Gilbert & George exhibition: Offensive, progressive, or just anarchic?

Gilbert & George have always delighted in causing offence. In their new exhibition, the immaculately tailored pair attack religious fundamentalism, drug abuse and youth culture and have produced their most outrageous – and brilliant – works yet, says Zoe Pilger

“We want our Art to bring out the Bigot from inside the Liberal and conversely to bring out the Liberal from inside the Bigot.” This piece of poetry by Gilbert & George is writ large on the wall of White Cube Bermondsey in south London, where their new exhibition, Scapegoating Pictures for London, has just opened. It describes “the city’s temper”. And, according to the artist duo, that temper is hot. London is angry, frantic, elusive. Much of the visual power of these large photographic montages, or “photo-pieces” as the artists call them, is due to the limited colour scheme of red, black, and white, with the occasional flash of dirty beige. They share their palette with the red-top newspapers, and the exhibition evokes a world dominated by hysterical hate. It get more hysterical, more skittish and inflammatory, as it goes on.

These are kaleidoscopic representations of the east London where Gilbert & George have lived since the late Sixties. The subject of the exhibition is “paranoia, fundamentalism, surveillance, religion, accusation and victimhood.” It’s hard to know who’s watching whom, however; who’s hating whom, who’s accusing whom, indeed, who’s scapegoating whom, which does create a sense of paranoia. These works have the force of protest songs, but their politics remain ambiguous.

On the one hand, the art of Gilbert & George has always tended toward punk shock value. There is plenty of sex and heresy. On the other hand, they have said that they admire Margaret Thatcher, the monarchy, and George votes Tory. Hardly the stuff of revolution.

Gilbert Proesch was born in Italy in 1943; George Passmore was born in Devon in 1942. They met as students at Saint Martin’s and have been working together as “one artist” for more than 40 years. Now in their early seventies, they got married in 2008. Their love of the British establishment makes me wonder whether these urban scenes of young people, drug abuse, and the Muslim community of east London are approached with a sympathetic or condemnatory eye. It’s difficult to know whether the exhibition is truly offensive, progressive, or just anarchic. Whatever its underlying agenda, many of the pictures are brilliant as works of art.

All them were made last year, and they feel urgent. Welcome is the first work in the exhibition, and shows the artists’ faces superimposed on to men wearing hoodies. George is boxing awkwardly. Their attire is tragicomic: the artists are famed for their immaculately tailored suits. “Always be smartly dressed, well groomed relaxed, friendly polite and in complete control,” they wrote in 1969. They aimed to turn themselves into “living sculptures,” and their appearance is otherworldly – an extreme of the British stiff upper lip. They appear the opposite of the spectre of the hoody-wearing young male, demonised by the media.

 

Moral panic about youth culture is suggested, too, in the nitrous oxide canisters that appear at the top of the image. The artists collected the empty canisters that they found on their morning walks around London. They became an  obsession. Nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas or “hippy crack”, is inhaled to produce euphoria, hallucinations, and uncontrollable laughter, which seems at one with the tone of this show.

There is a riotous mania that threatens to drop at any moment into suicidal depression. In Zeal, the artists dance eerily against a smashed background of what look like Buckingham Palace railings in a disastrous parody of a tourist poster. In Sweet Air, canisters rain down from the sky; in Fast and Furious, red buses swarm sickeningly in view, one on top of the other, and evoke the feeling of trying to cross the road while losing your sanity.

City Lights is a vertiginous image that makes you feel as though you’re falling from a great height. It is a disarrangement of a black-and-white photograph of a tower block, turned upside down so that the lines of windows themselves seem to be plummeting down towards a white patch of sky in the distance. Gilbert & George stand in the foreground, wearing shredded red suits that appear like the ribcages of skeletons, revealing stacks of nitrous oxide canisters inside them. The image is hard to decipher but conveys a metallic, tinny-tasting madness, as though the worst has come.

A quote from Oscar Wilde is written on the wall: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth” (1891). Gilbert & George somehow manage to inject what may in other hands seem clichéd – the idea that the famed British reserve conceals inner conflict and social chaos – with real power. These works become more interesting, the more you think about them. They are not easy.

Most striking is the artists’ obsession with images of veiled Muslim women. Astro Star shows a Muslim woman wearing the niqab, her face and body covered. She is duplicated and turned into a mirror image of herself. Between the two of her, there is the back of a man wearing denims, his body hideously warped, his head edited out. The creases on the man’s jeans create a spidery impression of age, as though his form were marked with the cracks of the city streets. The image appears to be collapsing in on itself.

On either side are the looming faces of Gilbert & George, staring upwards. They might be saluting a higher power, patriotic or simply dazed. There are the canisters again, like dirtied milk bottles or bombs ready to explode. And there is the chalk-board menu for the Astro Star Café in Bethnal Green. Its list of specials is a deadpan litany of Britishness: roast lamb, roast beef, roast pork, roast chicken. And just for a bit of variation: steak pie.

At this point in the exhibition, the works seem to enter a state of psychosis. In Smithers, the canisters form a relentless pattern in the background, uniform and abstracted through repetition, while in the foreground, greyed beige body parts float in space. There are cheerily waving hands that might be signalling desperation. There is the top of George’s face, his eyes visible, his glasses still on.  Gilbert’s face has been split in half. They have been shattered. The blood-red border suggests the stained glass window of a church. The style of the work is borrowed from devotional art. Gilbert & George appear locked in a dependent relationship with that which they seem to hate the most: religion in all its forms.

This is clear in the final work in the exhibition. Scapegoating is a vast triptych, the first image of which shows George with black tentacles. Words are graffitied around him: “vomit in the vestry”, “lick dick”, “fuck the vicar.” This is one of the few points when their critique deteriorates into the kind of ranting nonsense that you’d find scrawled on the back of a toilet door in a dirty old pub. But this has always been the artists’ point. To take the stuff of everyday life and make it into art. “The 20th century has been cursed with an art that cannot be understood,” they wrote in What Our Art Means (1986). These works are both conceptual and intelligible, a rarity in contemporary art.

They have always said that their work is not elitist. It remains mysterious. The Ten Commandments for Gilbert & George (1995) are written on the wall. Number nine states: “Thou shalt not know exactly what thou dost, but thou shalt do it.”

 

Gilbert & George: Scapegoating Pictures, White Cube Bermondsey, London SE1 (0207 930 5373) to 28 September

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