Notes from Norway: Gilbert & George ‘The Great Exhibition’ @ Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo
I realise that there is a level of irony in the second issue of my ‘Notes from Norway’ series being a review of an exhibition by two British artists. However, since attending Gilbert & George’s The Great Exhibition at the Astrup Fearnley museum in the heart of Oslo at the end of September 2019, I have felt compelled to articulate some of my frustrations and critiques invoked by the exhibition. Having briefly studied “G & G” within the context of post-war British art, my first impressions of their early work from 1969 ‘Underneath the Arches’ was that their ‘living sculptures’ possessed a degree of conviction in their pursuit towards the democratisation of art, challenging the institutions and bringing their ‘singing sculptures’ onto the streets of London, inviting both art critics and local people from the community to engage with the art. Initially I found that this interaction with the public and the positioning of themselves as both object and subject aligned with their slogan ‘Art for All’, and pushed the boundaries of conceptual art and sculpture. Yet their later works, as they began to explicitly portray motifs, language and imagery which are stripped from cultures outside their own, in my view entirely contradicts the notion that their works represent ‘Art for All’.
The salon hang style of the exhibition which I visited in Oslo featured giant images that dominated the majority of the wall space within the museum, spanning their work from the 1970s up to the modern day (Figure 1). Many of the works are vibrant images possessing G & G’s signature symmetry and grid-like style, a composition initially formed by the limitations of the printing capacity in their studio in their early days. Despite the means to print images on a greater scale (instead of having to divide the composition into separate squares to be printed and composed as if in a puzzle), they maintain their commitment to the grid showing a commercial attitude towards maintaining a signature aesthetic. While I admire their fervent commitment to maintaining the G & G brand and their apt marketing pursuits in touring such a vast collection of their works, in my view it is the imagery and motifs exploited by G & G within their compositions that deny their artwork the status of art for the people.
‘The Beard Pictures’ series stands out to me as one of the most crass examples of G & G ridiculing and mocking cultures outside of their own (Figure 2). In the booklet that accompanied the exhibition entitled ’50 Years of Constant Change’, the text composed by Moderna Museet and Gilbert & George states: ‘In “The Beard Pictures”, they adorn beards of all shapes and sizes. The beard has come to be a symbol both for hipsters and radicalised Muslims.’ (Moderna Museet & Gilbert & George, 2019, p.15). Their recent escapades into digital editing have facilitated a number of variations and distortions of their self-portraiture. In this series their faces are predominantly coloured red with darker colouring around their eyes, and ranging styles of beards are accompanied by multiple images including that of the menorah, barbed wire, goblets of beer and Santa Claus hats, amongst many other symbolically weighted motifs. To equate hipster culture with radicalised Muslims while racialising their own self-portraits and exploiting the symbol of the menorah, one of the oldest symbols of the Jewish faith, embodies a crass appropriation and othering of cultures outside their own for the sake of being provocative.
Their tendencies towards ‘othering’ cultures is a consistent theme throughout their Human Bondage and Dirty Words series, however one of the main pieces from the exhibition that seemed to visually embody G & G’s response to non-white culture is the 1991 artwork ‘Flat Man’ (Figure 3). In this piece, a black male model is positioned in varying stances symmetrically across the composition while Gilbert & George’s classic self portraits are positioned atop colourised blocks of flats on either side of the picture. They are shown gazing down at the male subjects, asserting an elevated level of power through the double gaze. The theme of using black male models throughout their artwork posits a questionable dynamic as the two white artists dressed in conservative, flannel suits are often positioned alongside models of colour dressed in less formal attire and often looking away from the camera while G & G maintain the power of the gaze by staring directly at the camera or being structurally positioned at a higher point within the image. This dynamic is evident in other works including their 1977 piece ‘Are you angry of are you boring?’ and ‘Shag Stiff’ also from 1977. Walker embodies this power dynamic, stating that: ‘…they had a voyeuristic relationship to those less fortunate than themselves: alcoholic vagrants, young working-class males and members of ethnic minorities…’ (2002, p.197). The double gaze is presented by G & G positioning themselves, the white, British, middle-class majority, within the urbanised settings of minority groups whether represented through religious symbols, models of colour or their use of racial slurs, forcing the viewer to observe minority groups exploited and made vulnerable by G & G’s crass appropriation.
Many will defend G & G’s work for its use of irony and provocation, and celebrate their use of direct and explicit imagery and language that rejects an elitist complexity and nuance in the meaning of many movements within modern art, evident in reviews by The Art Newspaper (2017) and Kooness magazine (2019). In the exhibition booklet, G & G are quoted under the title ‘What Our Art Means’ in which the duo declare that: ‘the 20th century has been cursed with an art that cannot be understood. The decadent artists stand for themselves and their chosen few, laughing at and dismissing the normal outsider.’ (1986, p.4). It seems to me quite clear that the true meaning of G & G’s artwork is a complete ignorance to their own privilege as white men, and a self-entitlement compelling them to exploit and appropriate. To be able to view these artworks as ironic or intentionally provocative ‘for art’s sake’ speaks to a necessary level of privilege, allowing the viewer to consume the images employed without a sense of humiliation or true sensitivity to the implications of the cultural symbolism.
Figure 1 – Photograph taken by Bronwen Roberts of Gilbert & George’s ‘The Great Exhibition’ at the Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo.
Figure 2 – ‘The Beard Pictures’, Gilbert & George, 2016, Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo, photograph taken by Bronwen Roberts.
Figure 3 – ‘Flat Man’, Gilbert & George, 1991, Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo, photograph taken by Bronwen Roberts.