Visual Culture
Inside Gorillaz’s Sinister, Surreal Art House
Courtesy of Sonos.

Courtesy of Sonos.

During their two decades as a band, the members of Gorillaz have variously been cloned, possessed by ghosts of their deceased friends, kidnapped (usually by their own bandmates), and hunted down by an international gang of pirates.

Of course, all of this is an elaborate backstory dreamed up by the real-life creators of Gorillaz: Damon Albarn of the British indie band Blur and Jamie Hewlett, co-creator of the Tank Girl comic series and the illustrator responsible for the band members’ visual identities.

Billed as the world’s first virtual band, Gorillaz have been releasing music since 1998. Over the years, the four bandmates—Rupert, Murdoc, 2D, and Noodle—have collaborated with a host of real-life musical guests (with Albarn orchestrating behind the scenes). Virtual they may be, but Gorillaz win Grammys; they sit down for live interviews; they play live shows, occasionally appearing as projections or live holograms. The band is not real, exactly, but it certainly exists.

And in advance of their upcoming album Humanz, Gorillaz took one step further into reality. Their first music video for the 2017 release, Saturnz Barz, reveals the band moving into an abandoned (and haunted) house; this past weekend, their dilapidated living room was painstakingly recreated in Brooklyn for fans to explore. The “Spirit House,” as it’s called, moves on to Berlin and then Amsterdam after the album drops this Friday.

The New York “Spirit House” was convincingly shabby, from its drab green walls to its sunken leather couch. Opening the refrigerator door revealed an almost-empty bottle of Newman’s Own salad dressing and a moldy tangerine decorated with a Sharpied smiley face. A pizza sat in its box on the kitchen table, ordered that morning and then shellacked to last through the weekend. And, hanging framed above the band’s filthy kitchen sink, was Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1200–1505).

Courtesy of Sonos.

Courtesy of Sonos.

Considering the band’s history, it’s no surprise that they like the Dutch artist. His work is just as strange and supernatural as their (imagined) lives have been. A thorough examination of the exquisitely detailed work, which depicts both the Garden of Eden and eternal damnation, reveals scenes of lost souls squashed between a pair of giant ears or pigs dressed as nuns.

Its dark humor resonates with the band’s own ethos. And the real-life impetus for the creation of Gorillaz, according to interviews with Albarn and Hewlett, was the excesses and dullness of MTV and the canned backstories of the many musical artists who rocketed to fame there. It’s certainly these sorts of people that are being punished in Bosch’s fantastical work.

(Plus, guitarist Murdoc—the unofficial leader of the band—is a Satanist. He would certainly be predisposed to enjoy the most famous art-historical representation of hell.)

Courtesy of Sonos.

Courtesy of Sonos.

And as the tour through Gorillaz’s “Spirit House” continued, it became clear that Bosch is not their only favorite. The second room—the band’s home theater, in collaboration with Sonos—revealed an eclectic selection of art books curated by the band.

There’s a monograph on Bosch, of course, but also a catalogue of Keith Haring’s work and Andy Warhol’s polaroids. There are two copies of Arte di Regime, which explores art made under dictatorships—specifically in Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, and Stalin’s Soviet Union. And there’s a catalogue of work from London’s National Gallery.

So, the members of Gorillaz are bona fide art enthusiasts. Which seems appropriate—it could be argued that no other band has forged such an inextricable tie between art and music.

Abigail Cain