Gilbert & George
White Cube Galleries, London • March 10 – May 12, 2012
For the last forty years or so the artists Gilbert and George have collected (or ‘stolen’) thousands of newspaper headline posters from the local London press. These posters have been sorted, collated and classified according to certain key words and then grouped together to form 292 large-scale, and in some cases monumental, images. 72 of these London Pictures are currently on show at London’s White Cube galleries in Hoxton, Piccadilly and Bermondsey. It’s the first time that White Cube has given over all three of its gallery spaces to a single artist (Gilbert and George operate as one in their work, their dress, their relationship). Given the timeframe of the material collection process, this is, in one way, a career-spanning exhibition.
Gilbert and George use their now familiar grid-like structure to create unified collages, with the newspaper headlines superimposed onto abstracted black and white streetscapes in which Gilbert and George themselves always appear, peering through net curtains, or looming over you, sometimes as ghostly disembodied heads and eyes. The headlines are also rendered in black and white, with the connecting word that gives each work its title highlighted in a livid, tabloid red. This choice of words acutely reveals a series of cultural obsessions – with sex, money, violence and death – that have pervaded much of the work of Gilbert and George. These concerns are so often those of the print media, and as a result affect all our lives in one way or another.
White Cube helpfully lists, in alphabetical order, the titles of all 292 works in neat columns down the gallery walls, and just picking one of them will illustrate what I mean: Holiday, Hoodies, Hooker, Horror, Hunt, Hunted, Hurt, Islam, Islam Straight, Jail, Jail Straight, Jailed, Jailed Straight, Kerb, Kidnap, Kids, Kill, Kill Straight, Killed, Killed Straight, Killer, Killer Straight, Killers, Killers Straight, Killing, Killing Straight, Killings, Kills, Kills Straight, Knife, Knife Murder, Knife Straight, Knifed, Knifed to Death, Knifeman.
In his catalogue essay, the critic Michael Bracewell writes, “Drawing directly on the quotidian life of a vast city, the London Pictures allow contemporary society to recount itself in its own language.” But whose language is this? It’s the language of tabloid hysteria writ large and red, a language which has an agenda, both political and social – many of these posters are from the London Evening Standard, a right-wing paper which was, for many years, owned by Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail. Does the London Evening Standard speak for London, for “contemporary society”? No, it doesn’t. Who, outside of this particular media world-view talks of “death plunges”, “paedos” and “terror” in the way these headlines do?
With this choice of material and language, Gilbert and George present a vision of London that is relentlessly bleak. Everyone is demonized and everywhere is dangerous. Children are always either the perpetrators or the victims of crime. Schools and streets are places of extreme violence and danger. Money is always excessive and a cause of outrage – bankers’ bonuses, retired policemen’s pensions, benefit cheats, tax rises.
For much of the first decade of the 21st century, Londoners could have been forgiven for thinking they lived in Johannesburg, such was the front-page focus on violent crime and murder in London. At best sensationalist, at worst scaremongering, it was a narrow vision of London specifically designed to work towards the election of Boris Johnson (“Suicide Bomb Backer Runs Ken’s Campaign!” being one notorious headline during the 2008 mayoral election) and to terrorize London’s citizens, who are never individuals but always defined by their job, their age, their colour, their sex, their religion.
I was initially puzzled by the distinction made in works using the suffix “Straight” (as in “Teen” and “Teen Straight”) and this turns out to be a reference to the two different font types used for the posters – one sans serif, the other more cursive – but it inevitably raises questions around labels of sexual identity. Bracewell writes, “This distinction, the artists have said, highlights the divisive and irrelevant use of the word ‘gay’ as a meaningful adjective. For example: one needs not refer to ‘gay marriage’, when ‘marriage’ alone will suffice.” As a statement of political intent, and in terms of its actual impact, this seems half-hearted at best; a flimsy attempt to widen the work’s level of engagement with the material, but which is so cursory as to have the opposite effect – it feels like an afterthought, something tagged-on to the work instead of integral to it that only draws attention to its shortcomings. While wanting to make the adjective ‘gay’ irrelevant, they have merely highlighted all the other irrelevant adjectives media use to describe people and not questioned these at all.
The entrance to each exhibition displays a dedication, “with love, from Gilbert and George,” as if the London Pictures are a present to us, the public. But there’s very little love here and, in fact, in the larger spaces where some of these works consist of fifty panels, there’s an overwhelming feeling of being harangued by these stark, shouty works, just as we are by the shrill newspaper headlines themselves. What’s more, Gilbert and George have recently claimed to be moralists but, if we are to take them at their word, what kind of moralists are they? There is no challenge to the orthodoxy the posters proclaim, no alternative to this view of the city. What few positive headlines there are, the handful of hopeful moments, are drowned out by the hysterical clamour of the rest.
There is something oddly, shockingly, reactionary about this work.
Gilbert and George have also claimed that the vision of the city portrayed in their work could apply to any city in the world – that people’s daily concerns are the same. This is an argument for London as a, if not the, Global City and some attempt at expressing a universality of human urban experience. But this seems counter to the work itself, based as it is on local newspapers, on a specific political agenda, which does not always (or even often) resonate with the wider world. Furthermore, each of the London Pictures has an image of the Queen in the bottom right-hand corner. These are all different and taken from coins. As such, the Queen’s face is pock-marked, scratched and worn. This feels less like an international response and, if anything, makes the work look more provincial and not universal at all.
Michael Bracewell claims that London Pictures are Dickensian in scope, but they lack Dickens’ humanity, his hopeful optimism, his love of people and, yes, his sentimentality. In a world where the local can claim to be global, Gilbert and George give us a very particular, narrow vision of the world city. London Pictures says very little to me about London and a lot about the daily hysteria of the print media. This isn’t the London of Dickens but that of the Victorian melodrama or the penny dreadful. True, such sensationalism has always been part of people’s vision of London – London as a place of extremes – but it is only in part and Gilbert & George have failed to go beyond that.