Gilbert & George: A Private View at the Tate Modernwritten by Ashley Eldridge-Ford in London
It seemed that yesterday was the first day of spring here in London. After a New York-style brunch my boyfriend and I ambled along the South Bank of London's Thames River and approached the Tate Modern to embark upon a visit of the Gilbert & George exhibition. We bypassed the Turbine Hall, as there is simply no point attempting to go on the Carsten Holler slides these days as the strictures on booking in advance are so regimental that any semblance of spontaneity is simply quashed by stony-faced assistants who point at the signs indicating they are sold out for the next four hours. So much for being a space for the people off the street, it's more of a place for the people with sufficient foresight to mark down in their diaries a slot that occupies them for the equivalent of ten to fifteen seconds. Don't mind me, I'm just grouchy that I still haven't remembered to book a slot (the fact that I think it's ridiculous to have to book a slot to go down a slide is what so far has stopped me from doing so).
Gilbert & George
Tate © Copyright the artists
Laser print on paper
4260 x 7600 mm
We reached level 5 where the Gilbert & George (G&G) exhibition has taken up all of the eighteen rooms and were immediately surrounded in their work in the concourse before even entering the exhibition. This acts as a rather curious introduction to the show as there is no written text upon entry into the actual exhibition spaces and no differentiation (except to have one's tickets checked) between the public and private spaces. One is drawn into their work and their world regardless of whether one wants to or not. Eight huge ordered grids shout out the headlines that we witnessed (and were subjected to) in the year or so immediately after our 7/7 bombings, with the effective repetition of only a few words: 'terror', 'blast', 'bomb', 'attack'. Seen all together the sheer sensationalism and headline-grabbing propaganda of them is almost amusing. I found that the banality of some of them (perhaps best seen when one has a number of examples and one has become immune to their 'shock' hard-sell) en masse made them quite ridiculous: 'BUS BOMB: THE FULL STORY', 'POLICE FIND BOMB'; 'LONDON BOMBER IS FATHER OF THREE', 'BOMBER LIVED IN STOKE NEWINGTON'. Of course, what I attempt to illustrate is not the banality of the event, more so the banality of the media and how they can turn the simplest detail into headline-grabbing fodder. One headline that caught my attention was BOMBER SHOT DEAD ON TUBE. This we now know was an innocent man and that lends a poignancy to the other headlines too, that there were real people behind the attacks and that a number of innocent people have been implicated along the way.
Gilbert & George
Death Hope Life Fear 1984
Tate © the artists
Handcoloured photographs, framed
object: 4220 x 2500 mm object: 4220 x 6520 mm object: 4220 x 2500 mm object: 4220 x 6520 mm
I skimmed the displays of G&G's postal sculptures, the Magazine Sculpture layout, et al, as I was aware of the enormity of the show and I didn't want to burn out too soon. As mentioned, usually at Tate there is no shortage of information available as the viewer progresses from room to room but in this exhibition there is none. This allows the work to speak for itself (despite which, a quick reference to the guide every now and then proved most illuminative) and certainly in the first five rooms they do so gently, prettily and quite contemplatively. In room 1 taped square sheets on heavy paper hang like tapestries with very pretty idyllic landscapes in which G&G stroll or strike a pose from a carefully chosen viewpoint. Rather bizarrely, they call to mind the photographs of Prince Charles and Princess Diana when photographers were given permission to photograph the newly wed couple strolling through the grounds of Balmoral Castle in 1981, at other times, the work of the eighteenth century Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich . These drawings have been executed in loose but firm charcoal strokes that whisper of summer days in the countryside. We watch them watching a view and this seems to suggest, in lieu of a formal introduction, that we should continue through the exhibition watching them watching what they choose to show us. This is reinforced by the phrases running along the bottom of the 'charcoal-on-paper sculpture' (as they choose to call it): THE NATURE OF OUR LOOKING.
Gilbert and George
The Nature of Our Looking (1970) 1970
Tate © The Artists
A five-part charcoal on paper sculpture
In room 3 begins what we would classify as the more 'familiar' G&G works. The exhibition is hung chronologically and these works materialised around 1974. The works are ordered in photographic rectangular grids of sixteen and the use of red comes into their previously only black and white compositions. In the BLOODY LIFE pictures from 1975, such as no.3, the artists refer to their love/hate relationship with alcohol. An open bottle on either side of the grid pours clear liquid into waiting glasses below; two glasses are duplicated beside one another, full, in the central bottom two; the artists stand in the central four grids looking out of a respective window, the view obscured by muslin curtains whilst above them a boxing ring contains two fighting figures. Despite the calmness of the sun-drenched interior scene, recalling the serenity of interiors by Vermeer and Vilhelm Hammershoi, there is more being communicated about their state of mind from the strips surrounding them. The work of Hammershoi is perhaps more relevant due to an unease evoked in his interiors, as though a figure had just left or angry words had recently been spoken and left to settle with the dust floating in the sunlight.
Gilbert and George
Courtesy Jay Jopling/ White Cube, London © Copyright the artist
336 x 493 cm
Of most interest in the preceding rooms was The Alcoholic (1978); along the bottom four rectangles, a man has passed out on a shopping crate on the side of a road. His beer can sits on its side. The remaining nine rectangles are of a close-up black and white photograph of G&G's faces, floodlit, as they gaze down like heavenly beings, a modern day holy family, with expressions of gentle forgiveness. In this room 6 political and social commentary is strong and the works on display in the concourse outside can be related back to their inception in this room: 'Are you angry or are you boring?', 'Communism', 'Cunt', 'Fuck', 'Queer', 'Lick'. These are evocative words and the accompanying imagery pays homage to a time of recession and social discontent in Britain.
It was in room 8 (early 1980s) that their work really begins to take on the format in which it continued - with the focus on the two of them within their work - with the odd hark back to the 1970s social commentary, such as in Patriots (1980) or Four Knights (1980). By room 10, I began to wonder how much that is shown within the work is their private life on display or merely used to provoke or numb a reaction. The first which were blatantly self-referential to their sexuality were Sperm Eaters (1982), Thirst (1982) and Winter Tongue Fuck (1982). The first two are presented in a cartoon format, the third in photo detail. The works at this stage are of a very large scale and the compositions are more complex, which begs me to wonder why they chose to work with a cartoon style reminiscent of Keith Haring.
I left room 11 grateful for a pit-stop but found instead the cafe submerged in G&G works, video art and text. Between the recital of the Lord's Prayer monotoning from the video piece, I noted down their Laws of Sculptors, which began:
1. I Always be smartly dressed, well groomed relaxed friendly polite and in complete control
and ended with
4. The lord chisels still, so dont leave your bench for long
There is no escape from the exhibition and I found this did not prepare me well for the next rather more arduous section of the exhibition.
The more interesting part of the second half was seeing the results of the artists' scrutiny of their bodies' excretions and fluids under a microscope, resulting in rather beautiful foliage-like patterns. Their use of digital technology, shown in series of works dating from 2003 within rooms 16 - 19, removes them from the gritty realness of their earlier work and leaves us with polished, weirdly distorted images. In typical Tate style, the blockbuster format encompasses so much that one is left brain-dead by the end of the show. However, unlike the previous exhibitions I have seen there - in particular those of Edward Hopper and Frieda Kahlo - the work of G&G is not reduced to one merely remarking upon the weakness of the artist's (artists') technical ability (which is laid bare in these huge exhibitions) but that their work continues to refresh itself and to develop. This is in part because they are working with contemporary media but also because they continue to have immediate proximity to contemporary issues.