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March 02, 2007

Feminists and Muslims will be offended by Gilbert and George, but the rest of us can enjoy the aesthetics and anthropology of an exotic tribe, argues Christie Davies: Gilbert and George: Major Exhibition at Tate Modern

Posted by Christie Davies

Gilbert and George: Major Exhibition
Tate Modern, London
15th February - 7th May 2007
Sunday - Thursday 10am - 6pm (last admission 5.15pm)
Friday & Saturday 10am - 10pm (last admission 9.15pm)

Gilbert and George's claim is that theirs is "art for all". It isn't. It is art by poofs, about poofs, for poofs. There are 18 rooms in their exhibition, and about two hundred items; most of them depict human beings. Not one single one of these is female. When I asked a gay colleague familiar with Gilbert and George's work about this, he gave a sly smile and said "Well women don't have pricks do they?"

This absence of women is an aspect of the Gilbert and George exhibition that some find upsetting. One Dorian female critic commented on it negatively on the radio in a Scottish accent so strong and so wingeful it nearly blew out my old diodes. Another harpic harpy complained about it publicly to the curators in the exhibition itself and also snarled about the absence of Muslims.

Given that Gilbert and George's work shows a strong attachment to the part of East London close to their home in Fournier Street, Spitalfields, an area that has seen the departure of many of the indigenous people and their replacement by Muslims, it was not, in and of itself, an unreasonable point to make. However, it merely revealed her mad obsession with politically correct inclusiveness, leading to the absurd idea that there is something morally and artistically lacking in a gay art that ignores women and Muslims. Why shouldn't they be excluded, if that is what these two gay white males choose?

As it happens not only are there many Muslims in Gilbert and George's work, but they are frum. Their menfolk stream out of the mosque in little circular yellow hats. They stick up fundamentalist flyers condemning the evils of alcohol, homosexuality and voting.

Curiously what had set the moaning Minnie off was that the Muslims were missing from Gilbert and George's largest exhibit, Named, 2001, a five by eighteen matrix, a long wall of yellow squares, each containing a black rimmed porthole, through which may be seen an advertisement for a rent boy. It is a Liberal Democrat's paradise. What had irritated the Politically Correct critic was that none of the lads advertising to attract elderly, rouged and corseted gay men seeking sex for cash had a Muslim name. So what? Pious Muslim visitors will probably be quite pleased that they were left out of this one. Other exhibits such as Haram, 2004 consist of Muslim flyers from 2001, just as election time was approaching. One reads:

As we all know, the General Elections are coming up in the U.K. It is not allowed for Muslims to participate in such activities because voting for man-made law is a non-Islamic concept and a sinful action.….by participating in the elections, you are giving your consent to alcohol, rape, murder, homosexuals, lesbians, pornography and all the other filth in society.
No doubt some Muslim readers of this tract did not vote. Fair enough, since , now that we have postal votes, others will have voted twice or more times still. Still at least homosexuals and lesbians are up there along with murder and rape as part of the "filth" in society. It might seem a strange message to find in an art exhibition celebrating gay men, but, as we shall see, it is part of a more general dialectic of celebration and denigration and of the obsessionally neat, clean and orderly versus the obscene, scatological and disordered that runs through the Gilbert and George exhibition.

Unfortunately for the offended one, she was unobservant, for right there in the middle of the rent boy matrix is an advertisement for "Khan, Big Arab man. Hairy". Khan is unlikely to be an elder of the Free Church of Scotland or a Nichiren Buddhist or a Lubavitcher. The big Arab man is happily up there alongside "Spyke, cruel skinhead biker... I'll take control" and eighty-eight others. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see some of the more excitable culture lovers writing down the phone numbers and heading for the exit, fumbling in their handbags for their mobile phones. One of them actually asked a curator in public session:

Did Gilbert and George change the phone numbers?
He replied:
That's for you to find out.
Gilbert and George's justification of these ninety boxes with messages that line the wall, like the doors of the vaults at a crematorium telling you whose hard-urned ashes lie within, is that:
we are surrounding ourselves with individual vulnerabilities.
This is a general statement they make about much of their work, but why should we care what their intentions were, unless, of course, such a statement helps us more fully to appreciate the objects in front of us. It doesn't. Why should the observer wish to speculate about the lives of these sex-workers, about how they got into the job or their degree of autonomy or exploitation? It makes sense to ask such questions of Toulouse Lautrec's brothel scenes because of the way he captures the expression and situation of an individual whore, but why ask it when confronted by the parallel but impersonal work of Walter Sickert or Gilbert and George? Their world is as it is and we have to take it as is. Gilbert and George may portray it as they will, but, once they have done so, they have lost control over it. An author can reasonably complain about being misunderstood but can artists like Gilbert and George?

What stays with you after seeing Named is the success of their innovative technique, used by them since the mid-1970s, of fitting their highly coloured and often highly decorated, large oblong pictures into a grid of squares severely bounded by parallel black lines. It works almost in the way a stained glass window does, but it has the regularity of large-square graph paper and the lines slice through and across, sometimes even through and across their own faces, as in Here, 1987, Hellish, 1980, Blood Heads, 1989, Our Spunk, 1997. Yet always the lines are controlled as well as controlling; they are part of the artists' mastery of colour, scale and symmetry.

In part the symmetry derives from the fact that there are two of them: George the bald, bespectacled Old Red Sandstonian and dolomitic Gilbert, the Austrian from Italian-occupied süd-Tyrol, who in profile, twenty years ago, as in Derry Moore's photo Gilbert and George in their London home, 1987, used to look like Der Fuehrer. One was almost tempted to take out a felt pen and add a small and silly black moustache to his face to complete the illusion; but in fairness today, twenty years on, he looks far more like Ken Livingstone. Plus ça change

Seen together, they resemble Morecambe and Wise, an image which is reinforced by their fondness for identical grey business suits and Swiss silk ties at £45 a throw.

They always look like each other, sometimes in their neat suits, sometimes in shining white underwear like a retouched advertisement for detergent, sometimes in scrubbed pink nakedness. They have been a pair since 1967, when they met at the St. Martin's School of Art in London. They never work as individuals but always as a couple and they often include both of themselves in one of their pictures but never just one of them. They are an item. Two people, one unit is the basis of their use of symmetry; they are usually seen in parallel, often facing us, as in We, 1983, Here, 1987, Gum City, 1998, or Chichiman (a very hostile West Indian term for male homosexuals), 2004 but also together in prayer in Life Without End, 1982. Yet they also face each other in Inside, 1980, act as bookends in Blooded, 1983, provide alternate faces in Death, Hope, Life, Fear, 1984, and are splitting image faces in a distorting mirror in Heart, 2004. They had even appeared walking together in their earliest English pastoral sketches in charcoal on "aged" paper, sketches of the watery, wooded Essex countryside where they could be seen wandering like that other inseparable couple Ratty and Mole in the careless bachelor idyll, Wind in the Willows.

They even appear together in parallel, almost in boxes, in their early self-photograph, George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shirt, 1969, which has the title printed in big cut out letters across the front of their snappy cut suits; two nice young men smoking cigarettes with identical roses in their button-holes. Gilbert and George's work is an amazing declaration of their paired narcissism, of a double obsession. Yet why not? It is a point that could be made about many married couples, though these rarely dress quite so identically.

In accordance with the first of their Laws of Sculpture, 1969, Gilbert and George think that they should always be "smartly dressed [and] well groomed". It is very odd, given that most sculptors are scruffy chaps in boiler suits or capes and aprons and newspaper caps, like Lewis Carroll's carpenter, or flat smeared caps and dusty woolly hats (and if they have any sense in goggles and respirators), vainly trying to keep the dust and dirt and filings at bay. Even as a geology student I used to find hammer and chisel and trowel work a grubby business in chalk and shale. Gilbert and George trained as sculptors and call their work sculpture even though it is two-dimensional, which they justify at length, but which seems an affectation.

Rather, Gilbert and George's neatness is part of their gayness. I can remember once going from the University of California Berkeley, where I was doing research in an archive, to give a lecture at Brigham Young University in Utah, a place where everyone stops walking, and stands to attention reverently, when the huge US flag at the centre of the campus is raised and lowered twice a day. On arrival there, I teased my colleagues as to how much their students looked like Mormon missionaries, short-haired statements of what it means to be clean and wholesome according to the Word of Wisdom. Since I am known to be a life-long teetotaller and fanatical non-smoker, I am allowed to get away with that kind of wise-crack at a Mormon university. My colleagues laughed and one of them told me:

The last guy who came here from Berkeley looked at our students walking across campus and said, "I hadn't realised how many gay students you had at Brigham Young".
It is easy to see why Mormons are so neat and clean, given the rigorous insistence of their religion on self-control and sobriety and the need to maintain a strict boundary between Mormons and Gentiles. But why should this obsession be shared by gay students from Berkeley and even more so by Gilbert and George, with their history of ginful hard drinking to the point of self-destructive drunkenness, a history shown in Smashed, 1972, The Secret Drinker, 1973 and Inca Pisca, 1974.

There are many reasons, but one is that gay men have been excluded, indeed savagely excluded, because they do not fit within society's categories, because they mess up the boundaries between male and female. Penetrative sexual relations between men are particularly transgressive because they also spoil the boundary of the body between outside and inside. You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; that is an abomination.

You shall not have sexual intercourse with any beast to make yourself unclean with it.
[Leviticus 18: 22-24]

No woman shall wear an article of man's clothing, nor shall a man put on woman's dress; for those who do these things are an abomination.
[Deuteronomy 22: 5]

We may also add, to show how purity is defined in these texts that have shaped not only Judaism but Western civilisation and the Islamic lands, the instructions to the descendants of Aaron:
The Lord spoke to Moses and said…… I am the Lord. No man descended from Aaron who suffers from a malignant skin-disease or has a discharge shall eat of the holy-gifts until he is cleansed. A man who touches anything which makes him unclean, or who has an emission of semen, a man who touches any vermin which makes him unclean or any human being which makes him unclean ….
[Leviticus 22: 4-6]
How are gay-identified artists such as Gilbert and George to respond to a tradition that emphasises the boundaries of peoples, categories and bodies and that in consequence defines gays as unclean. One way is to be ultra-clean in appearance, with scrubbed and manicured boundaries - the Gilbert and George of the self-portraits. The other is to wallow in the fluids that are seen as unclean, because they mar the boundaries of the body, being neither in nor out, or first in and then out and polluting once they are out. And so we come to G and G's otherwise odd and inexplicable Shitted, 1984, in which the pair of them sit below a cascading avalanche of turds far bigger than they are, turds that fill the picture and threaten to clog the U-bend. Gilbert and George comment:
Fundamentally there's something religious about the fact that we're made of shit. We consist of the stuff. It's our nourishment, it belongs to us, we're part of it, and we show this is a positive light….It's like our picture of cemeteries, all that dead matter. Shit is also the end of a life, a left over.
This reads like the creed of a heterodox, antinomian Hindu sect.

In Blood, Tears, Spunk, Piss, 1996, Blood and Piss and Bloody Mooning, 1996, G and G embrace one another against a background of microscope slides of all these inner to outer substances, all of them (except for tears, which are in all senses clean) transgressive and polluting. G and G studied them under the microscope and were astonished to discover complex patterns forming and dispersing on the slide in which, as in clouds or tea-leaves, they could see recognisable images. Quite why they were astonished is unclear. Perhaps it was their first time with their new toy. They comment:

Out of these drops of blood come stained-glass windows from fourteenth century cathedrals or Islamic writing…To see daggers and medieval swords in sweat that's our aim. In piss you find pistols, flowers, crucifixes. Spunk amazes us……it really does look like a crown of thorns.
You will see what I mean. Gilbert and George themselves may well be aware of the connections I am making. In Spit Law, 1997 there are two pictures, held in the usual grid, a four by seven. Each picture is a four by three rectangle and they are separated by four squares on a column containing the text of Leviticus 20: 4-17 where God decrees that those guilty of sodomy must be put to death for their abominable crime. On either side of this holy text are the paired Gilbert and George in their shining-white underpants, first standing staring at us, then bending away from us, lowering their nether garments, mooning and inviting interest in an orifice as if to say "Well, bugger me". Leviticus has become a passage between passages.

Soon the Gilbert and George exhibition will be the only place where you will be allowed to or be able to read Leviticus. Sir Ian McKellen the gay actor has boasted how in the hotels where he has stayed, he has fished the Gideon Bible out of its drawer and torn out the hated pages of Leviticus about the penalties for sodomites. Why did they not give him an ASBO instead of a knighthood? Sir Ian is even said to have torn up the Bible on the stage of a theatre for the same reason; we are still waiting for him to extend his rage to the Koran. In the Netherlands it is forbidden to display any quotation from the Bible demeaning to homosexuals on an internet site and the Dutch are pressing for the censorship of such messages from foreign sites, which is why they are so strongly opposed to internet free speech. Only the American belief in their First Amendment has protected us from this Batavian tyranny. In Holland, the land of dijks and dykes, pastors of the stricter Calvinist sects have been arrested and prosecuted for their beliefs. Only the Muslims in the Netherlands as in Britain are allowed to defy the march of historical enlightenment. They are the one unmoveable obstacle to the final gay victory.

Gilbert and George's Was Jesus Heterosexual?, 2005, sings triumphant, but it is followed by Terror, 2006, Bombing, 2006, Bomb, 2006, in which the panels are entirely made up of the headline boards of the Evening Standard advertising stories of Muslim bombings, except, of course, for the images of Gilbert and George themselves, which are placed at the centre of each picture. At least Gilbert and George have worked out where the last and overwhelmingly strong opposition to the gay community is going to come from. 1967 to 2007 were their years of gay victory, from the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between men in 1967 to the enforcement of gay and lesbian equality on reluctant Catholics in 2007.

But now there is a new menace. In the past sophisticated gay men with the money to travel took a benign view of the Muslims, because their experience of them was as sex tourists to Morocco including Tangiers (Orton and Halliwell, Kenneth Williams) and Tunisia (Gide and Keynes who wrote home how cheap "bed and boy" hostelries were). But stricter Muslim views have arrived in Britain from East of Suez, where there are still strong commandments; gaydom is doomed, much as ibn Khaldun would have predicted.

It is impossible to avoid these tensions at the Gilbert and George exhibition. They leap out at you with gargoyle faces. But there remains Gilbert and George's talent for arrangement and symmetry, colour, pattern and decoration that reaches its peak of richness in their later works such as Fingle Fangle, 2004, Dividers, 2005, and Mass, 2005, where they are able to make full use of the computer.

It is an exhibition worth going to just for these pleasures of display. A few of their works are obscene, such as the cartoon-like Hunger, 1982, or City Fairies, 1991. And some of their portrayals of everyday boys such as Existers, 1984, The Wall, 1986, or There, 1987, are as puke-makingly gay-sentimental as those of their nineteenth century predecessors Simeon Solomon and Henry Scott Tuke RA, though in a quite different way. They really should have left the hoodies to "Dopey Dave" Cameron. Feminists won't like the exhibition, Muslims won't like it and you may want to leave your children at home but for the rest of us it is an enjoyable outing, rich in the aesthetics and anthropology of an exotic tribe. And, unlike much contemporary art, that of Gilbert and George isn't incomprehensible or deliberately obscure or a left-wing sneer at the understandings of the ordinary public. Indeed their leftist enemies have called Gilbert and George fascist, right-wing populist, conservative and Thatcherite; perhaps theirs is an "art for all" after all.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, 2006 (2004) an account of the retreat and then rout of the anti-gay forces in Britain.

To read David Wootton's take on Gilbert and George, see: What's wrong with Gilbert and George? David Wootton argues that Gilbert and George should never have been allowed into the Tate.


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As the X-factor judges might say, Professor Davies, you're becoming something of a one-track pony.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 12, 2007 08:58 PM
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