No urinating! A look at Gilbert & George’s UTOPIAN PICTURES

Gilbert & George. THEY SHOT THEM!, 2014. From: Utopian Pictures. 24 panels. 254×453 cm. Courtesy ARNDT and the artists

Artists Gilbert & George are fondly known for their cunning ability to fight against “high art” for the upper class, and for their adopted mantra of “Art for all”. The duo’s current exhibition – UTOPIAN PICTURES – at ARNDT Gallery in Singapore is no exception.

The artists, who have been creating work together since they met in 1967 at London’s St. Martin’s School, force viewers to think about the language of control and subversion we are confronted within the media, and public space and discourse.

UTOPIAN PICTURES consists of 26 photomontages that incorporate a mish-mash of styles from propaganda flyers, graffiti tags and civic warnings. Standing in the gallery, we are hit by a storm of volatile inconsistent ideological messages.

In capital letters they tell us: NO URINATING; CCTV IN OPERATION; THE ONLY GOOD FASCIST … IS A DEAD ONE; WARNING, SECURITY CAMERAS ARE IN USE; NATIONALISTS MAKE ME SICK; GOOD BEHAVIOUR ZONE; HOMO RIOT; LIFE AFTER DEATH PROVED.

Together the messages underline the multi-layered experience of religion, faith, order and resistance in a contemporary international cityscape.

Gilbert & George, FIGHT BACK!, 2014. From: Utopian Pictures. 20 panels. 254×377 cm. Courtesy ARNDT and the artists

Often accompanying either side of these messages, Gilbert (Italian by birth) and George (British) appear in their regular attire of crisp grey suits, while also wearing balaclavas, armour, or surgical masks. They are recognisable and yet concealed. Often expressionless, they are the agnostic mascots of these mixed messages on patriotism, racism, religion and terror.

The works strike a balance between government authority controlling the individual and some kind of bubbling underground resistance trying to mobilise a population. They make us question the voice of authority and muddle together a regime of conservative and revolutionary messages until they look and sound the same.

There is incredible wit in these works. The collection of messages in the collages brings out the absurdity of them. Viewers are told where they can or cannot kiss, go to the toilet and how they should behave – or face punishment. The artists are constantly yelling at an already placid audience.

Exhibition View | GILBERT & GEORGE | UTOPIAN PICTURES | Solo exhibition at ARNDT Singapore | January 19-April 5, 2015. Courtesy ANDT and the artists, Photo: Oliva Kwock

Given how bold and commanding these works are, you might be wondering what is so utopian in UTOPIAN PICTURES. The artists give a clue in the exhibition’s publication by stating:

We want our Art to:
Bring out the Bigot from inside the Liberal
And conversely to
Bring out the liberal from inside the Bigot

Perhaps the utopia that Gilbert & George are pointing towards is double-edged:

1) Gilbert is on record as saying utopia might be a state that is desired, but is by definition unattainable. The collage of messages they bring together often suggest a form of control in order to achieve a greater utopian state that might itself depend on the suppression of individual freedoms to move forward with a national aim – quite a contradiction.

2) In the past Gilbert & George have outwardly professed their alignment with conservative politics. They adore Thatcher and balk at the assumption that art is associated with political left. This might be a strategic manoeuvre more than anything: a way for them to straddle both right and left, bare no allegiance. Similarly UTOPIAN PICTURES includes and alienates everyone equally – whether you are a bigot or a liberal.

Gilbert & George, SHOREDITCH, 2014. From: Utopian Pictures. 12 panels. 191×302cm. Courtesy ARNDT and the artists

Perhaps in a utopian society citizens are keenly aware of what messages in the media and public space say and, more importantly, how they function ideologically as an attempt to mobilise, control and direct the individual. UTOPIAN PICTURES asks viewers to fight against and obey the law simultaneously, making it explicit that both represent systems of control.

The pair has won the Turner Prize, represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, and exhibited at Documenta, the Hayward Gallery and the Tate Modern. They are no strangers to subversion. In the past they have used images of their excrement, blood and private parts as centrepieces of their subversive messages to encourage the idea that the human body is a source of life, humour, and liberty.

UTOPIAN PICTURES, their first solo exhibition in Singapore, may resonate with Singaporean culture in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Singapore is a beautiful and polite port city, and a meeting point for capitalist consumption and transport: essentially, you can get whatever you want as long the draconian laws are obeyed.

Do Gilbert & George bring out the bigot or the liberal in you?


Gilbert & George, UTOPIAN PICTURES, is at ARNDT Singapore until April 5.