Over sixty new works comprise Gilbert and George’s new series, Scapegoating Pictures for London. As always, the well-known duo, now in their seventies, are the stars of their digital photomontages, which are dissected in their familiar multi-panel geometrical style, and dominated by menacing red, black, and white colors.
The eccentric British and Italian couple is known to use familiar images from their local neighborhood in East London, where they have lived for the past 45 years. Dominating their current series is a favorite recreational drug of young Shoreditch clubbers: small canisters of nitrous oxide, known as "whippets" or "hippie crack." Gathered by the artists during their early morning walks, these bomb-shaped leftovers of nightly mayhem appear in the images in various formats. Superimposed with views of East End streets, they give the images a paranoid atmosphere of urban apocalypse. On top of this, the artists themselves appear as well, but their iconic tweed suits are replaced by shattered bodies, skeletal remains, and impassive puppet body parts. At times, their faces are masked. Other times, they are just dead scary.
Gilbert & George, BODY POPPERS, 2013, 226 x 317 cm; © 2013 Gilbert & George
In this drug-induced-trip-gone-bad, Islamic motifs, particularly Muslim women dressed in traditional niqabs are infused, culminating in the work BRITAIN (2013), which combines statements calling for an "Islamic state for Britain." Some may find this Islamophobic; some may argue this is a warning call for Britain. Whatever it may be—it is extremely politically incorrect. But Gilbert and George have never adhered to British politeness, with their images of naked young boys, their use of their own feces, or their relentless attacks against Christianity. They have never tried to hide their disdain for any kind of religion, and now it’s Islam’s turn.
But rather then being acute critics, holding to either side of the Islam-centered debate, Gilbert and George simply communicate the world around them. This show is reminiscent, in name and content, of London Pictures from 2012, in which the duo used newspaper headlines representing Britain after the 2011 riots, as well as the famous Dirty Words Pictures of 1977, in which they used graffiti taken from the streets near their home. If they are "living sculptures," as they declared themselves shortly after they met in St. Martin's School of Art in 1967, then their neighborhood is their living gallery.
Gilbert & George, NO 33, 2013, 59 7/16 x 50 in. (151 x 127 cm); © 2013 Gilbert & George
One final word on the cult of the artist's personality. With various quotes and manifestos by the artists written on the walls of the gallery, and a documentary film screening in the back room, this show bears slight resemblance to a retrospective. Gilbert and George have always put themselves in the center of their work, but managed to maintain the works, rather than themselves, as the center. While a whole different kind of iconic ritual takes place with the new Marina Abramović piece at the Serpentine Gallery, the uniqueness of the Gilbert and George phenomenon stands out: they are the work, the work is they. The text accompanying the show opens with a quote by Oscar Wilde: "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth" (1891). Gilbert and George’s personas, as well as the Muslim women’s costumes, are the most authentic things out there. So who is the scapegoat here? Islam? Gilbert and George? No. If anyone, it is probably London.
(Image on top: Gilbert & George, SCAPEGOATING PICTURES FOR LONDON, White Cube Bermondsey, 2014; © Gilbert & George / Photo: Jack Hems)