Stendahl wrote in The Red and the Black (1830) that the novel is like a mirror carried along the roadways, reflecting both the heavens and the mud. The same could be said about art. Since Gustave Courbet and realism, art has tried to reflect the world without moralising. Yet, we don’t always allow our artists to act this way. Many of us take an elevated view on art. We want artists to be good, didactic, pointing the way, dividing the world into right and wrong and making us forget the complexity of human nature.
As I walk around Moderna Museet’s exhibition of Gilbert & George – or George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit as they sometimes call themselves – I’m blissfully liberated from any institutional superego telling me what I should think and feel. The exhibition is curated by the museum’s former director Daniel Birnbaum together with Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of Serpentine Galleries in London. The walls of the entrance are filled with Gilbert & George’s tourettes-like utterances such as “Christ lover fuckers,” “The winner fucks all,” “Fishing for a fuck,” “Fucking for nothing,” and “We are all fucked.” In the galleries hang monumental pictures bathing in an apocalytic horror vacui aesthetics. Next to them, the visitor appears Lilliputian, not knowing what to do with these recently arrived Gullivers and their satirical multicultural amusement park.
Paranoid image contructions
Gilbert & George’s Pantagruelian, all-devouring images reflect the world in both affirmative and fundamentally suspicious ways. Society appears as a gigantic cipher whose sexual perversions, belief systems, fears, and dreams need to be decoded, re-programmed, and spat out again. The stark-coloured photograms that have almost become synonymous with Gilbert & George’s trademark look like the stained-glass windows of a syncretic tutti frutti religion where gods die and are revived constantly. The chaos is simultaneously kept on a choke chain, however, with an extremely symmetrical image montage. Even the cross-ejaculating cocks, or the assholes that gaze vacantly at the viewer, are subordinated to a paranoid logic reminiscent of the Freemason’s pyramid-shaped image constructions.
Yet, there is an order in the chaos, and that order is submitted to two gentlemen’s class journey from the countryside to the amusement parks of the big city, where their trangressions eventually encountered the AIDS crisis, cheerful multiculturalism, and today’s conflicts of identity and religion. Nearly every image shows this struggle between open and closed social bodies.
Consistent, provoking and pornographic
It is delightful for anyone who has seen these tweeded gentlemen in canonised art history books to see how well their thoroughly consistent practice still holds up. It is easily forgotten how innovative their humouristic and heavily symbolic imaginary once was. When Harald Szeeman was asked to include some British artists in When Attitudes Become Form at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1969, Gilbert & George assumed he would invite them. When he didn’t, they decided to attend the opening and stand motionless in the middle of the room for the duration of the event. They naturally stole the show and became world-famous dandies almost over night.
Gilbert & George discovered their imagery in the midst of postmodernism’s questioning of every value, and I would situate the height of their practice in 1982. There were programmatic sex images such as: Sperm Eaters (1982), in which two men ejaculate into their own mouths; Shit Faith (1982), consisting of four turds forming a cross; as well as the punkish The Dirty Words Pictures,commenting on the‘No Future’ zeitgeist. The colossal photograms, Life Without End (1982), Finding God (1982), and Drunk With God (1983),are from this period too. Since then, not much innovation has happened, except the new religious images around 2005 and the Scapegoating Pictures from 2011, where the duo play on the viewer’s paranoia. “To be with art is all we ask,” as it says in one of their early manifestos.
It is funny, speculative, cynical, neurotic, pornographic, new spirituality-esque, and kitschy all at once. It is hardly possible to get further from the Nordic art of the 1990s, which Hans Ulrich Obrist was once intrumental in launching as the “Nordic Miracle.” Maybe this is the reason people at the opening turned their noses up? Some of the opinions voiced include: “A parody of an artist who’s asked a graphic designer to make the art in his place”; “happy porn church aesthetics”; and “how provocative is this today?” As for myself, I’m provoked by those who aren’t provoked. Not everyone belongs in the enlightened circles of the art world.
Burkas and bombs
Yet, the exhibition includes a few questionable works, such as Astro Star from 2013. Here, one sees two figures dressed in burka walking along a street, past a menu board displaying the day’s specials, among which is ‘Roast Pork’. Beside each figure, one sees portraits of the artists with bombs resting like cooling pads atop their heads. How often have Swedish institutions shown artworks that bring together bombs and women dressed in burkas? Not often, I would say. What is problematic is the connection between Islam and terrorism – the burka and the bombs – which is accentuated by the menu. The artists are seemingly asking, “What’s on the terrorism menu today?”
The art of Gilbert & George is not just about the chaos of our day, but also about the art of moving through the chaos. Is that even possible without losing one’s soul? One thing the artists haven’t lost, at least, is their sense of humour. During a conversation that I happened to have with a curator who exhibited Astro Star in Berlin, I learned that the bombs are, in fact, helium canisters. In other words, a sign of humour, nothing else. Without insider information, this detail is lost.
We need this art
Gilbert & George must love the confusion they generate, and in the long catalogue interview with Birnbaum and Obrist they toss provocative one-liners around. Yet, I refuse to see their jokes as anything but posturing. They are, of course, living sculptures; therefore, not only their images, but also their statements, have to provoke. At the opening, somebody whispered, “It is clear no one dares to criticise them. Their homosexuality makes them untouchable and free to say what they please.” I find some of their neoliberal image amalgams highly troublesome in view of the racist hate waves of the present, but to cross-read the artists’ sexual identity with their political convictions is just as alarming.
Yet, considering the fearsome, politically correct age in which we live, I find Moderna Museet’s lack of contextualization and its attempt to let the art speak for itself refreshing to say the least. Our time needs artworks like Was Jesus Heterosexual? (2005), that proclaim “Jesus Says Forgive Yourself” and “God Loves Fucking! Enjoy.” We need Scapegoating (2011), with its messages such as “Curse all cardinals,” “Defecate at the altar,” and “Molest a mullah.” As long as the world is a battlefield, art must be one too. Otherwise, we wind up with an art for art’s sake, an art for the already enlightened elites. In his last exhibition at Moderna Museet, Daniel Birnbaum has given us the art we deserve, and our present probably deserves nothing better than Gilbert & George’s highly problematic, yet so very liberating art.