Installation view Gilbert & George at Mona; courtesy the gallery
British artists – or should I refer to them in the singular? – Gilbert & George are iconic across the international art world. They have the privilege of first name status. We even know their preferred dress sense – matching tweed suits – and, yet, most of us have only ever seen one or two of their works exhibited at any one time.
The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart changes that. Its current retrospective maps near 50 years of Gilbert & George’s career and is the first retrospective of their work in Australia. But does it deliver the outcome we expected?
The logical answer would be yes, given that Gilbert & George curated the exhibition themselves.
The short answer, rather, is no. It is an exhaustive - and exhausting – show that comes across as repetitive.
‘We don’t do exhibitions to make us happy,’ professed the pair in an interview. ‘We are here to provide the opportunity for change with the viewer to think or feel something different.’
Gilbert & George: The Art Exhibition presents 95 large-scale multi-panel artworks, which are punctuated with video documentaries in modest viewing alcoves.
Installation view of Gilbert & George exhibition at MONA demonstrating that the large-scale works felt congested in the space; Photo ArtsHub
In true MONA style, they do not have wall labels or didactics. The viewer is left to navigate the exhibition through a series of short-conversations with the artists on various topics of life, lust and loss – well almost.
Their one-line philosophies are an extension of their signature conservative ‘potty-mouthed’ package, which is deeply constructed. You are handed placard-style mantras and billboard sized rantings, which at times move little beyond the magnification of clichés.
Simply, the volume of the work on show dilutes it.
The pair waste no time or niceties warming audiences into their fold. Upon walking into the first gallery one sees nine enormous works from their Scapegoating Pictures (2013) – women wearing burkas photographed in London’s East End with what appear to be small bombs.
Gilbert & George's Astro Star from the Scapegoat Pictures. Photo: Gilbert & George
The ‘bombs’ are canisters of laughing gas – nitrous oxide – which has become a popular party drug, playing off contemporary drug culture and the perceived terror of fundamental religious immigrants. In some works the artists are even depicted in fragments – “blow away”.
Do such pictures deliver us anywhere new? And what are they really hoping to achieve, to say? By blazoning them with tabloid headlines, such as “Terror recruits in our schools” backdropped against British flags and the artists wearing suits suggestively coloured red, the message is like a cluster bomb aimed to incite. Peel back the triggers though and little is being said.
These images seeming fold in on themselves, their political position as cyclical as their kaleidoscope-like collaging, offering little space for ‘free thought’ – their opinions locked in as tightly as their gridded frames.
The tone has been set.
In the next room the viewer faces another nine works; then eight, nine and so on… There is no velvet glove here, and it continues to chip away at our societal taboos and trigger points.
One moves through five decades of work that critiques, ridicules and colloquialises sex, homosexuality, class, greed, religion, terrorism, politics and profanity.
Even the liberal-hearted feels that they are being schooled at times.
Important to Gilbert & George was the inclusion in the exhibition of the wall text: ‘We want our art to bring out the bigot from inside the liberal and conversely to bring out the liberal from inside the bigot.’
It was a quote they had often put forward to media over the past decades, but had never been printed. Taking the curatorial hand they were certain of its inclusion this time.
One might ponder, then, its importance to this exhibition given the pair told The Australian: ‘We have to seduce audiences with beautiful, crafted artworks and only then can they become slaves to our feelings.’
Typically, each work in this exhibition is a collage of photographic images of the artists, found imagery and slogans presented in a black-framed grid format.
The exhibition has no chronological flow, broken only slightly with small viewing nooks for video documentaries, largely of the artists in conversation about their practice.
The lack of screened projections of their performed pieces – their living sculptures – slightly trivialized them as less important through their omission within the context of this exhibition.
After all, it was Singing Sculpture that bought them to Australia in 1973 at the invitation of art patron John Kaldor, and in many ways launched their celebrity. Performed at the Art Gallery of NSW the pair were painted in metallic body paint and sung Underneath the Arches for hours on end over six days.
Whether or not you like Gilbert & George’s work is indifferent when reviewing an exhibition. The exhibition does demonstrate a subtle evolution in the work over the 50-year period, largely concurrent with shifting societal acceptances.
The sell is impeccably consistent, or for some, laborious in its repetition. There are only so many times you can see Gilbert & George’s anatomy at steroid proportions.
Gilbert & George are far from shy; courtesy the artists
Most blankly, the exhibition is congested, and despite MONA’s galleries being extremely generous in their proportions, one felt suffocated by the volume of work. The same delivery of their oeuvre could have been made with a third of the work chopped, allowing better breathing space to consider individual works.
This, however, we should be reminded was the choice of the artists – ever in control. The exhibition’s catalogue shows a scale model in Gilbert & George’s studio in London of its planned hang.
What then were they hoping to achieve by this volume? They are masters at editing so that is not the reason, and ego – well their whole career is professed through the platform of self. I can only surmise that it was a carefully constructed pummel, designed to annoy, ‘piss-off’ and repel the viewer.
Criticisms of their work apparently are our own failings to move beyond this position. Their usual rebuff has been that we have become too politically correct, scared to speak out on thorny topics.
I suppose, then, this exhibition is as much about the audience as it is the works that hang on the walls. Personally, it leaves me terribly torn. As the artists profess – they know what works; they have been doing it since the 1970s. This exhibition shows that unwavering vision and commitment.
Such manicured control however has the affect of a life guard trying to control a Sydney summer beach. Some listen, others don't, but the pantomine is spectacular.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Gilbert & George
Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart
28 November – 28 March
The British couple met at art school in London in 1967. The pair have fine-turned their lives to imitate their art. They have lived in the same house in East London for decades, eat at the same restaurant every night, and order the same meal until they get sick of it. At the time of this exhibition’s opening they were eating lamb chops and salad.
They say it keeps their work pure, unpolluted.
It was only on visiting David Walsh’s eccentric private museum that the pair agreed to the show – their initial doubts of distance quelled by the obvious match with MONA.
Read: Life lessons with Gilbert & George