'Like a young soldier - cherry blossom is the first to appear and, sadly, the first to fall' (Gilbert & George cited in 'Room 3', Gilbert & George, Tate Modern, 15 February -7 May 2007, www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/gilbertandgeorge).
Gilbert & George's Cherry Blossom No. 9 belongs to a group of twelve unique photo-sculptures from one of their most defining bodies of work. Created in 1974, the Cherry Blossom series represents the duo's newfound process of documenting their thoughts, moods and experiences in large-scale photographic form. It is also their first group of works to introduce the emotive power of colour, where they had previously relied solely on black and white imagery. While the internal organisation of the artists' first photo-sculptures tended to be fragmentary or configured into a specific shape, Cherry Blossom No. 9 signals the arrival of their mature format of standardized units locked into a grid, thereby providing an early template for all their future endeavours.
Gilbert & George inaugurated their first photo-pieces in 1971 following their spectacular success in touring both Europe and America with their work The Singing Sculpture, in which the artists had performed Flanagan and Allen's vaudeville standard 'Underneath the Arches' to enthralled crowds of art world spectators. Despite the success of their live performances, the artists ultimately found the experience limiting and began to create pictures as a means of charting the progress of their lives, extending the idea of living sculpture without requiring their physical presence. Photography, they felt, best fit their art-for-all, art-about-all philosophy as it allowed them to deflect attention from the formal, material quality of the work and communicate visually without the distraction of technical virtuosity. In this way, they dissolved the usual divisions between sculpture and photography whilst also rejecting any differentiation between their art and their lives.
This process was motivated, however, by destructive, rather than creative urges as their first photo works aimed to record the bouts of heavy drinking that punctuated their daily routines. By exposing themselves in this way, Gilbert & George sought to present an honest 'warts and all' portrait of modern reality with all its horrifying ugliness and fascinating beauty. As the seventies seemed to progressively darken into a bleak, grey landscape of industrial action, urban uprisings and political violence, the dipsomaniac pair seemed to mirror it's decline, descending into themselves and into a prolonged phase of boorish inebriation that in many ways nudged them towards the violence, beauty and squalor of the works that followed.
The introduction of blood red panes of colour in Cherry Blossom No. 9 represents the peak of this new, hostile tendency in Gilbert & George's art. 'We were looking for a more aggressive, more powerful image', Gilbert explains. 'Red has more strength than black. Black and white is powerful but red on top of it is even more so. It's louder' (cited in C. Ratcliff, Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-1985. London, 1986). Just as the elegance, simplicity and austerity of their formal solutions increased their content was growing darker and more troubling. Whereas other works in the series feature clenched fists, blood spatters and furiously burning flames, the present piece sees the pair collapsed upon the floorboards of their Fournier Street house in London's East End, entangled by bamboo canes that create diagonal energies reminiscent of Futurist 'force' lines. No longer collapsed in mimicry of a drunken stupor, the living sculptures' operate as emblems of violence, their twisted bodies evoking the aftermath of a brawl. This confusion of sticks appears to skewer the artists' prone bodies as if they were suited, cigarette smoking Saint Sebastian's. Indeed, this hint of martyrdom is reinforced by the series' title being a knowing reference to the Japanese kamikaze fighter pilots who willingly gave their lives to a losing battle.
The name, the calligraphy and the bamboo are all Asian in origin, springing in part from a tour taken of several Asian countries some time before. This journey encouraged an enduring fascination with Eastern philosophy and the extreme discipline of martial arts, which Gilbert & George have translated to meet their own artistic situation. In Japan, the cherry blossom is a symbol of courage, the blooms signal the defeat of winter and the promise of spring, its brief existence heralding in the flow and resumption of life. This potent, time-honoured symbolism was exploited by the Japanese forces towards the end of the Second World War in order to convince young intellectuals that it was an honour to die like falling cherry petals for the emperor and their country.
For Gilbert & George, this allusion to the idea of selfless combat ties into their own feelings about the burden of their task. Cherry Blossom No. 9 sees the pair curled up and separated in panels of their own, fundamentally alone like all of us, despite their shared enterprise. The simple, symmetrical composition insinuates the constraints applied by the internal and exterior forces at play in the artists lives, at a time when they were coming to terms with the expectations placed on them as newly successful artists.
Spectacle meets moral purpose in Cherry Blossom No. 9, where the dark, oppressive atmosphere and bamboo spears represent a form of self imposed captivity. Using themselves as an instrument for conveying emotion, suffering and disarray, Gilbert & George assert their determination to consider art not as an object for entertainment but to invest it with the vital mission of reaching and elevating the lives of the public. In viewing themselves as a living breathing sculpture that contains emotion and feels pain, Gilbert & George embody the idea that an artist's sacrifice and personal investment is a necessary condition of art, yet this reflection of psychological and physical trauma is ultimately an optimistic and life-affirming event aimed at accepting the good and bad in themselves and all mankind.