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commenced 1967

artists (organisation)

Crusade 2014
Collection Title: Utopian pictures series
Place made: Great Britain
Materials & Technique: prints, 20 panel digital print Support: paper
Impression: unique
Edition: not editioned
Place Published: London
Date Published: 2014

Primary Insc: signature printed upper centre of image 'Gilbert & George'
Secondary Insc: title printed upper centre within image 'CRUSADE"
Dimensions: overall 245.0 h x 377.0 w cm
Acknowledgement: The Poynton Bequest 2015
Accession No: NGA 2015.521.1.A-T

Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore met in 1967 as sculpture students at St Martins School of Art in London. Renouncing their individual identities and assuming the title Gilbert & George, the artists formed a lifelong creative partnership and one of the most personally demanding collaborations in art history. They have declared themselves ‘living sculptures’—not performance artists (the ‘p’ word was banned from their vocabulary many decades ago)—and they both embody and create art about contemporary city life, morals, sex, religion and cultural beliefs. When I interviewed them in Singapore earlier this year, we discussed their recent series Utopian pictures.

Utopian pictures echoes with the visual clash of subcultures that form the East End’s liberated exuberance: ‘We do think that Shoreditch is the centre of the world! It is like Hogarth’s London in some way. The modern one. And it’s endless, and it is vulgar, and everything is there. That’s why we call it “utopia”. Because, in some way, everybody can do whatever they want’. Crusade, the NGA’s newly acquired twenty-panelled digital print from the series, is big, bold and unflinching, a work created via a direct absorption and regurgitation of the pulsing life of the city in which Gilbert & George live. Larger-than-life-size images of the artists flank the composition. Positioned frontally, staring straight ahead at the viewer in a trance-like state, they appear as contemporary soothsayers:

‘We make ourselves the centre of our art. It is us, surrounded with our thoughts. It is the modern world outside of us. We ask ourselves, “What is there?”, “What do we want?”, “What do we feel?” We never look at art to make art, we have never done that. We look at the world: “What is living today?” Each picture is like us writing a letter to the public, with our thoughts … The living sculpture speaking.’

Emptied of their individual characteristics, Gilbert & George’s presence creates an arresting tension in the work, where the artists act as a medium between the world and their audience.

Despite its bright, glossy facade, a closer reading of the lurid, multilayered composition presents a set of serious social, religious and political issues. Various aspects, including the helmets, chainmail coifs and the colouring of figures in the red and white of the St George’s Cross, position the artists as medieval crusaders. Literally and symbolically, Crusade represents the artists’ public crusade for homosexual rights: ‘Yes, we are campaigning. Crusading … all the time! We always like our art to … have a moral dimension. It has good and bad. What is the evil that we are campaigning in front of? It’s homophobia, when it boils up’.

Reappearing throughout the Utopian pictures series is the motif of the mask, and the artists are variously depicted wearing balaclavas and eye masks or have calling cards, flyers and stickers covering their faces. If the mask serves as a mark of membership to a group, Gilbert & George use it to reveal the many different and often competing cultural messages that reverberate through the streets of London. For the artists, the mask is indicative of ‘The new world’, where there are ‘still the goodies and the baddies. Armed forces, police forces, gangsters, the Taliban, left-wing students. They are all masked. Yes, the mask is quite important … The idea of hiding your face to shout’.

And what is it that is being shouted? When we look at the twenty-six pictures that comprise the Utopian pictures series, we are bombarded with slogans, advertising, news headlines, government warnings and private messages scrawled in public spaces: a complex mixture of textural and pictorial elements that create a new kind of language, that of a fast-paced, heaving contemporary city. Contributing to this visual noise are the collaged stickers arranged along all four sides of Crusade as a high-density framing device. These stickers are the products of street artists and are created as part of a subcultural practice that forms a street-level communication system: ‘You can feel the temperature of the world in the stickers. What people think behind the scenes. Because what’s on the street, it’s extraordinary’.

Over many years, Gilbert & George photographed and collected street stickers, flyers, advertisements and calling cards in the thousands. Each is painstakingly archived, categorised according to subject, placed in contact sheets and stored in books. This meticulous methodology has been central to the artists’ creative process for decades. In contrast, their production period is rapid, an adrenalin-fuelled automatic state: ‘The most extraordinary part …  is when we are actually in the studio … we start to see; the feelings, the souls are in those negatives. We collect them, and they speak in variations … It has to be subconsciously done. It cannot be ordinary. It cannot be known. They have to more or less make themselves for us. Bully us if necessary’.

For the artists, Shoreditch is a microcosm of the world, of city life, of contemporary communication systems, of ‘What people think behind the scenes’. But, more than that: as ‘living sculptures’, Gilbert & George reflect our world back at us to raise questions of how we live as individuals and how we might better live as global citizens.

Jaklyn Babington, Curator, International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books

in artonview, issue 83, Spring 2015