A Sky Full of Stars

Their photographic paintings are like heart-wrenching violin ballads and when the Philharmonie de Paris showcases the work of Pierre & Gilles, Mademoiselle Lili can’t help but get all emotional. 

It’s time to reveal a well-kept secret: these artists were one of the reasons why I fell so in love with Paris. A long time ago, when I was studying in Paris as an exchange student, I kept running into them: we loved the same clubs and the same peculiar characters and had the same passion for 3D-effect postcards of Jesus, sculptures of the Virgin Mary with a flashing heart ‘beating’ in her chest and illuminated fountains with water flowing from the eyes of saints like never-ending tears. I had a pretty impressive collection but the loft apartment of Pierre & Gilles was something else, like the Versailles of kitsch paraphernalia. I was quite simply smitten with these two men and their art. Back then, they were both an underground phenomenon on the Parisian gay scene and had not yet become the famous artists of the present day, on display in major museums all over the world, from New York to Tokyo. The first article that I wrote as an art critic focused on their work and I was present when they immortalised the singer Nina Hagen, her boyfriend and their baby as a holy family in their basement studio in the Parisian suburb of Le Pré-Saint-Gervais.

The fact that the Philharmonie de Paris, a spectacular structure covered in a glittering silvery skin – a mosaic formed from 340,000 stylised aluminium birds – has now decided to dedicate a solo exhibition to these two artists is extremely fitting given that portraits of musicians have been a constant feature of their work right from the very start. This pair have been revolutionising the world of contemporary portrait photography ever since 1976 by transforming kitsch, sentimentality and the spirit of ‘camp’ into works of art suitable for museum walls. In the universe of Pierre & Gilles, everyone is canonised, from nameless wannabes from the Parisian clubs right through to famous music stars who are worshipped like gods. 

Their exhibition, conceived as an acoustic and visual installation, brings together virtually the entire musical pantheon of the past 40 years for the first time ever, showcasing musicians whose songs have accompanied the lives of these two artists and featuring colourful portraits in which they are lovingly depicted with almost supernatural beauty by what are clearly two of their biggest fans. Gilles uses his brush to paint over every single shade in the printed photo more perfectly than any selfie filter on modern-day smartphones could ever dream of achieving. The parade of musical gods presented in these works ranges from Etienne Daho to Stromae, from Sheila to Eddy de Pretto and from Sylvie Vartan to Nina Hagen, including names such as Claude François, Marilyn Manson, Boy George, Madonna, Lio and Michael Jackson. 

In fact, only two of my own personal music icons have never been portrayed by them: Prince, the singer who has quite literally got under my (tattooed) skin, and David Bowie, whose music drew me to Berlin. Come to think of it, I really need to ask Pierre & Gilles why this is the case. 

“Pierre et Gilles – La Fabrique des Idoles”, at the Philharmonie de Paris until 23rd February 2020