Gilbert & George are self confessed thieves. Of the 40 years they’ve spent living and making art around London’s East End, they’ve dedicated the past six to stealing tabloid posters from news agents and off-licenses. The process is calculated – while one buys a chewing gum, the other nicks the poster from it’s curb-side stand. Together they amassed a collection of exactly 3,712, and together they’ve turned the 3,712 into 292 London Pictures, which tomorrow go on display in White Cube Gallery’s three London locations. It’s the largest showing of Gilbert & George’s work to date.
Gilbert & George are a duo as symbiotic as bangers and mash. In person they dress in coordinated tweed suits (with matching ties) and speak collectively about their work, alternately offering well-considered answers and finish each other’s sentences. It’s a studied, though none-the-less amusing performance.
London Pictures is also theatrical and methodical in equal measures: bold colours and harsh words roped within a repetitious, grid-like design. The posters have been grouped thematically with key words highlighted in a bloody red. BOMB. BANKERS. MONEY. SEX. STABBED TO DEATH. It’s a mural-sized mash-up of (mainly bad) modern news, a patchwork of human suffering, our society’s scandals and sorrows.
Gilbert & George assert the pictures “made themselves”, they’ve merely formed a set of rules and followed them. First, do not violate the text – it must be printed exactly as it appeared on the poster. Second, there are photographs layered behind (self-portraits and east london street scenes), but these must not conflict with the text. With these in place the artists set about cataloguing the raw material. “It was almost sickening”, says George “to see them all [the posters] piled up on our floor. On the one hand they exist to sell a newspaper, but they also exist because they are real. This man was really killed on the tube. That woman was really raped that evening.”
But London Pictures morose overtones are not about despair, they assure. Gilbert tells us the works is “a celebration of life”, albeit the grimmer side, and the one which most readily presents itself in the city of London, their perpetual muse. "We are interested in making human art. This is art about real people, what we are doing to each other. We can address issues in this work that we could never take on before. You can’t draw a “yob” or photograph “murder”, it would be patronising."
A fair point indeed, in this manner Gilbert & George remain both engaged and distanced from their subjects. By presenting the headlines back to us unaltered, they offer commentary but sidestep trite interpretation. Further analysis is left up to us.
This is work about the people, but is it for the people? Seeing that they’ve appropriated public material, I ask if they would, in an ideal world, take London Pictures out of the gallery and back onto the streets? Put it up on a wall, somewhere where everyone could see it?
“No”, George firmly tells me. “We want the work to be seen in a gallery. If you put books on the pavement that won’t make more people read them. People come to a gallery space to pay attention, to concentrate on the art.”
But rather than a ploy for exclusivity, George’s point is about context and giving art is due consideration. In fact, his enthusiasm for encouraging gallery attendance is palpable. “The number one reason people didn’t see a show is because they didn’t know it was on,” he enlightens us. “That’s why we’ve put such big banners outside, we want people to know it’s here, that it’s free. That’s why we’re taking it all over the world. We hope that people will go away feeling a little bit different because they have seen the pictures.”
Well, you heard the men.
London Pictures runs March 9 – April 14 at White Cube: Bermondsey St, White Cube: Mason’s Yard, and White Cube: Hoxton Square, London.