Can you polish a turd? The Gilbert & George retrospective

True to their ‘Art For All’ mantra, the Gilbert & George retrospective at Tate Modern begins and ends outside the paid confines of the exhibition. Vast, glossy grids, towering overhead for free, mutter malevolently about terrorism, Iraq, conspiracies, etc. Fittingly, the escalators actually restrict your view of these pieces, so that they seem overbearing, overstated, and overinflated: as they are; as is their subject matter; and, some might say, as is the artistic output of Gilbert & George, who continue to court controversy today, albeit less successfully than they once did. Their stock tactics, shock and scale, are bland to a modern palate; a four-foot neon piece of excrement is unlikely to provoke more from the Tarantino generation than a faint smirk. Content, then, can disappoint, as can form: their insistent use of their famous grids smacks of aesthetic fascism, perhaps even sterility, reminding us that they are old now, and have perhaps become as tired and stiff as the format they cling to. But – fortunately for us – the good old comprehensive retrospective takes us back to the glory days, when they made beautiful things. And the first few rooms really are beautiful.

Room 1’s vast sketches look like the crumpled pages of a romantic giant’s sketchbook. The scenes themselves, dappled and shady, like memories in sepia, made me think of Charles Ryder’s picnic with Sebastian Flyte on his first journey to Brideshead: an innocent, golden moment, the calm before the psychological storm to come, despite evident tremors (like this room, once you walk further into the show). Stains already spread through the images, but seem as natural (and naturalistic) as lichens or mosses: no labels, no microscopes, no bodily fluids yet. The grid is there, but in soft folds, like a precious letter kept in a pocket. The way each piece is hung round the small, tall room made me think of an ancient guard-chamber dripping with tapestries. Gilbert and George refer to these drawings, like much of their work, as ‘sculptures’, and they certainly have a striking, monumental quality.

Just off Room 1 is a narrow corridor holding the Postcard Sculptures, which, at once motley and deliberate, fascinated me; they are peculiarly British, and weirdly wonderful, as if a glass jar were filled with flotsam and jetsam from the Thames.

Walking back through Room 1 into Room 2, then, is like being plunged from light into darkness: from fresh fields into drinking dens. It is perhaps typical of Gilbert & George to have put the light at the beginning of the tunnel, not at the end. We still have charcoal-on-paper sketches in Room 2, but they are now repetitive images of bars, sometimes strained, skewed and even blurred; a brilliant depiction of the relentless, ageless, lifeless cycle of intoxication. The whole show is not so much a journey from innocence to experience as a descent into hell: a personal, social, philosophical, physical and religious hell, where drinking is the first step down. More eloquent than all is the massed encrustation of photographs, sketches and quotes, each in their own idiotic tiny frames, which forms an incoherent constellation on one wall. Room 3 refines, perfects and controls these images into the classic grids which were to become such a hallmark (and eventually, in my view, such a straitjacket) of the artists’ style. My favourite of these is without doubt Bloody Life No. 3 (1975): a brilliant visual summary of the temptation and the trap which is alcoholism, and a lavish image to boot.

Room 4’s Dusty Corners are elegantly, greyly hopeless, and starkly miserable: fantastic. The Mental and Red Morning pictures in Room 5 seemed fairly anaemic by comparison, and Room 6 came as a rushing, red-blooded relief, with Are You Angry Or Are You Boring? (1977) eclipsing the whole of the rest of the room for me; the other pieces deal with issues of sexuality and race which simply aren’t relevant any more: wince and you’ve missed it.

After this brilliant beginning, it all tailed off into dullness. Watching their artistic degradation, from wild youth to pathetic senility, is bitterly boring, once the good bit’s over. Gilbert and George’s burgeoning obsession with religion, with the late pictures even more overtly religious than the early ones, amazed me. ‘Surely,’ I thought, ‘they can’t seriously believe they seriously believe this?’ I wish I could believe they were cleverly punning on fasces and faeces. But I can’t. I wish they were reconstructed Romantics. But they’re not. It is just very, very boring: like watching a homemade Carry On, Cardinal! film. Indeed, had they made such a film, it might have been more entertaining.

Where did they get distracted along the way, I wonder? Was it the AIDS epidemic? What stole their soul? I don’t think they have the voice left to tell us: they seem to have come to think colour and scale are adequate substitutes for meaning. Their leftover fixations are all on empty, reductive, exploded questions. The issues they concern themselves with are washed up and finished; these conversations are over; and yet, Gilbert and George still gibber on about black vs. white, or gay vs. straight, in the most obvious, boring way imaginable. Maybe, in some corners of Kray Manor, those distinctions still exist; but among a young, culturally aware, Sunday afternoon crowd of Londoners at Tate Modern, they don’t. And Gilbert & George have not made it easy for us to become excited social archaeologists.

Though their muffled voices may be falling on deaf ears, then, Gilbert & George seem comfortable stealing other people’s voices, even their faces: Rooms 6 onwards throng with other people, and are filled with photographed words which were once scrawled on street walls, on road signs, on Evening Standard billboards; the shrunken-head collection of two opportunistic explorers in the London jungle.  Notably, however, they do not seem inclined to use images others have created – the nearest we get are crude sketches of sexual acts, found down dark alleys or on grimy broken tiling in public lavatories. Much has been made of Gilbert and George’s penchant for graffiti, but even in works as late as 2004 and 2005, the graffiti images I saw were just incoherent tags; the much-touted directness of Banksy, for example, does not seem to have impressed either artist, and nor has the now-widespread phenomenon of the great trainside mural (which you would be forgiven for thinking might appeal to them in terms of scale at least). And, indeed, it does not seem to be in their nature to admit others as equals into their art. The endless faces and bodies staring out of their 80s pictures, mainly those of young boys, are just as carefully arranged, stylised and objectified as the infamous turds which disport themselves variously into crucifixes, boxes, or genitalia. In a phrase they themselves might enjoy: shit sucks. It is, ultimately, banal and unsurprising.

I left with a dreadful sense that Gilbert & George are at once gifted, shallow, and exploitative. The insanely beautiful, exquisite MAD – possibly my favourite piece – exemplifies this: a classically beautiful portrait photograph, yet one which invites us to judge and condemn: to look at the person as an object, not the object as a person. The madman is merely a cipher of Gilbert’s & George’s psychological descent; they may be allowed to feel in sympathy with him; we are supposed to stand, stare and be shocked.

Personally, I left fonder of the madman.

27 February 2007

Tate Modern

[originally published under a pseudonym on Spannered]