‘Controversial’ is a word altogether too reserved to describe Gilbert & George’s latest output at White Cube, Bermondsey. ‘Turbulent’ is another which has lost all meaning due to its frequent association with the pair. ‘Volatile’, ‘tense’, ‘accusatory’, ‘liberating’, ‘tireless’ and ‘profound’ are amongst the extensive (and expected) list of adjectives critics have used to judge their work over the years. So, naturally, I asked them both which word they would employ if limited to one, to which George responded (and I assume Gilbert is in agreement, they usually are): “Necessary.”
In our interview, I labour upon the idea of ‘words’. In truth, their work is all about words: slander, blasphemy, false promises, propaganda, media and labels. To the pair, seated in matching tweed suits, words are a powerful weapon, especially when magnified and juxtaposed against East End gangsters as in ‘WELCOME’ or printed on the pristine white walls, as is their manifesto of 1978. “The subject chose us. We could not ignore it.” Gilbert & George explain, finishing each others sentences, speaking in turn but in utter cohesion.
Indeed, ‘Scapegoating Pictures’ are entirely cohesive to their artistic oeuvre. In one work, empty bullet cases appear to be shot throughout, proving to be as threatening as the actual insults emblazoned on the wall. They are, I learn, in fact empty nitrous oxide canisters that were found outside their home. So, in appropriating the debris of drug-driven nights and the residue of the urban city, they seek to evidence the life of London in all its menacing, violent, misleading and sometimes stupid subversion.
“We are living in Anxiety London.” George confides. And the paranoia is evident in their potty-mouthed religion-bashing onslaught that is classically intermingled with their own self-portraits. Gilbert insists “We’re not inventing anything. But it is there. It’s becoming a different world now. It will change forever and nobody knows exactly what to do…”
It is clear that Gilbert & George are keen to draw attention to the divisions within our country – so multifaceted and multiplicitous yet so entrenched in bigotry and contradiction – as they use the language of the street to address politics and to simulate the world we live in. To their credit, they are amongst the few artists working today who react to their own time and place with genuine curiosity.
And what is good art if not a reflection of society? The entire series serves as a visual embodiment of headlines, trending Twitter topics and news reports; in particular ‘AHEM’ (2013) mirrors the tensions and conflicts of UKIP Britain. In some ways, the work is restricted by its display in a gallery – even if it is the White Cube – liberation and institution are opposites. The works might better suit East London billboards and the streets of Shoreditch, rather than sheepishly titled and relegated to “mixed media (226 x 317 cm)”, which changes anarchy into passivity, or politics just for politics sake.
On the topic of revolution, I question, “Can art change the world?” to which, at once, George responds: “It has and always will. We know that someone is looking at a Van Gogh painting somewhere in the world right this second. They are not looking at the Prime Minister of France in 1865. Art survives. Shakespeare survives. Oscar Wilde survives.” And so, or at least it would seem, their idealism is at war with their cynicism. “We like civilisation. We enjoy it.” George announces. Gilbert then adds, “Yes. We like humans.” before asking, “Do you?”
As you reach the end of the exhibition, somewhat mentally exhausted by accusations and assertions, you are confronted by barrage of insulting suggestions as Gilbert & George insist that you should “Jerk off a judge” or “Fuck the Vicar” – an entirely perfect endnote, even if the controversy is dulled by expectation.
This exhibition of grandiose, and unflinching photomontages both announces their return and reminds us that the pair have no intentions to hold back their criticisms of society, art and religion. In all honesty, I wouldn’t forgive them if they did.