Gilbert and George: ‘Scapegoating Pictures for London’

By Kat Hayes

“The 20th century has been cursed with an art that cannot be understood,”
Gilbert & George,
What Our Art Means (1986).

For five decades Gilbert and George, part art powerhouse part reclusive masters of whimsy and darlings of the art world have made art, art for the people. And sure enough, Scapegoating pictures, their latest London show at the White Cube’s newest outpost, Bermondsey, takes an accusatory swipe at the form-fixated modern art and it’s failure to speak to the people.

Even the most devoted of art lovers must concede that they do have a point.

Gilbert and George’s Scapegoating Pictures bubbles with anarchic energy, so much so that it seems almost at odds with the reality that the duo have been making art for five decades together. It feels fresh, young and although doused with the familiar anti organised religion overtones, capering skeletal figurines of the artists and the eponymous hooded and demonise ‘yoof’ all feature in this vast collection of chequered and deconstructed urban street scenes.

The artists claim that there hasn’t been a real urban painter since Hogarth and if that were true, I wonder if he too would have substituted the gin addled streets for that which litters the back alleys of Brick Lane (and indeed even my own leafy outpost in SE London) – nitrous oxide bottles or laughing gas, to give it its colloquial term. Also known as ‘whippets’ and ‘hippy crack’ the artists became obsessed with habitually collecting the spent casing from the back alleys around their east London home. These little pods resemble the shape of bombs and armoury, and here they appear grossly enlarged, menacing and looming over the subject or subjects of the pieces.

Gilbert  George, SMOKING DILDO, 2013 © 2013 Gilbert & George
Gilbert George, SMOKING DILDO, 2013 © 2013 Gilbert & George

Touted as the purveyors of visceral and epic depictions of modern urban existence, the show delivers on all counts. Epic on the sheer scale – as for the most part, the pieces are almost floor to ceiling. Despite the chaotic arrangements inside the works, the colour palate is rather uniform, militaristic even, limited only to black, red  (so beloved by the tabloid newspapers) and white– the only deviation is the steely grey of the sinister bomb shaped canisters of the nitrous oxide bottles.

The duo feature in every one in many guises: masked henchmen, eviscerated bodies, capering skeletons –  always dead eyed and impassive, casting neither judgement nor actively part of any of the varied scenes. Their continuous appearance is customary given that Gilbert & George have produced art throughout their lengthy careers that always has the artists themselves at its centre – they’ve also dedicated their adult lives to their calling as ‘Living Sculptures’.

Gilbert and George, BODY POPPERS, 2013 © 2013 Gilbert and George
Gilbert and George, BODY POPPERS, 2013 © 2013 Gilbert and George

The show is almost certainly visceral, with the scrawled inflammatory remarks (” molest a mullah’  ‘hug a homo’ and similar) scrawled across the concluding triptych ‘Scapegoating’. The sum of the three parts feels very much like the white-hot pinnacle of simmering rage, oppressive and anarchic. It’s shocking at first but on reflection, it’s no more or less palatable, or indeed more importantly, less familiar than graffiti daubed on the back of a toilet door (by a particularly surly customer). And therein lies the strength of the show, it manages to forge a bond with the shared experiences of the onlooker, reaffirming the arts’ claim that it is, after all, the art of every day.

Gilbert and George, part of the triptych SCAPEGOATING, 2013 © 2013
Gilbert and George, part of the triptych SCAPEGOATING, 2013 © 2013
Gilbert & George, SCAPEGOATING © 2014 Gilbert & George. Photo: Jack Hems
Gilbert & George, SCAPEGOATING © 2014 Gilbert & George. Photo: Jack Hems

If you admire nothing else, you must recognise the sheer volume of their significant output, especially when this newest White Cube has an unfortunate habit of managing to dwarf even some of the biggest visiting artists. Not so with Gilbert & George, whose pieces number so many and are so vitriolic, that they are barely contained by the generous gallery spaces and high-polished floor. These voluminous rooms feel claustrophobic even – like finding yourself trapped in a snug cupboard with a semi-wild beast.

It’s all almost too much- but then, perhaps that’s the point, wall after wall of fury, paranoia, fear, religious fervour and the artists’ whimsical humour to reflect the increasingly chaotic, contradictory modern world we live in. There are succinct nods to traditional notions of British reserve and social airs and graces, reflected by the inter-stitched moments of delicacy on the gallery walls which are peppered with well-observed and poignant dedications to the quieter moments of human existence. This draws a neat and understated parallel to the thin veil of order drawn over our own, and very real, social chaos.

As homage  to the modern world we inhabit, one where extremism, paranoia, fundamentalism, surveillance, religion, accusation and victimhood have all become ‘moral shades of the city’s temper’, it works very well. The artists’ politics are as ever, ambivalent and it’s difficult to know whether the exhibition is intended as truly offensive, progressive, or just plain anarchic – or even none of the above. Whatever its underlying agenda, if it indeed has one, many of the pictures are intricate, brilliant works of art which will manage to shake even the most apathetic of visitor.

Gilbert & George
18 July – 28 September 2014
North Galleries and South Galleries, Bermondsey, London