Gilbert and George

The Art Exhibition
MONA, Hobart

As daunting as engaging with the immense retrospective, The Art Exhibition, might be, a strong notion emerged from it that Gilbert and George are performance artists still, and performance is the spine of all their work. While stolen newspaper headline sheets make up the body of The London Pictures (2011), it began its existence as a performance work. One of the artists would go into the local newsagent and somehow distract the person at the counter by buying some chewing gum, or something. Whilst this was going on, the other would surreptitiously filch the required headline sheet. That’s the performance action right there; it satisfies a possible version of performance art: repeat an action many times; see what this reveals to you. What Gilbert and George found through their action of stealing a headline, daily for a really long time (because they did not use all of the headlines they stole), was that certain words get used again and again. Anyone could have told them that, and they likely knew it themselves anyway, but this is how they make a work of art that creates a layered and complex point. 

My point though, is that when we look at The London Pictures, what we are seeing is the end point of a process that grew out of covert performance action. There is a consistency in this approach that appears throughout this survey of Gilbert and George’s career: the artworks we see are end points of a process, and can be seen as residue of performance works. Gilbert and George are clever guys: they worked out how to sell performance art, by disguising it as something else. The subterfuge that this implies has a parallel in their own lives: when they began their relationship, homosexuality was illegal. Although it is clear they were lovers from the get-go, this also was disguised as an art gambit. Identity entwines with method until, in 2016, there is no separation possible: amidst their massive body of work, with all its ripples and variations, are the men themselves. Again, it is probably obvious, but the most remarkable work of art of Gilbert and George is Gilbert and George. I had the luxury of meeting them, and they are remarkable: they do not flinch. They have whatever you call what they are doing under meticulous and remarkable control, and everything they have made seems to orbit around that core. 

Beyond that though, there is something else, something that is not so obvious. What you see is a partnership, in work and in life, which has endured. That endurance is borne of love, respect and a remarkable faith in one another. Seeing a massive retrospective survey of Gilbert and George’s work—the work of two lifetimes combined—is seeing a love story. It is not overt, but nor is it hidden: they are partners. They do everything together, and in a way, they seem not to care who they outrage or dismay. While it is clear they are well versed in the practicalities of surviving as artists, it also becomes clear that the only opinion they truly care about is each other’s; the rest is simply of the world they stand outside and watch together, as amused and bemused by even the tiniest details of life, as they always have been.

Gilbert & George, The Art Exhibition. Installation view Mona. Photograph Mona/Rémi Chauvin. Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart. 

Gilbert & George, BOMBERS, 2006. Mixed media, 336 x 493cm. Courtesy of the artists and White Cube. 

Gilbert & George, FIGHT BACK!, 2014. Mixed media, 254 x 377cm. Courtesy of ARNDT and Gilbert & George. 

Gilbert & George: The Art Exhibition. Photograph Mona/Rémi Chauvin. Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.