An artificial world of photography, paint and fantasy

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An artificial world of photography, paint and fantasy

Pierre & Gilles are probably not for you if:
― You are conservative when it comes to gender roles.
― You are squeamish about gay themes in art.
― You think fairy tales are only for children.
If none of those descriptions apply to you, you might find the work of these French artists as enchanting as many other people around the world have.
“Pierre & Gilles: Beautiful Dragon,” at the Seoul Museum of Art, sponsored by the French Embassy in Korea and the AFAA (French Association of Artistic Action), showcases the 27-year collaboration between Pierre Commoy, photographer, and Gilles Blanchard, painter. The retrospective will travel to Singapore after its stint in Seoul.
Speculation about this much-anticipated exhibition began almost two years ago in Korea, according to Francine Meoule, cultural attache at the French Embassy. It has caused something of a stir among art critics here because of its openly erotic, sexually ambiguous images.
Most of the 69 works ― Commoy’s photographs, handpainted by Blanchard ― feature Asian models and symbols, in imaginary settings inspired by Thailand, India and Japan.
The hall where the works are displayed is painted in red and yellow. Prominent is the enlarged golden emblem of Pierre & Gilles, a “sailor boy” caricature that inspired French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier in the early ’90s.
Against such bold colors, the works’ signature gilded frames not only stand out, but combine with the strikingly beautiful and, in many cases, frankly erotic images to make for a remarkable viewing experience.
Since Commoy and Blanchard first met in 1976 at a party in France they have been personally and professionally inseparable, working almost exclusively on portraiture.
Their work ― shocking and avant-garde when it first appeared in the 1970s ― might at first glance look like a clever use of computer technology, but, in fact, they never use computers. Rather, Commoy’s photographs are painted over by Blanchard; the result places the models in fantastical worlds that draws in turn on mythology, kitsch, advertising, Catholic imagery, eroticism and the pop culture of Asian countries.
Pierre & Gilles’ portraits have influenced fashion, advertising and entertainment for decades, though for a time they were relegated by critics to the “gay art” ghetto because of their explicit use of homoerotic imagery.
Exuberant colors, mythical imagery, iconic models, makeup, alluring special effects, stage-like settings and preparation contributed to creating an ambiguous juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, kitsch and beauty, life and death, naivete and perversity, man and woman and, not incidentally, photography and painting.
The models ― some of them celebrities, and most of them beautiful almost to the point of perfection ― are made to assume the roles of archetypal characters, whether geisha, Buddha, priest or nymph. They call up memories of fairy tales and ancient mythology, and the images are often provocatively juxtaposed with elements of popular culture.
“Whatever situation is depicted, it’s always the complicity of the people, famous or unknown, and their relationship to the artists ― be it friendship, love or admiration ― that lie at the heart of these images... the territory they’ve chosen to cover is the stuff of dreams,” writes Bernard Marcade, the curator of this exhibition.
These provocative images don’t necessarily require contemplation of whatever message Pierre & Gilles might be delivering. But even the most casual onlooker is likely to be captivated by the strange paradise they have created, one whose beauty is too artificial to be real. Waking up from such a dream, one might be reluctant to return to a reality that seems harsh and colorless by comparison.
Now in their 50s, the artists are still actively working in their Paris studio. Though their work is deeply inspired by their travels in Asia, this is their first visit to Korea. They say they recently made two Korean friends, a champion diver and a fashion industry professional, with whom they plan some sort of collaboration. “We don’t know exactly what we’re going to do with them... but certainly something about sport and the impressive traditional Korean costume,” Commoy said.

by Ines Cho

The exhibition is running until May 16. Seoul Museum of Art, located near Deoksu Palace in downtown Seoul, is open from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. except on Mondays. Admission is 700 won (60 cents). For more information, call (02) 2124-8931~7 or visit the museum’s Web site at
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