Executed in 1973, Muscadet belongs to an early series of photographic works created by the self-proclaimed 'living-sculptures' Gilbert & George. As with all the works in the celebrated Drinking Sculptures series, it consists of a group of black and white images commemorating occasions of drunkenness experienced by the inseparable duo during a prolonged period of drinking bouts in the early 1970s. Gilbert & George inaugurated this series on their return to England following their spectacular success in 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. With this performance, Gilbert & George had established their joint persona as an evolving work of art, effectively bringing Josef Beuys' utopian vision of a social sculpture and a future where everyone is an artist to its logical conclusion.
Despite the success of The Singing Sculpture, Gilbert & George ultimately found the experience of public performance limiting and began to use film and photography as a means of charting the progress of their lives, propagating the idea of a living sculpture without relying on their physical presence in the gallery space. This impulse for documentation became integral to the communication of Gilbert & George's conviction that art must strive towards social betterment, yet the drinking series was motivated by destructive, rather than creative urges;
George: "We wanted to explore our way out of The Singing Sculpture. It was like a drunken safari to explore new territory. We know drunkenness is a time-honoured subject for artists and writers, but the way we did it was new.
Gilbert: When we did the Drinking Sculptures, we felt destructive. The happy days had been destroyed by the difficulty of life and art. We meant it. They were total life, but everybody in the art world thought they were meant to be funny.
George: We could see that all the other artists were drinking, but during the day they painted a nice grey square with a yellow line down the side. We thought that was completely fake. Why shouldn't all of life come into your art? The artists drink, but they do sober pictures. So we did drinking sculptures, true to life" (Gilbert & George quoted in W. Jahn, "Naked Human Artist's", in TateEtc., Issue 9, Spring 2007, reproduced at www.tate.org.uk/tateetc).
Following their conviction that art should be to be as true to life as possible, Gilbert & George saw drunkenness as an experience worth examining, the feelings of liberating elation and subsequent depression nudging them towards a flirtation with violence and squalor. By offering themselves as objects for contemplation in works like Muscadet, Gilbert & George sought to elevate ordinary experience and to unravel the ideologies and pretensions of art history. In doing so, they continued to collapse the artist into the artwork, a task they first set out to achieve whilst studying together at St. Martin's School of Art in the late sixties, where they rejected the overwhelming focus on formalism and materiality in art at that time.
In the process, Gilbert & George have created an honest 'warts and all' portrait of modern reality that contends with all its horrifying ugliness and fascinating beauty. Like their previous use of old vaudeville songs and pastoral imagery, the artists' portrayal of an age-old culture of heavy drinking both propagates an image of Britain and at the same time attacks its conventions, reflecting the accepted norms of British society as bizarre extremes. This outsider's appreciation of the general societal urge for conformity is further inverted by their adopted façade of immaculately tailored three-button suits and expressionless faces, which are remarkable for their unnervingly bland ordinariness. 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 they have found self-deprecating humour to be the perfect foil for confrontation, enabling them to deflect the discomfort of public scrutiny.
The Drinking Sculptures were Gilbert & George's first large scale photographic series of works after abandoning painting and drawing installations as people were placing too much value in the formal and technical aspects of their art. Although their preference for photography apparently removed the individualization of the hand-made object, all Gilbert & George's photo-sculptures are in fact unique works rather than editions. As one of the earliest pieces from the drinking series, Muscadet presents the then dipsomaniac pair re-enacting their frequent decent into inebriation at Balls Brothers Wine Bar on Bethnal Green Road, the artist's favourite haunt at the time. The very photos appear to be woozy with drink, their focus softened into a foggy haze that replicates the pie-eyed perspective of one-too-many. The strict black frames herald the stained-glass window style that would come to characterise all of their art, yet this applied order is undermined by the fragmented views of grimy windows and slanting tables, which not only contribute a feeling of passing time, but also further evoke a sense of tipsy confusion.
Muscadet possesses a pervasive sense self-destructive melancholia rather than riotous celebration, hinting at the Hogarthian level of intoxication and boorishness that would eventually be depicted in the Drinking Sculptures, where at last they are seen paralytic and spread-eagled on the floor in a slop of spilled drink, cigarette ends, broken glass and spent matches. Muscadet, then, marks the intermediary point between the whimsy and humour of their filmed performance Gordon's makes us drunk (1972, Tate Gallery), in which they celebrate their favourite beverage in a deadpan fashion, and the disintegration into the bleak landscape of their Dusty Corners, Dead Boards and Shadow pictures. These in turn opened out onto gritty portraits of their run down East-End neighbourhood in Spitalfields. Muscadet therefore documents an important chapter in Gilbert & George's autobiographical oeuvre, when, as the seventies itself seemed to progressively darken into a bleak grey landscape of industrial action, urban uprisings and political violence, the artist's seemed to follow it down, descending into themselves and into a prolonged phase of public heavy drinking that in many ways reflected the collective suffering of the decade.