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Issue 33 March-April 1997 RSS

Pierre et Gilles

Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, France

Like a genie freshly sprung from Aladdin’s lamp, Madonna hovers in the inky-blue sky, her lips pursed over a golden flute and her legs dangling from a glittering floral garland. Sleek as Marlene Dietrich, Sylvie Vartan (the singer-turned-idol formerly married to Johnny Halliday, ‘the French Elvis’) sucks on a cigarette. The rays of a pink halo emanate from behind her head, and Jean-Paul Gaultier smiles, gripping a bouquet of perky plastic daisies. Around the corner, under the luminous dots dancing around a rotating mirror ball, Catherine Deneuve wears the flouncy white gown of a virgin queen; French pop star Lio, posing as a macarena, weeps giant glycerine tears; and porn superstar Jeff Stryker, muscles bulging, lolls about in skintight, gold-lamé pants.

This extravagant costume ball comes from just a few pages of a whimsical family album, compiled over the last two decades by Pierre and Gilles (who met at a party thrown by Kenzo, sped off on the same scooter and launched their artistic collaboration). Picture The Wizard of Oz directed by a gay Fellini inspired by Douglas Sirk with added beefcake.

While the description sounds a bit like a patchwork quilt, the photographs require precision, planning and fastidious fabrication. Pierre executes the preliminary sketches, then, after gathering ornamental elements for the set and costumes ­ diaphanous fabrics, blinking Christmas lights, elaborate papier-mâché frames, Kleenex garlands, Oriental bric-a-brac, gilded tchuktchas, Eiffel Tower miniatures, porcelain chickens and rubber gnomes ­ together they design and take a large-scale photo. Next, Gilles meticulously paints the proofs, tapering waistlines, smoothing out facial wrinkles, accentuating eyelashes and adding highlights to teeth that gleam whiter-than-white.

The results mesmerise: all glowing complexions and luminescent eyes, sparkling glitter and dazzling decor, somewhere between baroque opera and gaudy disco. In their pictures, Pierre and Gilles pay homage to the ‘cult of the personality’ ­ a glamorous shrine to movie icons, rock stars and pop idols, who, they seem to be saying, are, in contemporary life, worshipped equally alongside saints, martyrs and Hindu gods. Their reality comes straight out of Baudrillard ­ its very centre is artifice, what Umberto Eco would refer to as the ‘Absolute Fake’, something out of hyperreality.

In shameless celebration of pop culture, these painted photographs embrace a contemporary fashion aesthetic based on exaggeration, seduction, and stylisation. Chic and daring, this look suggests the hip theatricality and punk chic of Gaultier and the sexiness of those wicked, black-winged suits by Thierry Mugler, as well as the camp, gay sensibility, which Susan Sontag has defined as ‘Being-as-Playing-a-Role… the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the “metaphor of life as theater”’.

In some of their recent work, the theatre is injected with elements of porno-kitsch and Catholic kitsch. Like altar boys with a hard-on, they emphasise ascetic self-denial or blur the distinctions between a martyr’s agony and ecstasy with images of lustful sexuality. Take their hard-core ‘Pleasures of the Forest’ series, exhibited in an imitation lush, woodland grotto constructed in the museum’s vaulted stone cellar. By the roped-off entrance, a warning sign welcomes ‘adults only’. Inside, seen through windows that play on the concept of peep-shows, pose large-scale pagan images of pin-ups writhing in ecstasy: a hungry-looking Jean Harlow-type clutching an anonymous erect penis; a nubile, bare-chested gardener calmly gazing at the viewer, watering vibrant, plastic blossoms with his urine; beautiful boys sporting chains, black leather and erections. The artifice of the setting, complete with drooping plastic ivy and the sweet, piped-in chirping of birds, makes it seem as if we’ve walked right inside one of their photographs.

Pierre and Gilles, for all their kitschiness, are innocent subversives. Perversely, their images of hard cocks play with pure romance and their perpetual recreation of corny clichés constitutes utter originality. Strangely, what’s so unsettling about this work is its utter lack of irony. While Jeff Koons’ gigantic porcelain replica of Michael Jackson and Bubbles reeks of arrogance and Damien Hirst’s post-cow creations of his bad-boy cynicism, Pierre and Gilles remain idealists. Focused less on parody and persona than on a sentimental vision, they show us their paradise: it’s a simple vision, one befitting two grown men using their little-boy names.

Laurie Attias

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First published in
Issue 33, March-April 1997

by Laurie Attias

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