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February 17, 2006

Lilian Pizzichini views Gilbert and George's sonofagodpictures: Was Jesus Heterosexual? at White Cube - and finds herself transported from a self-consciously trendy Hoxton art gallery to a God-fearingly awe-inspiring Gothic cathedral

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

sonofagodpictures: Was Jesus Heterosexual?
by Gilbert and George
White Cube Gallery
48 Hoxton Square, London
20th January - 25th February 2006
Tuesday - Saturday 10am - 6pm

Gilbert and George have been around for a long time, and they are well known for being a living sculpture. Anyone who lives in east London will know that when Gilbert and George walk up Shoreditch High Street, they're not just two elderly geezers in matching suits, one portly, one lean, out for their daily stroll, they are a performance. There is a fluid self-consciousness to their every movement that makes a trip to the local caff a work in progress. They are their art, and they've been doing it for a long time.

From Naked Shit Pictures onwards, they have established the photo-based collage on a black grid as their trademark, and bodily fluids as their notoriously recurring motifs. In their manifesto, What Our Art Means, they state:

The 20th century has been cursed with an art that cannot be understood.
They deride the obscure conceptualists in their midst. They want their art to be enjoyed by the people who watch them walking down the street. And so they have always been very clear what their art is about: sex, race and politics. Their latest exhibition, sonofagod pictures, subtitled: Was Jesus Heterosexual?, brings them bang up to date. The three unmentionables in polite society that they worked with in the last century are in the 21st century joined by religion.

Some would say, in this overheated political climate, where incitement and blasphemy laws are all the rage, that Gilbert and George are cruising for a bruising (another preoccupation of their work is street violence, especially when it's targeted at homosexuals). But now they are provoking religious communities. They could not know what would happen to the hapless Danish cartoonist when they plotted this latest affront. But they went for it anyway.

The crescent moon of Islam has become the man in the moon; they tell us in Was Jesus Heterosexual?:

God loves fucking! Enjoy
It's not just fundamentalist imams or a repressive Pope they are mocking, it's the fear of sexual desire in all its permutations that is manifest in all religions. The mottoes are unusual for these two, in being friendly and welcoming instead of challenging or acerbic. It is as though they are encouraging a kind of brotherly love, a Christian agape.

But some of these images will no doubt offend some of the people Gilbert and George would like to tempt into the gallery. If so, they are ready to take the flak. In the massive, 40-panelled title piece, they have already crucified themselves figuratively. In Give it Up there is another cheeky reference to their status as sons of god. They show themselves in the act of the laying on of hands. Strangely, it is kind of healing, as though the duo famous for their provocative work with images of faeces have mellowed into benevolent despots. It's a mellowing but they're still a bit spiky. Thank God.

Most impressive of all is the overall effect of walking into the White Cube. It is that one has been transported from a self-consciously trendy Hoxton art gallery to a God-fearingly awe-inspiring Gothic cathedral. The blazing colours of each piece - rich scarlet, royal blue, dazzling emerald and gold - replicate the stained glass of high-arched windows. The atmosphere is one of joyous acceptance of one's faith: in this case, faith in a harmonious double act masquerading as gods. There is a strange sense of peace in these works.

Mass is particularly clever. Jewel-encrusted crucifixes repeated over 12 panels invoke a riot of smells and bells. In Heterodoxy lewd imps peer out wickedly, horseshoes are inverted, wishbones cry out to be pulled, prayer medals and lucky amulets jostle for attention. The title itself states that all these icons should be given equal value. The three-legged Manxman has the same validity, or at least an equal opportunity to be ridiculed, as Christ or Egyptian pharaohs.

The subversion is there, but if this is aggressive atheism, the spectacle is akin to celebration. Christian and Islamic religions have always provided visual feasts, and that's exactly what Gilbert and George have given us.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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