From the Summer 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.
Laurel & Hardy, Joel & Ethan Cohen, Herzog & de Meuron, Gilbert & George. Spot the odd one out.
Comedy duos are part of the landscape.The Coen Brothers have been making films together since 1984. Architects commonly work in pairs, as do singers and songwriters, creators of musicals, or opera composers and librettists. In those cases, at least, one can imagine the division of labour. When it comes to Gilbert & George, world famous, working together for more than four decades and jointly creating single works of art, eyebrows are still raised. Who knows who does what, let alone what their surnames are? Does it matter? To the public, they are one entity, joined indelibly by an ampersand, trendsetters for a way of making art collaboratively which has become almost a norm in the past half century.
This year’s Summer Exhibition, which is co-ordinated by sculptor Richard Wilson RA, celebrates this phenomenon with works by more than 15 two-people partnerships: men, women, man and woman, women who have been men, twins, siblings, friends, lovers, ex-lovers, spouses. Historically the statutes of the Royal Academy do not permit joint membership, so these artists are not, or cannot be, Academicians. Is it time to change?
“It wasn’t my idea to politicise the issue,” Wilson says. “That said, some of us have raised the issue over the years but we tend to get tripped up by the mechanics of how it could work – would a duo have a single vote on Academy issues? What if they disagreed or split up or one died? None of these obstacles are insurmountable but they take some disentangling and if this year’s Summer Exhibition helps bring the matter to the fore, that can’t be a bad thing. These are important artists, part of the debate.” The RA’s General Assembly meets again in June to discuss a law change.
Wilson praises Michael Craig-Martin RA for introducing bold changes to last year’s Summer Show. “It’s important to build on that. Michael moved the goal-posts. It was a fantastic success. Even putting Jim Lambie’s stripes on the main staircase was an adventure. Michael’s idea of having a couple of shows-within-the-show made an impact too. This year, the works by duos won’t be seen quite like that, all located in one place, but will appear throughout the exhibition, from the opening staircase too – with the photographs of Jane & Louise Wilson.”
Some exhibits are already world famous. Peter Fischli & David Weiss will show their six-minute video Büsi (Kitty) from 2001, in which a cat laps milk; it caught worldwide attention when it was displayed on electronic billboards in New York’s Times Square. Five years ago the selection committee for the United States Pavilion at the Venice Biennale chose an artist duo for the first time: Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, based in Puerto Rico, whose work combines sculpture, performance, photography, video and sound. Their 2 Hose Petrified Petrol Pump (2012) – which, yes, is a stone carving of a petrol pump – will feature in the RA show.
The Berlin couple EVA & ADELE who dress identically and flamboyantly, describing themselves as “an artwork” from the future, have submitted a canvas entitled Double Act XIII (2015). Wilson is particularly delighted that Gilbert & George, known for refusing to appear in group shows, have made a major new work. Ackroyd & Harvey, Bernd & Hilla Becher, Langlands & Bell, Zatorski & Zatorski, and The Kipper Kids – a duo since the 1970s – will be among those showing too.
As Wilson points out, few artists today work without some kind of collaboration. His own sculpture, so often resulting in site-specific installations requiring many levels of practical and technical input, is reliant on others: “In the past, too, most of the great artists had assistants and workshops. We cannot know exactly who did what. It challenges the idea of artists working in isolation and begs the question, “Can good art only come from a single artist working alone?” I certainly believe in the collective consciousness, the shared experience.” And if there are duo RAs in future? “I always joke that at the annual banquet they would have to share a dinner…”