identity can be seen in this way then what becomes uncanny about Gilbert and George is their ability to create an illusion where the symbols of an imaginary masculine image masks the fluidity of the male body. The feeling of uncanniness manifests because whilst a normative masculinity feels familiar, the heavy censoring of abstract qualities like emotion, or tiny characteristics that define individuals, makes it feel unfamiliar. 


By bringing the repressed body to the surface as a result of exposing the uncanny though, a new uncanny turn appears with a focus on corporeality. To achieve the well-rehearsed identity of Gilbert and George a disciplining of the body needs to occur. As such their performances raise questions about how intimate two men have to be in order to achieve the accuracy needed in their work (Saurisse, 2013: 111). This suggests that in order for these two men to perform the same identity there has to be an understanding of each other that is based on more than simple observation. They have to be in close proximity together for a significant amount of time, they have to know each other’s body, its mannerism, and its production of meaning intimately. Their artworks then engage with the norms of masculinity whilst accommodating the uncanny presence of the artists’ homosexual, and therefore culturally abject, bodies (Çakirlar, 2011: 89).


It is important to note that this unfamiliarity does not cause abjection though, for Kristeva argues that abjection is distinctly different from uncanniness because it is more violent and does not recognise similarity (Kristeva, 1982: 5). Instead we may read Gilbert and George’s live performances as the unveiling of the phallus, for, in following Amelia Jones reading of Robert Morris, Gilbert and George ‘highlight areas of contradiction in masculinity, “opening up”, as it where, areas of rupture and penetrability […]’ (Jones, 1998: 115). The phallus is revealed in Gilbert and George’s performances because they expose, through the uncanny, the gaps in the symbolic traits of their identity where multiple significations can occur.  Not only do they reveal the importance of the body in the construction of masculinity, but also that the policing of that body can result in an overinvestment of male corporeality. To open up the gaps as a result of contradicting signification then is to make one’s masculine identity vulnerable, fluid and penetrable. Yet this vulnerability is not what I think the objet petit a is in their oeuvre.  Where it may be found though is in the relationship between Gilbert and George’s live performances and their picture series Naked Shit Pictures (1994).

Performing Abject Pleasures

In the highly saturated prints of Naked Shit Pictures the photographs of Gilbert and George are placed alongside enlarged images of their own bodily fluids and waste. One picture that I find most striking in this series is Eight Shits (1994).  Here the artists are photographed naked with their white pants around their ankles against a bright blue background. Superimposed onto the picture are six enlarged images of well-formed excrement; standing next to them George faces the viewer looking shocked or stunned as Gilbert, with hands on his hips and his leg bent, raises his eyebrows as if slightly embarrassed.  Both look like they have been caught in the act of expelling their faeces; they are literally, as the common dictum states, caught with their pants down.  These slightly awkward and overly stylized positions seem to echo the overly conservative identity they perform in their live works. I believe that these two separate mediums work together to create a narrative of normative masculinity with particular reference to male attitudes towards the body.   That is, the calm, formal, and well-considered people in their live works end up performing an anxiety associated with masculine corporeality in Eight Shits.


In Camera Lucida (1981) Roland Barthes describes two aspects of the photograph, which can be applied to Gilbert and George’s picture as a way of understanding how muscular masculinity is performed by them.  The first is the studium, which is the way that the artist constructs their image (Barthes, 1981: 26).  This is the intention of the artist presented graphically, which is then interpreted by the spectators who see the ideas and intentions in the work.  Barthes argues that culture is important in the construction of the studium for it is knowledge of one’s culture that allows for a shared body of information to be communicated (Barthes, 1981: 25).  In relation to Eight Shits, and considering their live practice, Gilbert and George communicate the relationship between men, male bodies and masculinity. The horror captured on their faces and the embarrassment that is present in their posture, whilst being positioned next to those massive shits, inscribes into that image a corporeal anxiety about the leaky male body.


However, there is also something not quite right about these poses, something uncanny in the way that Gilbert and George hold themselves that seems in excess to the composition of the work.  Barthes describes a break in the studium, which he refers to as the punctum the element of a photograph that pricks and marks, or stings and cuts a little hole into the spectator (Barthes, 1981: 27).  In Mythologies, originally published in 1972, Barthes locates in Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin the same punctum, which he describes as a flour-white complexion and dark vegetation for eyes (Barthes, 1993: 56).  The punctum is the thing that shoots out at the spectator and makes a mark, which disrupts the studium through the process of making new interpretations, links or points (Barthes, 1981: 27).  As Bert O’States notes, ‘who has ever thought of Charlie Chaplin’s eyes in this way, yet who does not instantly see the “connection”’(O’States, 1992: 34).


The punctum that emerges in Eight Shits for me is the thing that allows the spectator to move though the performed symbolic codes of masculinity and see their self, rather than just Gilbert and George. In this picture there is a sense that they are making their bodies feel awkward to look at by deliberately sculpting them into those positions. As if making a mockery of the masculine fear of male corporeality they melodramatically perform shock, or feign anxiety and it is here that it becomes clear to me that those artists do not fear male corporeality at all. Instead the evidence of shame and anxiety that I am searching for on those bodies is performatively thrown back at me. As a spectator I start to consider why I am searching for shame in the first place and what this might suggest about me.


This anxiety is only fleeting though, as the ridiculousness of those shits in relation to Gilbert and George makes me laugh, a moment which Cüneyt Çakirlar refers to as an ‘aesthetics of shame’, where shame ricochets in the self and converts to joy (Çakirlar, 2011: 97). This aesthetic occurs because of the humorous ways in which they play with the signification of the male body. In the first instance, there are only six shits on the image, whilst the title suggests that the other two might be Gilbert and George.  As a result of their mocking we might consider them as shits, and furthermore they probably don’t give a shit either.  There is also the possibility that they are quite literally desperate for a shit, or that they are scared shitless as a result of the monstrous feces that share the space with them.


Considering the relationship between their live performances and Eight Shits I read Gilbert and George as performing Kristeva’s now well cited quote: ‘I abject myself within the same motion through which "I" claim to establish myself(Kristeva, 1982: 3).  In the picture, Gilbert and George potentially signify characteristics, behaviours and traits that might be aligned with normative masculinity, for example nonchalance and aggression in the form of mocking their spectator.  Yet at the same time, that signification is confused because they also perform the very characteristics that are rejected from patriarchal discourse, such as being aligned with corporeality, or being seen to be scared.  By operating within the in-between space of these signs they demonstrate the male’s ability of ‘becoming’ the very thing that masculinity aims to reject.


Yet what causes me most pleasure in Eight Shits is the way Gilbert and George link the penis/phallus conflation with faeces.  The six images of excrement are phallic because, and to adapt Lacan’s own description, they are turgid like a bar or rod, they act as copula between the inside of the body and the outside, and furthermore as demonstrated above, they can also represent the image of vital flow with reference to the production of meaning (Aydemir, 2007: 41–44). Compared to this Gilbert and George’s own flaccid penises simply do not stand up. Moreover, if the penis references the phallus, which is depicted here as shit, through a process of deferral the penis becomes linked to the anus an orifice which is buried deep underneath the masculine ideal (Phelan, 1997: 81). Normative masculinity hides the male anus, not just because it leaks and is considered dirty, but because it is associated with penetrable and subsequently pleasurable potential (Waldby, 2002: 272). As such, rather than shit, these images become penises stained with shit, which simultaneously signify the anxiety regarding the vulnerability of the male body and the potential penetrable joy (if not pleasure) associated with it.



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