Gilbert & George:
Scapegoating Pictures for London
By GIOVANNI ALOI, NOV. 2014
This summer, after almost twenty years of living there, I left London and moved to Chicago. My move was motivated by a number of factors: my partner lives in Chicago; Chicago is a city of dramatic contrasts on many levels, from its harsh winters to the scalding hot summers, from the seriously stylish rigor of its vertical architecture to the flatness of the lake it faces and the land upon which the city erects itself—it is breathtakingly beautiful all year round. The city’s cultural life is vibrant, fresh, and unpretentious. Of course, I also fell in love with American culture, its contradictions, its pride, and its resilient determination to keep a positive outlook, to make it against all odds.
Leaving London behind wasn’t easy. As the date of my departure drew close, I found myself thinking more insistently about London and our shared histories—a rollercoaster of events that began during the last stretch of the 1990s, when London truly swung once more, maybe for the last time. The city was a powerhouse of ideas and creativity driven by a wave of entrepreneurial spirit which many claim was instilled by, for the better or worse, Margaret Thatcher’s philosophy. Back then, Damien Hirst’s animals in formaldehyde had not yet started to decay; there was only one Tate gracing the banks of the Thames. Suede, Oasis, and Blur delivered exceedingly good tunes in the attempt to dominate the bourgeoning UK indie music scene. British fashion still turned heads as Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen rocked the catwalk with proactive and artistically charged collections.
Back then, London’s love for the Queen turned sour as conspiracy theories claiming she played a role in Diana’s tragic death cast a long shadow over Buckingham Palace. Red telephone boxes were actually used by people to call other people and did not solely stand as props for tourists’ souvenir pictures. The floors of Northern Lines train-carriages were made of wood and the only tickets you could by for the underground were made of paper. Brixton was as rough as hell and you were told to never, ever go there at night—the same went for Hackney. Canary Warf stood alone in its monolithic silence, stranded in the middle of a deserted, reclaimed platform of no-man’s land in the east docks. London was gritty but real—perhaps somewhat caught in the reflection of a world that had already gone—yet, something rang truly exciting about that London. Was it me? Or London? Was it the chemistry between us?
As I prepared to say goodbye to my London-life, I found myself more critically thinking about today’s London, how does it differ from the London I came to almost twenty years ago, and wondered what the London of the future may look like considering over 250 skyscrapers have been proposed, approved, or are already under construction in the capital. It seemed therefore almost too appropriate that, this autumn, traveling back to the city for a work trip, I managed to catch Gilbert & George’s latest exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey titled Scapegoating Pictures for London. As the title suggests, the work essentially is a reflection upon London’s multi-faith, multi-cultural, increasingly technological and sped up reality. As the artists claim, the current climate is one in which “paranoia, fundamentalism, surveillance, religion, accusation and victimhood become moral shades of the city’s temper”. Gilbert & George’s art is not easy—it is not easy to make and it is not easy to take in. The artists grapple with a set of problematics which define the career of every historian—making sense of the present in which one lives.
Gilbert & George’s career spans over fifty years of successful collaborations and has consistently centered on their commitment and critical approach to Britain, London, and sometimes more closely, to East London, where they live as a couple. The coherency which underlines the conceptual framework of their body of work is truly impressive. Since meeting in the late 1960s at St. Martin’s College, Gilbert & George have been faithful to the idea of casting themselves as ‘living sculptures’. This concept has enabled them to astutely collapse art and everyday-life simultaneously, continuing and problematizing the discourses of artistic ontology initiated by Duchamp. Gilbert & George start from the small of everyday life and look at the larger picture through an ontological derailment that places the turd and the Queen on the same level of importance. If one thing matters, then everything equally matters in the everyday-lives of Gilbert & George who frequently pose as ‘witnesses’ in their own large-size, heavily manipulated photographic tableaux.
The distinctive aesthetics that marks their images was developed through time since the 1970s. Their images, first out of technical necessity and then through a strengthening conceptual framework, have always appeared fragmented or held together (depending on the viewer’s inclination) by a rigid grid suggesting a will to order that is simultaneously undermined by the fluidity of their digital montages. Underneath this tension between order and the impossibility of controlling life, unfolds the seemingly random gathering of objects and figures, which are counterpointed by portraits of the artists. These regularly occupy much of the representational plane, and are accompanied by a bold title, diligently placed in the bottom right corner. Although some have read the recurrent presence of the artists’ self-portraits in their work as a hollow form of obsessive narcissism, this iconographic blueprint is essential in conveying the idea that ultimately, although ethically, politically, and morally charged, their images are fruit of Gilbert & George’s own perceptions of events, and that they don’t constitute the writing of universalist metanarratives – if anything the opposite is true.
Gilbert & George engage in the writing of minor literatures in the sense that French philosophers Deleuze & Guattari conceive of something that a minority constructs within a major, culturally established, ideologically prone language. A minor literature constitutes a subversive act which appropriates the genre’s specific paradigm of established and ideologically charged languages and replaces its ultimate aims; it bears a sense of social praxis and political immediacy and it ultimately critiques, impacts, or renders visible a form of communal expression. For many years now, Gilbert & George’s large size photographs have done just that. They have come to incorporate the language of newspaper headlines, public signage, shop signs, leaflets, etc. Words and sentences have been removed from their original contexts and are incorporated in images against ambiguous backdrops in which the artist’s portraits are intertwined. This process frees sentences enabling the possibility of multisignifications that differently resound amongst viewers. Similarly, their attention turns to ‘minor objects’—those that are not deemed worthy of historical importance by the writers of official history.
Usually, each series of images by Gilbert & George focuses on one specific object or word which functions as a conceptual bridge—an open metaphor that assumes a slightly different meaning in each of the many images they produce. In the case of Scapegoating Pictures for London’s 60 images, the object in question is the missile-shaped canister containing nitrous oxide, also known as ‘whippets’ and ‘hippy crack’. Those readers who are less clued up on such urban trends should know that these canisters are industrially produced as essential components of whip cream dispensers. As part of this kitchen tool, the canisters are vital to the ‘whip up factor’ that expands the cream’s volume. However, in London, these have been more recently favored as a cheap, ‘legal highs’ – inhaling the gas induces sudden euphoria, hallucinations, and uncontrollable laughter. Similarly to its older cousin, poppers, nitrous oxide artificially speeds up the heartbeat, temporarily enhances the sensorial systems, and heightens or distorts perception.
Over a year ago, the artists began to notice the progressively insistent presence of these empty canisters on the streets of their East London neighborhood. They started collecting them and they subsequently began to function as backbone of their latest photographic project. With their ambiguous reflective polished surfaces, these mass-produced objects conflate aesthetic analogies of war-missiles with the seemingly unrelated ideas of speed, accelerated irrational thinking, panting, panicking, hallucination, euphoria, annihilation, alienation, escapism, transgression, cheapness, time-wasting, loss of values, and superficiality, just to name a few. Nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, makes you laugh hysterically for nothing—from joyous, the laughter soon becomes grotesque, uncontrollable—a gagging reflex. Functioning as signifying pass partout, the sinister and shiny canisters are integrated in every montage, sometimes juxtaposed to images of women wearing burkas photographed in East London whilst carrying shopping bags; they appear in images of the Queen looking gloomy as she is driven around the capital; they obsessively populate montages of London’s local landmarks and streets—they are everywhere, and in all circumstances, they work as a silent signifier of the state of affairs in contemporary London.
The image opening the series is titled ‘Welcome’ and it proposes a non-symmetrical repetition of what ambiguously looks like a head-in-the-hole photography board—the kind you find in a seaside town or a quaint tourist attraction. However the two body-shapes featured on the board are not those of the Queen, Henry VIII, or Shakespeare, but those of rioters from the London’s uprising of three years ago. Above their heads the headline ‘Welcome to London’ sarcastically points at what all Londoners know: that the international, polished, harmonious image of the cosmopolitan London in which multiculturalism is peaceful is a construction of the media. London, like every other metropolis, grapples with problematic realities riddled with tensions and intolerance between different social and religious groups. Everyday-London is indeed far from the picture-postcard of clichés that have come to construct the city as a desirable tourist attraction. Instead, Gilbert & George’s perception of London’s current state of affairs acknowledges its hyper-dystopian base as a matter of fact—London is a place in which multiple waves of immigrants have most recently failed to successfully integrate. The idea of Britishness they have encountered upon arrival is no longer even believed by those who were born in the country. The vision of London Gilbert & George propose is one in which racial tension, social clashing, and cultural differences constitute an undeniably strong current in everyday life—as Gilbert & George seem to be suggesting, this tension leads to minorities being scapegoated for an apparent lack of national identity, for the financial crisis, for the lack of jobs, for the lack of housing, for the degeneration of morality and ethicality. But the problems do not start and end there. Most importantly, to Gilbert & George, East London represents a miniature ecosystem of problematics that characterize the world in general—not just London. This specific transferability of content constitutes a major strength in Gilbert & George’s work: the ability to turn the micro into macro, the irrelevant into relevant, and the tragic into laughable.
The thoughts triggered by Scapegoating Pictures for London stayed with me through my London trip. The exhibition helped me to think through some of the impressions I had amassed over the past years; impressions I had found no time to sort out prior to my departure. It reaffirmed some suspicions, and it challenged others—it made me think in a way that no text on the current socio/political analysis of east/west cultural tensions in global cities could make me think—despite its sinister, dark, ambiguous, non-affirmative portrayal of a city I dearly love, the exhibition moved me—its attempt to embrace the dramatic contradictions of the world we live in without directly judging the moral/ethical stances upon which recent events have developed, is indeed a valuable opportunity to develop one’s own perspective.
Gilbert & George bring the elements together in their images and leave it up to viewer to negotiate multiple contradictory images of a modern humanity that is at once liberation and free-thinking; one that co-exists with bigotry and prejudice. The questions and challenges posed by the show resound even more urgently if considered in relation to the recent political events which have unexpectedly reshaped Britain’s cultural/political landscape. Scapegoating Pictures for London was made over 2013, but it is perhaps even more telling that in 2014, as the images are being displayed, Ukip (UK Independence Party) a Eurosceptic, patriotic, right-wing party which triumphed at the 2014 European elections is gaining popularity in Britain on the grounds of their extremist views on immigration, health services, and multiculturalism. In the light of these new developments, Gilbert & George’s latest offering appears to be imbued with an almost premonitory quality.
On my last day in London, a few hours before heading back to Heathrow for my Chicago-bound flight, I finally see them. As I walked with a friend through Leicester Square at around 8am, just before the street-sweepers remove the traces of London’s nighttime excesses and transgressions, the nitrous oxide canisters lie everywhere on the ground—they are shiny, and glisten in the morning sun. WM
Giovanni Aloi is an art historian in modern and contemporary art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and London, and Tate Galleries. He has curated art projects involving photography and the moving image is a BBC radio contributor, and his work has been translated into many languages. Aloi is Editor in Chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture www.antennae.org.uk.view all articles from this author