Reviews, News and Commentary

Gilbert and George: The living sculptures documenting the life of the streets

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Gilbert and George, Bag Day

Gilbert & George

The Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland Exhibition 2022

Auckland Art Gallery

Until September 11

Reviewed by John  Daly-Peoples

I had spent an hour with Gilbert and George talking about their work and a range of art issues. They were affable and measured in all the comments and views, genteel in their demeanour.

But as we were leaving the exhibition space a group of school children filed past and George heard one of the attendants say something to one of them. For the first time, George raised his voice and became agitated. “What! you’re not letting children into our exhibition“. It was quickly explained that this was a paying exhibition and that children didn’t automatically get admission. But George was still furious. This was an offence against his notions of the democracy of “art for all”, that culture which is the main driver of Western society was somehow being denied to a young child.

The idea of being denied  access to culture was something that troubles the two artists who often rail against cultural institutions. They know that there are too many artists and not enough spaces and walls to show all the art but the cultural gatekeepers wield too much power. But the are also aware of the contradictions of their stance in being feted by the institutions they criticise.

They know that the Tate in London has twenty-three of their works but rarely shows them. They also believe there has been a lot of hostility directed towards them and were  never perceived as being part of the art world. It is why they in the process of building the four storey Gilbert & George Centre in  London’s East End as part of the  Gilbert & George’s Art Foundation, and which will display their works  through changing exhibitions.

They like to think that they are enabling people to change, letting them see the  liberalism in the conservative and the conservativism in the liberal. They want people to change but will not tell them how to. For them the only way that society will change through, is by engaging with culture.

They believe that the greatness of Western culture has been achieved through culture, not wars or politics, that Western culture with its art, books and music has given us the freedoms we have from oppression of religion and tyranny.

Their work is generally anti-establishment, either gently mocking or offensively savage in rejecting the constraints of authority and giving the underbelly of society a voice. With the “Beard Paintings” they include the small advertisements which are found on lampposts and telephone boxes exposing the often-hidden world of sex escorts, fetishes and desperate aspirations.

These stand in contrast to the newspaper billboard works which show the media’s preoccupation with certain words such as “Death”, “Knife”, “Kill” and “Terror”.

Gilbert and George, Knife Straight

Many of their works take anti-religious position with works such as “Jesus Jack” and “Carry On” with a medieval Christ dismissed with a red cross. There are also  anti-Islam images such as “Mile End” and “Puttee” with burqa clad figures.

But when I note that in one of their works, “Bag Day” a reclining Gilbert looks like an ecstatic St Cecilia by Bernini he is almost offended as they have a distaste for religious art and religious thinking. George does say however that they would probably change their stance if the religions would apologise for all the wrongs they have perpetrated

While expressing many conservative views, their main concern is what they refer to as the world outside their door, the people of Spitalfields and their daily lives and environments. They look on their local area as part of their studio and walk through the area every day. Walking is their research method and where they gain inspiration. They photograph graffiti, unusual images of street life, newspaper billboards,  figures in burqas. They also use the things they find on the street – the small nitrous oxide capsules, balloons, rubbish and they photograph themselves with landmarks like the local bus shelter – all of which make their way into their montage prints.

The newspaper agent’s billboard which are used in a number of their works such as  “Knife Straight” are stolen when they go for their walks and currently they have a stock of more than 5000 of them.  .

These collections of objects, people and events build up a portrait of East London as well as documenting the pairs journey through their suburb and lives.

They made the decision to become living works of art shortly after leaving St Martins Art school, announcing their relationship by painting their faces silver and posing like two robots. From that time on they turned their very existence into works of art

They consider themselves something of outliers in the art world. They don’t have all that many friends and  don’t go to many of the art exhibitions.  Some of their contemporaries from St Martins Art School have gone on to be successful in other areas notably Richard Long and Barry Flanagan who I point out to them has a show currently on at Gow Langsford just across the road.  In 1969 they hosted The Meal, an elaborate dinner party that included thirteen people with David Hockney as the guest of honour.

Early on they were entranced on hearing Flanagan and Allen singing the music hall standard, “Underneath the Arches”. This idea of living under the railway arches and dreaming of being artists suited them perfectly and the song has become part of their persona, creating the idea of a “singing Sculpture” in which they sing the song besuited and blank-faced. The exhibition features them singing the song.

They produce all their work from taking the photographs (they take photos of each other), manipulating the images, experimenting with colour and even the  printing. They are now fully digital having given up their old cameras, dark room equipment and enlargers

“A lot of modern artists are not doing what we are doing. For us, the centre of our art is a human being. The others have a formalistic attitude, of nice colours and nice shapes. We have a moral dimension: what is good and what is bad in people.”

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

One reply on “Gilbert and George: The living sculptures documenting the life of the streets”

Like putting your head in the lion’s den there JDP. But you managed to pull out a few thorns without getting your head bitten off. Well done, and great reading.


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