'We think that the bleakness of Dead Boards is a feeling that exists in everybody to some degree. There is some part of the head, the soul and the sex of every person that can identify wherever they live in the world with those feelings. Very delicate, difficult things to talk about, even more difficult to make pictures about. But they do describe exactly the feeling that we had. We did isolate ourselves totally, we were alone, and we kept to that' (G. Proesch and G. Passmore, The Words of Gilbert & George with Portraits of the Artists from 1968-1997, London 1997, p. 293).
An exceptionally rare work from the duo's early and ground-breaking series, Gilbert & George's Dead Boards No. 11 is an intimate portrait of the artists in the most private of realms - their own home at 12 Fournier Street in London. Offering themselves as objects for contemplation, the near-ethereal figures of Gilbert & George, impeccably dressed in matching suits, emerge from the shadowed architecture of their Georgian house. Having pledged to become 'living sculptures' in both their art and their life, Dead Boards represents the culmination of this endeavor, with their home being their ultimate 'gallery', which has been tenderly, painstakingly and lovingly returned to its exact Edwardian glory. An important early series, the Dead Boards pictures were first exhibited in the Gilbert & George Dead Boards exhibition at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York in 1976, and have remained a central part of their oeuvre ever since. In 2007 the Dead Boards series were highlighted in their own room at Gilbert & George's major 2007 retrospective at Tate Modern, London.
Arranged in the artists' signature grid formation of nine panels, the composition of Dead Boards No. 11, is divided into a cross like configuration of wooden panels. Anchoring the four extremities of the grid are pictures of the artists. Neatly pressed, their stiff postures compliment the starkness of the unadorned wood-panelled room. They appear completed engrained in their milieu, seamlessly blending into the architecture of their home. The suffused quality of light flooding in through the Edwardian windows is reminiscent of the muted 19th century interiors by Villhelm Hammershi, where the environment completely personifies the sole figure occupying the space. Here, it is as if the house and the artists are one, acting as simulacra for each other.
In Dead Boards No. 11, the artists are seen tucked into corners or timidly looking outward into the street. Their hushed stillness invokes a degree of melancholia and mark a distinct departure from their aggressive early Drinking Sculpture pieces which depicted the artists in Hogarthian acts of debauchery. In contrast to the shards of pint glasses and spilled liquor bottles, the Dead Boards act as a quiet moment of introverted reflection.
The stark interiors reflect this pared back reflection on the self. Its name playing both on world-weariness and the history inherent in the wooden architecture of their home, this interior study speaks to the artists' on-going investigation into how their own personas have been shaped by the world just outside their window, which has been the main source of inspiration for over four decades.
The setting for Dead Boards No. 11 is the artists' wood-panelled house, near Spitalfields Market in the East End of London, which today still serves as their studio and home. Gilbert & George have lived in the house since 1968, when they began renting the ground floor for a mere 16GBP a month. The creation of the present work coincided with the artists buying the house outright in the late 1970s, and the immense task that followed of renovating the crumbling building, which they described as being one of the hardest tasks they had ever undertook. Now an example of inner-city gentrification, the area was traditionally populated by immigrants working in the capital's cloth trade. Over the years, the artists' work has often observed and commented upon the gradual change of character in the Spitalfields area, which has in more recent memory been transformed, becoming an important hub for the contemporary art scene; when they moved there in the 1960s, by contrast, it was exciting, rough and, most importantly for the then-struggling artists, cheap. Before its regeneration and rebirth, the East End provided the artists with an ideal vantage point from which to view and record the discontent that was so rife in the streets of newly-Thatcherite Britain, and this they recorded in both their portraits of various youths and in their landscape works such as Spitalfields. This work combines a haunting sense of the decline of the city and at the same time an intimacy, a charmed familiarity and Romanticism. This is their home, an environment which completely typifies them. It is the centre of their universe, the area that they love, the place where they have created their elaborate daily rituals, often eating in the same cafes that they have visited since first moving to the area. Much of Gilbert & George's work is, in effect, a personal portrait in which London is the star. In Dead Boards No. 11, these two worlds collide as the artists open up the most private of realms, offering their home as the site of their work. This work is therefore a facet of that continuing, living work and acts as a marker within the personal mythology that they have created over the years.