Sunday, 20 September 2009





Gilbert and George, who describe themselves as ‘living sculptures’ rather than as artists, made the first impact on the world of contemporary art as a performance duo, singing a music hall song associated with two much-loved British comedians, Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen. The song celebrates the pleasures of being down-and-out, and therefore totally free:

Underneath the Arches

I dream my dreams away.

Underneath the arches,

On cobblestones I lay.

Ev'ry night you'll find me,

Tired out and worn.

Happy when the daylight comes creeping,

Heralding the dawn.


Sleeping when it's raining,

And sleeping when it's fine,

I hear the trains rattling by above.

Pavement is my pillow,

No matter where I stray.

Underneath the Arches

I dream my dreams away.


They can hardly see themselves in that light today. Their new show at Tate Modern is scheduled to be shown in five more venues, all of the prestigious – in the Haus der Kunst, Munich; in the Castello di Rivoli, near Turin, then in San Francisco, in Milwaukee and at the Brooklyn Museum. Nevertheless the event still has more than a trace of old-fashioned show business about it. For example, as one enters, one sees it is described, not just as an exhibition, but as a ‘major’ exhibition. No modesty here. And in fact the show, with its huge photographic works in brilliant primary hues, featuring billboard-sized images of the artists, is not a reticent event.


What is it about? There are several answers to this, apart from the self-evident one, which is that it quite shamelessly celebrates a pair of fairly monstrous egos. The first aspect is perhaps the least interesting – it offers art that is transgressive in the ritualized way that we are all now accustomed to in shows with aspirations to be thought of as avant-garde. Crude reference to sex, to bodily wastes, to parts of the body often better left concealed. Gilbert and George are gay, and gay references abound in their art. In these politically correct times gay, in avant-garde circles, is often a better ticket then straight. Thanks in part to aggressive feminism, and the theory of the masculine controlling gaze, female nudes increasingly make the audience for contemporary art feel uneasy.


Other aspects of the show are much more original. Gilbert and George have long lived in Fournier Street, a famous street of 18th century houses in the East End of London, once occupied by Huguenot weavers, later by Jewish immigrants, and later still by Bangladeshis. They moved in when the area was a slum, and have played a role in its gentrification. Fournier Street is now one of the most fashionable addresses in London. The works in the exhibition chronicle this change, with a strong emphasis on urban deprivation. The artists don’t gloat about this – they empathized with the empty lives of the working-class young in London long before the current panic about teenage gangs. Gilbert and George knew all about this aspect of the city long before leading politicians started to orate about it.


They were also people who had an early awareness of the AIDS crisis – this is one of the reasons for their fascination with bodily fluids. Images of blood and sperm photographed with the aid of a microscope, are a prominent feature of some of their works. They have been social activists in this sense as well.


I think people overlook this side of their work not only because they are abashed by the subject-matter but also because of the tone in which this and other supposedly delicate subjects are discussed. I have known Gilbert and George’s work almost from the beginning of their careers, and more or less throughout that time I have been puzzled about how to describe the way in which their approach their audience. With this new exhibition, the solution suddenly came to me – the tone they use is that of old-fashioned British seaside postcards with jokes about fat ladies, and also that of equally old-fashioned, non-American comics for boys. One clue is the obsession with backsides and lavatorial humor. Another is the fact the inscriptions that appear on many of their compositions make use of a dated schoolboy vernacular, certainly not transatlantic in origin. They use ‘spunk’ instead of ‘cum’ for semen, and ‘bum’ rather than ‘ass’ for the backsides they are so fond of exposing. Their quintessential Britishness is the more surprising given that one member of the duo, Gilbert, is of Italian origin (he was born in the German-speaking South Tyrol), and first came to Britain as an adult, after studying art in Austria and then in Germany. When he arrived in London he was hardly able to speak English. Their use of this idiom also immediately categorizes them as middle-class, despite their fascination with young working-class delinquents.


Their incongruously jolly idiom is yoked to distinctly dark subject-matter. Looking at the index of their Tate Modern catalogue, I was surprised by the way the words ‘Dead’ and ‘Death’ recur in their titles: ‘Dead Boards’, ‘Dead Head’, ‘Death Hope Life Fear’, ‘Death March’, ‘Death on Hope with Love’, ‘Death over Life’, ‘Deatho Knocko’. In embracing themes of this type they were the forerunners of another British artistic celebrity, Damien Hirst.


This cult of death has deep roots in English literature, if not in English art. The common ancestor of both Gilbert and George and Damien Hirst is the great poet and preacher of the early 17th century, John Donne. In other words, Gilbert and George are in a surprising way traditionalist. Perhaps they would be displeased to hear this verdict. On the other hand, perhaps they wouldn’t.


At  Tate Britain until May 6, 2007





This site was last updated 20-09-2009