Gilbert & George – Scapegoating pictures for London (White Cube Bermondsey, Jul-Sep 2014)
How ironic that on the exhibition’s final weekend, I should be staring at Gilbert & George’s latest considerable outpouring on the very same day the UK Government committed the country to a war against IS (Islamic State). This sad news coupled with the unflinching pictures in front of me seemed to go hand-in-hand with one another. It’s easy to see why. For Gilbert & George literally hammer you over the head with an orgy of photographic montages documenting what they perceive as the ever-changing day-to-day life on London’s multi-faith and multi-cultural streets. Similar themes previously visited by the pair in 2005’s ‘Sonofagod’ pictures (detailing a contempt for Christianity), or when they produced the set of ‘Dirty Words Pictures’ back in 1977, during the heyday of Punk and the Queen’s silver jubilee. The mirror they held up to their home on the East London streets in the late seventies was not a pretty place. At the time, George memorably remarked how ‘continental people saw England as a big pile of shit with a Punk rocker waving a swastika on top of it’. I remember the lasting effect the pictures had on myself after visiting the exhibition marking their 25th anniversary at the Serpentine gallery in 2002. An assortment of cunts, fucks and wankers may still have produced the odd snigger, but it wasn’t the words that offended so much. The underlying melancholy of those pictures showed us how little had changed some 25 years on. After all, weren’t there still drunks, homeless people and prostitutes sharing the same streets as a multitude of office workers marching around like cattle, not to mention all the graffiti, traffic, litter and shit still lying around everywhere? Fast forward to the present…And now it’s Islam’s turn in the Gilbert and George spotlight. Cue a familiar barrage of expletives amidst numerous images of women in black niqabs, often distorted or mirrored, but consistently mixed-in with hundreds of metal canisters, another refrain running through the assemblage. Known as ‘The Whippet,’ these small units (about the size of an index finger) are full of nitrous oxide and nicknamed ‘Hippy crack.’ Users inhaling the laughing gas get a legal high from the contents, before dumping them, often it would seem around the artist’s Fournier Street home just off Brick Lane. Writing in the exhibition catalogue, author Michael Bracewell refers to their appearance as ‘bomb casings or spent ammunition’ and this is undoubtedly one of the most disconcerting links made in the exhibition. For despite a title that suggests an impartial view of modern humanity, the pictures themselves are gross provocations, openly exploiting current tensions, paranoia, victimhood and fundamentalism. Throughout there is a constant connection with numerous images of Muslim’s and the sinister looking whippets. Bombs and Muslim’s? Who are the scapegoats here? By continually making such crass associations aren’t they just playing directly into the hands of those who would choose to exploit some people’s fears of Islam. One of the pictures even highlights calls for an Islamic state of Britain. Gilbert said of the exhibition, “We want our art to bring out the bigot from inside the liberal and conversely to bring out the liberal from inside the bigot.” Yet you can’t help but sense most of these pictures would only bring out more bigots, especially at a time when the rise of Ukip highlights the fears and volatile nature of an increasingly divided political landscape. After the widespread riots of 2011, the artist’s claim the pictures serve as a reminder of London’s alleged ‘temper‘ by challenging opposition to bigotry and so-called free-thinking. But on this occasion, the mirror held up onto the streets appears to have been intentionally broken, with only a set of crude and inflammatory images poking through a crack in the reflection.