The Head afloat on top levels on the horizon of our thought is one of twenty three large charcoal drawings that together constitute one of Gilbert & George's most important early works, the series of charcoal panels known as The General Jungle or Carry on Sculpting first exhibited in 1971. This grandiose work combined Gilbert & George's recently self-adopted status as living sculptures with the strong tradition of English landscape painting and was their first major pictorial statement to mark their setting out into the 'general jungle' of the world and the deliberate extension of their lives into art and of their art into life.
Until 1969 Gilbert & George had been art students at St Martin's College of Art in London where they had been taught in the college's strong tradition of constructed metal sculpture established by artists such as Anthony Caro. Along with many others in their class including Jan Dibbetts, Richard Long and Barry Flanagan, Gilbert & George rebelled fiercely against this formal tradition in favour of a more conceptual approach to sculpture. In 1969 after declaring themselves to be 'living works of art' through a sequence of inaugural performances of their 'Singing Sculpture' - a joint rendition of Flanagan and Allen's famous music hall standard, 'Underneath the Arches' - the two artists literally walked out of the college and into their new life as 'living sculptures'. 'Gilbert & George, the sculptors' they declared, 'are walking along a new road. They left their little studio with all the tools and brushes, taking with them only some music, gentle smiles on their faces and the most serious intentions in the world.' (Gilbert & George, 1970,cited in The Words of Gilbert & George, London 1997, p.10).
The General Jungle or Carry on Sculpting was intended as both a pictorial and also as a sculptural, extension of this journey. Its twenty-three panels are each made up of numerous separate rectangular pencil drawings put together in a grid that comprises one overall image of these two 'living sculptures' set against the landscape setting of an entangled forest. Intended primarily to emphasise Gilbert & George's status as living sculptures - hence the humorous subtitle Carry on Sculpting - the main title of the series, The General Jungle, alludes directly to Gilbert & George's notion of life as an impenetrable entanglement, through which they wander as art works and the living embodiments of all art's prospects of hope and romanticism.
In this deliberate invoking of romanticism, these works follow, and at the same time, parody both the long-standing tradition of English landscape painting and also perhaps some of the pretensions of the Land Art movement that, in the early 1970s, was then so in vogue. As The Head afloat on top levels on the horizon of our thought illustrates, Gilbert & George appear compositionally set against a vast forest of natural detail like a pair of country gents from some masterpiece by Stubbs or Gainsborough. At the foot of each panel in the series however, a poetic text, taken from their written work A Day in the Life of Gilbert & George, appears like a subtitle. It describes an element extracted from the artists daily lives, but deliberately does not equate with the drawn image.
The manner in which these dense landscape images have been made is also intentionally complex and fragmentary. Drawn in pencil in an illustrational style, their collated and assembled nature in many ways seems to anticipate the increasingly dark photographic assembled images that Gilbert & George followed these works with in the mid-1970s. Captioned with titles such as Nothing breathtaking will occur here, As day breaks over us we rise into our vacuum, Walking is the eternity of our living moment, it can never tell us of an end, these landscape panoramas ultimately all express a sense of the strange banality of daily life: 'the big happening outside the window' that Gilbert & George once described as flooding 'our vision like a passing film.' (Gilbert & George, cited in Wolf Jahn, The Art of Gilbert & George London, 1989, pp. 99-100)
'We are fascinated by the magic of the line of the pencil and the potential life of that paper which can be so real and good it leaves behind the photograph' Gilbert & George wrote of these works in a deliberately fragmented and disparate text about them that intentionally mirrored the divergent nature of the pictures themselves. Ultimately, they were 'not drawings.' they have said, 'they were more like a means of communication with the world around us. As if we had been writing huge letters.' (Gilbert & George in conversation with D. Davvetas, in Gilbert & George, the Charcoal on Paper Sculptures, 1970-74, Bordeaux, p. 13.) In order to emphasise that these works were both a pictorial and sculptural extension of their own identity as living works of art into the world, The General Jungle was subsequently chosen by them to form the backdrop for a seminal performance of their Singing Sculpture at the inaugural exhibition of the Sonnabend Gallery in New York in 1971. In many ways marking the culmination of Gilbert & George's transformative journey from St Martin's into the world and into the art world, this performance, amongst the forest of images provided by The General Jungle emphasised the extension of themselves as living works of art into drawing, painting and effectively, all other areas of creativity. 'We are the modern painters!' they proclaimed, 'Don't worry about whether painting is finished and all that. It's alive and well...'