Powerfully claustrophobic and electrically nasty … Gilbert and George. Photograph: Yu Yigang
For their eight-millionth exhibition, Gilbert and George have chosen to exhibit their shopping lists. Or not even that: their small but perfectly publicised installation in one room at the White Cube gallery is a collection of hangover rants, raw remarks delivered over a bacon butty in their local greasy spoon.
“FUCK THE PLANET,” say G&G as they read the latest miserable newspaper article about global warming. “Fuck HIM,” seeing someone go past. “BURN THAT BOOK,” reading book reviews. And most offensive of all (they perhaps imagine) to liberal sensitivities: “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN.”
What naughty boys they still are, after all these years. But it’s impossible to be outraged, provoked or even mildly entertained because the artworks are so slight and trite – I think, as I first enter the room. The Banners, as they call these text pieces, are white rectangles that all have the handwritten inscription “Gilbert and George say …” followed by a purportedly shocking pensée. Come on, I shrug. Come off it. Fuck Gilbert and George.
So I leave the room and go around an exhibition of paintings in White Cube’s larger galleries – lots of quite interesting canvases, but a bit bland overall.
Then I take another look at the Gilbert and George show. It has suddenly become powerfully claustrophobic, electrically nasty. Is this the unconscious of the artists spilling out, or the collective madness of the city they channel, the scabrous soul of London expressing itself in taunts and insults? It feels like both. Somehow these men have made themselves into vessels of British (they’d surely say English) society. The art of Gilbert and George is not explicable by tired textbook explanations of conceptual art. It is prophecy. They live in the “fire” of art, as the Victorian aesthete Walter Pater urged his acolytes to do. They burn in the conflagration of their times.
These times. These horrible times. The chaos and the fear and the divisions, the violence and the stereotypes. And two men feeling the hidden currents of dread, sucking up the dirt of the street into their minds. It is a kind of sainthood. In their Banners, it all comes out as gutter prayers. MAKE CUNNILINGUS COMPULSORY. FELLATIO FOR ALL. BAN RELIGION.
The words, of course, are more ambiguous than they first seem. Gilbert and George love the slipperiness of language, how a changed emphasis can change meaning. FUCK HIM they start out furiously. But love licks the language, and it becomes: fuck HIM.
A manifesto? No, this is a diary of urban mayhem, a dredge into the inner life of London. Textbooks of conceptual art could indeed be written about how a few terse slogans, that take less than a minute to read and assimilate, can be more eloquent and memorable than a gallery full of paintings. It is a rare alchemy. Gilbert and George found the secret long ago and now, their art is like breathing.
That immediacy makes their art as undeniable as a punch in the face. It’s the living pulses of two people you feel here, in every gloriously uncensored word.
- The Banners is at White Cube, Bermondsey, London, until 24 January.
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