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Gilbert and George / White Cube, London

“Please note that this exhibition contains multiple swear words,” reads the disclaimer on the press release for Gilbert and George’s exhibition at London’s Bermondsey White Cube gallery, The Beard Pictures and Their Fuckosophy. Having been to the show, I must write that, sadly, this disclaimer is somewhat misleading. Swearing abounds as Britain’s favourite double-headed living sculpture unfolds Their Fuckosophy across the ample space of the White Cube, but the swearing is largely limited to one word; it begins with an “f” ends with a “k” and in the middle you have “uc”. The sensitive reader will permit a few examples of the, literally, thousands provided in the show: Fucking Under Franco, Fucksway, HRH Prince Fuck, You Was Fucked, Surprise Fucker, Fucker Takes All, He Came to Fuck, and, my favourite: Sponsor a Fucker. Like other philosophical systems, a cursory treatment will miss out on the deeper subtleties of the overall project. I saw a bit of a preview of the Fuckosophy at the 2016 Serpentine Miracle Marathon, and it still stands out as one of the most memorable, and weirdly powerful aspects of that avalanche of ideas, but the sheer scale of fuckery Gilbert and George find at the heart of contemporary civilisation at this show is staggering and demands deep, and extended engagement. I tried to read as many of the passages as I could, but then I got tired or bored, but, in the service of art journalism, pushing on, they became elemental and hilarious again. The work manages to do what less secure artists can only attempt: to turn the obscene, never mind the profane, sacred. Rather like Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ”, or Allen Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl”, their work serves as a reminder that insults, abjection, and violence can be pathways toward a profundity inaccessible to those in blinkered pursuit of the Kantian “lofty and beautiful” – the grounding of his notion of sublimity (later to be skewered, in very Gilbert and George-esque terms, by Dostoevsky). If William Blake is right and the path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, Gilbert and George are the Jedi Masters of Fuck, capable of alchemies Marilyn Manson, the self apotheosised “God of Fuck”, can only dream of. Not only does the work perform all the syntactic metamorphoses of the word familiar from sentences like “Fuck that, you fuckingly fuckable fucker; you’re fucked”, but it also offers a level of entry into fine art that less democratically-minded offenders, for example, the Chapman Brothers eschew. As Gilbert and George might put it, fucking is for everybody.

Gilbert and George
226 x 254 cm
© Gilbert and George
Courtesy of White Cube

“The Beard Pictures” which also make up this exhibition provide familiar fodder for fans of Gilbert and George, phantasmagoric images of the pair with crudely attached beards of composed of various surrealistic substances. The works have a sulfurous finish that deftly evokes the work of Lu Yang and other younger visionaries of hyper-real, impossible hells. Gilbert and George may be aging as disgracefully as they could hope, but they remain forward-looking in aesthetic reference and methodology. Their ability to find truncated phrases that immediately conjure the vagaries and bathos of desire’s power dynamics, for example, the fragment from an advert for a “massage” service which includes the phrase “educated male” remains unparalleled.

There are weak spots in the show, particularly the film of the entirely tedious Huba de Graaff opera, “The Naked Shit Songs”, based on an interview with Gilbert and George by the mediocre, martyred polemicist, Theo van Gogh. The fussiness of the performance brings an unwelcome, end-of-the-pier jocularity that feels extravagantly forced in the face of the works outside the screening room. One would have to have fractured one’s wrists many times from reflexive pearl-clutching to find the doltish provocations written into the opera actually “offensive”. This snooze-worthy padding aside, the lean, mean fucking machine Gilbert and George construct at the White Cube aims a refreshing powerhose of scatological catharsis at an increasingly grim, increasingly stratified cultural context. Long may they fuck.

Gilbert and George
The Beard Pictures and Their Fuckosophy
The White Cube
144-152 Bermondsey Street
London SE1 3TQ

Image cover © Gilbert and George, MINT BEARDS, 2015. Courtesy of White Cube.