In a 2005 interview, British artists Gilbert & George acknowledged that they could be considered townscapers, i.e. inscribed in the artistic tradition of depicting the city.1 In the 2014 video presented together with their new show, Scapegoating Pictures for London, which runs at the White Cube gallery until the end of September, they use the word again, more resolutely this time. This new series is based mostly on a new element: the canister of laughing gas, which they found during their daily urban peregrinations. It features on the huge programmatic poster greeting the visitor outside the White Cube Gallery, containing all the elements of the exhibition: the now classic black square, here a single one, but in their work the basic element of their grid structure; the black and red typography; and more specifically here, a single canister of laughing gas, present in the 63 works shown inside. A simple, readable visual presence before the viewer has even entered the sleek space of the gallery. Often criticized by their detractors for re-hashing the same elements, Gilbert & George’s imagery has nonetheless evolved over the years: first technically, with the passage from traditional photographic methods to digital manipulation, allowing them to clone the subjects of their work, reproduce them ad libitum, and dismember their own bodies further. And secondly with the era: each series is based on elements they have collected in their area, from street names to ads for male prostitution, and, here, the canisters.
Even more than in their E1 pictures, which were made exclusively with the names of E1 streets, London as a space mapped through the pictures is the real object of the show. Text, as a beautiful recent re-edition of their early work by Enitharmon Editions shows2, is of cutting, critical importance in the artists’ work, starting with the titles. Often encapsulated in a canister, acting as a cartouche3, a postcode, E2, E1, EC2Y, an area, Bethnal Green, a street, Vallance Road, specific houses, n°10, n°33, and more widely street furniture, Post Office Telephone, are all titles of the works exhibited here. Presented on one of the walls of the gallery as a simple list, after the viewer has already entered the first rooms and seen some of the works, they are intermingled with more intriguing ones, such as Smoking Dildo, Body Poppers, Shebang, Euphoria, referring to pleasure – perhaps the kind felt when under the effects of laughing gas. A third category of titles, such as Islamize, Khilafat, Kota Satay, Ahimsa refers, somewhat controversially, to their Asian neighbours on Brick Lane.
Religion has been a running theme in the artists’ work, which they have denounced both in text and image, through their Sonofagod, Was jesus Heterosexual series (2006), or their Ten Commandments (1995), reproduced too on the bare white wall of the White Cube. They usually focus on Catholicism through the desacralisation of crucifixes, or here, in their eponymous triptych Scapegoating, through playful associations of an imperative and its direct object. They seem to have sat down and written as many offensive and sexually connoted words as possible, and matched them with a religious entity starting by the same letter or sonority: ‘vomit in the vestry’, ‘castrate the clergy’, but also opposite ones, enticing the audience to ‘kiss a queer’ and ’defend our decadents’. The poetics of these slogans is based on alliteration and provocation, not on discrimination.
Gilbert & George’s body of works, their own bodies, and their E1 perimeter function as a palimpsest. The superimposition of layers of meaning, completing or replacing previous ones, works on many levels. It is visible through their constantly evolving technique and their practice of self-quotation: many texts of the walls of the White Cube have been written decades earlier, published and re-published in different volumes; the video accompanying the exhibition was shot in 1986, and still has currency. The urban space which forms the basis of their artistic practice is also constantly evolving. In the artists’ own street, one building successively served as a church for French protestant refugees, a chapel for Methodists, an ultra-orthodox synagogue, and, in the 1970s, a mosque.4 It is in this area, in 2005, that they picked up a flyer advocating for sharia law, prompting the Scapegoating series.
Britishness, or even Englishness, is a concept which still needs exposing and defining, as is attempted in academic works such as Linda Colley’s Britons: forging the nation (1707-1837), 1992; Peter Mandler’s The English National Character, The History of an idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair, 2006, or in a more playful, controversial way. It is what Gilbert & George do, through charting the evolution of their area. Here some very British symbols, the Queen and her husband in HM & HRH, cabs, horses, double deckers, Union Jacks are used, seemingly as examples of mummified Britishness, and set next to, not against, burqa-clad women and pamphlets calling for the Islamic state in Britain. The canister also doubles up as a bomb, which, according to the artists, is also part of the history of the East End, during WW2, and under attacks led by the IRA, white supremacists, and more recently, 7/7. The ageing artists, whimsically dismembered and omnipresent, and at the same time fading away, insist on the different layers of history which they unravel through their exploration, and which is at work on their doorstep. The importance of grounding their work historically and culturally is manifest in their comparison of their work to Hogarth’s Gin Lane (1761), in the reference to Joseph Priestley, an 18th century theologian and scientist who discovered the proprieties of nitrous oxide – laughing gas – or to the Khilafat Movement (1919-1924), a pan-Islamic movement to protect the integrity of Islam in British India.
There remains one interrogation, one that bears on the subject and the object of the gerund ‘scapegoating’. The title of these new series can be read in several ways, the pictures being in turn the subject or the object of the action, but each time missing an element to be able to grasp it fully. ‘We don’t want to preach, we only want to show’, claimed Gilbert & George in the 2005 interview. ‘There’s no picture we made that advises any particular thing,’ they continued. As ever with the artists, one must be cautious of each word uttered, which has been carefully planned beforehand and participates in their Living Sculpture performance.5. It is difficult to believe them when they call these new works ‘automatic pictures’, when one knows of the various processes at work behind each picture, from the collection of the material in the street, the digital manipulation of the images, the various processes of collage, and the care put to the display of the work, planned in advance on a scale model of the specific gallery for which it is intended.
Here, London is inscribed in the full title and the elements of each work are easily decipherable for the British viewer; the remaining 61 works, part of the same series but an utterly different set entitled Scapegoating Pictures for Paris, will be exhibited in September at the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. The 125 pictures will coincide for a couple of weeks, both in London and in Paris. The problematic of their readability and their reception will change completely. How will these other pictures differ from the first set, and what will a French audience understand? In a country which recently legislated to ban the burqa in public places, they might take on another meaning. Isn’t this precisely the function of their art: scratching the surface of conventional respectability? ‘Thou shalt be the messenger of freedoms’, reads one of Gilbert & George’s Ten commandments.
Aurélie Petiot recently completed her PhD in History of Art and Architecture at the University of Cambridge, on education in the Arts and Crafts movement. Her research focuses on education and museum and gender studies. She has published in the Burlington Magazine and in the British Art Journal. She tweets at @AureliePetiot.
The column: Picture politics
Cultural institutions – museum, galleries, studios – are often perceived as objective, rarefied, and irrelevant to contemporary political life. These spaces, however, have a great deal of power – in part because of their privileged position as ‘spaces apart’. This column curated by Anna Blair will explore different ways in which cultural institutions internationally engage with or deny political issues.