Gilbert and George, the collaborative couple who began their common life as artists more than 40 years ago, have always been fascinated by symbols, the bolder the better. Crosses and flags populate their acid-coloured world, as do red buses, graffiti and transsexual prostitutes.
In their latest series the pair have arranged postcards from souvenir shops and sex ads from phone boxes, gathered over the years presumably, in a pattern they describe as ‘an angulated version of the sign of the urethra”. This is the tube that carries urine (and semen in men) out of the body, symbolised by a dot inside a circle.
These new postcard pictures — a return to an art form they pioneered in the 1970s but have not practised since 1989 — all imitate this pattern, but in a rectangular format.
My first thought on seeing The Urethra Postcard Art of Gilbert and George, at White Cube Mason’s Yard in London, was: So what? Why make this song and dance about urethras when, basically, we are looking at pretty arrangements of postcards? The medical symbol they are fixated on (they make much of its use by a Victorian occultist named CW Leadbeater) is obscure and they’ve changed it anyway. I did not find myself thinking of anatomy or urine, just postcards. But I gradually realised the urethra really does provide the key to this latest outpouring — and perhaps to the very nature of their astounding creativity.
Postcards are humble, routine, omnipresent visual miniatures that change hands all the time. We still send them, stick them on fridges, pin them up, use them as bookmarks. They can be beautiful or ugly or silly. Gilbert and George started making what they called ‘postcard sculptures” in 1972, when they were also presenting themselves as sculpture, serving dinner as sculpture and getting drunk as sculpture. Their early works in this genre used old postcards found in antique shops or market stalls to evoke lost worlds: postcards from the World War I trenches, postcards of famous paintings and ruined buildings.
That was then. In 2011 the postcards that arrest them are the ones to be found in newsagents and souvenir shops across London, such as ones bearing garish pictures of Tower Bridge emblazoned with union flags. Each work uses a single postcard, reproduced relentlessly.
Sometimes the result is splendidly bizarre, as in a pulsing pattern of red buses in a 1970s postcard that also features a woman crossing a street and, yes, a union flag.
In among the flags — flags on bums, flags on dogs, flags inside the word Oasis on a 1990s’ postcard of the band — are works that use exactly the same technique, but this time to pay homage to the crudely printed or pen-scrawled cards that sell sex in phone boxes. What comes across, wandering among these works that take the most banal of found images and raise them to the monumental, is a sense of huge energy and compulsion in the pair’s search for ephemera. The postcards come at you faster than you can absorb them, making it hard to respond to each one individually. But the sheer quantity is compelling.
When two people make art together, the creative act is more social, more open to the world, than when a lone genius works in brooding isolation. But there is a third player in this creative team: London. In these works Gilbert and George seem to be channelling the city, letting it flow through them. This paper trail — of London sights and its citizen’s secret affairs — adds up to a monstrous portrait of the city, in all its bombast and sleaze.
A urethra, a conduit through which everything comes flooding out — that’s what Gilbert and George have provided throughout their shared career.
Living in east London, they are the city’s living sewer — and I mean that as praise. It all flows through them. In the past they have transmitted the rage of skinheads, the terrors of the pious, the sadness of war. Here the city seems to press more heavily than ever at their sluice gates, which open in sudden ecstasy, to spray out these unvalued treasures. —