An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times on 4 February 2018
Gilbert and George’s monumental show at the Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) in Belfast, is dominated by whippets. Not, alas for dog lovers, the canine kind.These whippets are the small steel containers used for nitrous oxide – a popular recreational drug, especially in the gay community. In the blood-red apocalyptic world depicted in this exhibition, these bomb-shaped objects serve as a metaphor for both the violence and the careless hedonism of our blighted times. Gilbert and George themselves appear in the large pictures in a variety of guises: bemused everyman, appalled witness, shattered victim, or dead-eyed killer. “We are the centre of the art, we are always the centre of the vision”. The show is meant to be provocative. According to curator Hugh Mulholland its aim is: “To force us to examine our complicity in all that is wrong with society”. This is a thread in art that goes back to Goya’s Disasters of War and embraces the likes of Hogarth and Otto Dix.
Gilbert and George have been around as an artistic duo for a remarkable 50 years. Notwithstanding their outsider claims they have slowly morphed into national treasures in the UK. All the signs are there. They won the Turner Prize for their photo montages in 1986. In 2007 they had a retrospective at the Tate Modern that was the largest in that institution’s history. An hour-long interview with Mark Lawson on the BBC in 2011 further confirmed their place in the cultural life of their country. George is the Philip Larkinesque one with the glasses and Gilbert is the shorter one. They met at St. Martin’s College of Art in London in 1967 and have been partners in art and in life ever since. From their base near Brick Lane in East London they issue forth in character every day to pursue their inordinately ordered and well documented lives. “We are the living walking sculptures, walking through London.” It’s amusing to see them slipping into sculpture mode when our photographer began taking photographs. Like well-trained soldiers their arms go down by their sides and they assume the formal position.
When I met them in Belfast a couple of weeks ago I was expecting to encounter them in living sculpture mode – but they seemed perfectly normal and chatty. There was a distinct absence of preciousness or self-importance. But of course back in their early days they published the Laws of Sculptors that promised that they would be “always smartly-dressed, well-groomed, friendly, polite and in complete control”. The latter became evident when I tried unsuccessfully to steer the conversation away from their well-rehearsed beliefs towards more personal matters, such as Gilbert’s background in the South Tyrol. They were dressed in very smart tweed suits, one dark green, the other rust red. When I remarked on them George told me they were Donegal Tweed. “We’ve given up on Harris Tweed since the split.” This cryptic remark was aimed at Scotland and its import became clear later when they aired their views on Brexit.
Their dedication and persistence over 50 years clearly springs from a profound belief in what they do. It has always been thus. Back in 1969 after they left art college they were miffed to find themselves excluded from a major contemporary sculpture show When Attitudes Become Form at the ICA. “We felt outsiders at the beginning.” They proceeded to crash the opening and perform their Singing Sculpture routine for the delectation of the throng. The event was attended by the hugely influential German gallerist Konrad Fischer who invited them to show in his gallery in Düsseldorf (alongside such luminaries as Sol LeWitt and Bruce Nauman) and so their career was launched. They remain grateful to Fischer “everybody said no and he said yes”. Given that you can’t sell a singing sculpture, their early shows also included charcoal drawings and eventually they began to use photography and build their large-scale photo-montages.
The images in Scapegoating are bizarre, violent, and sinister. The predominance of women in burqas and bearded men in robes infers an Islamic source for the violence and mayhem. But they claim to have many Moslem friends around Brick Lane which has a large mosque. They also referred to the late Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh as “a liberal and a bigot” because “he spoke against Islam”. When it comes to sexual matters both are ardent libertarians. A triptych containing multiple slogans urges us to: “Keep a catamite – Snog in the synagogue – Caress a constable” and other more arcane sexual acts. Their tolerance does not extend to loving religion which they pretty much blame for all the ills of the world. Hence: “Beat up a bishop, Piss on a priest, Infibulate an iman”. Contradictions occur here also. We are urged confusingly to: “Masturbate a monk” and “Fuck the vicar”.
When asked what brought them to Northern Ireland their simple response was “Hugh just asked us.” Mulholland sees Northern Ireland “as a divided and fractured society at times unable to confront uncomfortable truths.” He maintains that Gilbert and George place themselves “and by extension us” within their work. Their concerns are universal – these pictures could be shown in any Western capital. They have no issues with Northern Ireland politics specifically or its conservative stance on social issues. When I mentioned that gay marriage was still banned there, they were unmoved. “It’s not relevant for our generation”, George maintained, “it’s too much like copying straight people.” He went on to express admiration for cult writer John Rechy, the author of gay classics such as City of Night and Sexual Outlaw. They have a civil partnership which presumably takes care of inheritance issues. Rather surprisingly, considering one is Italian and one is English, they are ardently pro-Brexit. George seemed to do most of the talking on political matters: “We’re pro-Brexit of course. Who is running the whole show”, he asks rhetorically, “Germany and France of course”. He mentions that he was bombed out of his childhood home in Plymouth by German planes, so this animosity may have long roots..
For artists whose work sells for substantial six-figure sums they have a refreshingly democratic attitude towards the product, encouraging versions that can be distributed widely and cheaply. Gilbert boasted that “In London we signed 4,000 posters at £10”. In 2007 they allowed access to one of their posters on the Guardian and BBC web sites for 48 hours. They were delighted that subsequently, wherever they went, they were approached by people to sign them. “Do you know that lovely young actor Luke Evans, he’s unconventionally good-looking ?” George asked me. “He downloaded one and asked us to sign it in a New York hotel”. On the Friday after the opening in Belfast, they sat in the gallery for three hours signing catalogues.
When I queried them about their own tastes the surprised me with their enthusiasm for AE (George Russell) – whose mystical visions seem far from their hard-edged realism. They recently discovered pictures by him in a theosophical library in London and professed themselves beguiled by them. “We think he’s a great artist. You should have an AE Museum”. They were bemused at his seemingly lowly rating at home. “Why are his paintings so inexpensive. He’s madly underpriced.”
Although Gilbert was born a Catholic and George a Protestant, they eschew all religion, while claiming to be “more Christian than most of our detractors”. A barb aimed at the Rev. David McIlveen (father of the serving DUP MP) amongst others. Their previous show in Belfast in 1999 was described as "an assault upon decency and morality". As we walked out to get some photographs I asked George about McIlveen’s attack on their work. That doesn’t bother us he maintained. “Did you notice that his name has EVIL in it and our name has GOD in it. True?”