tue 02/06/2020

The Urethra Postcard Art of Gilbert & George | reviews, news & interviews

The Urethra Postcard Art of Gilbert & George

The Urethra Postcard Art of Gilbert & George

The godfathers of Britart create some sad poetry out of their postcard collection

Radio interviewer: “Are you Royalists?” George: “Of course! We’re not weird.” Gilbert & George may have been accused in the past of being coprophiliac pederast fascists (owing to their love of turds, anuses, young men with cropped hair and bovver boots and the Union Jack), but this art duo can certainly make you smile. In fact, Gilbert & George can often be quite irrepressibly funny – definitely "ha ha" as well as peculiar. And since they and their art seem as one, one senses they’d make excellent after dinner speakers.

Why not? As fresh art-school graduates, they thoroughly convinced as Living Sculptures, singing Flanagan and Allen’s Underneath the Arches covered in gold paint. They combine a kind of cartoon British rectitude with a thoroughly anarchic underbelly. Their work unsettles the audience quite enough - sometimes rather a lot - to give what they do its sense of edgy conceptualism. But if they ever go as far as alienating, they win us over again with their peculiar charm –  and their air of mysteries. Perhaps this is the secret of why they endure.

Gilbert & George look back on their early years as Living Sculptures

Gilbert__George_Bulldog__Grass_2009_xvga_4For nearly 40 years Gilbert & George have been amassing picture postcards and fashioning them into collages. They’ve collected the things they clearly appreciate and enjoy, namely things to do with traditional British institutions – usually iconic landmarks of London - and sex. So they’ve collected bland London tourist postcards – such as those featuring Big Ben, black cabs, double-decker buses, cartoon British bulldogs (pictured right:Bulldog and Grass, 2009), Union Jacks, and those lame joke souvenir ones emblazoned with, “My Mum and Dad Went To London and All I Got Was This Lousy Postcard” – and they’ve collected sex cards of the sort that once could easily be found propped up in phone boxes in parts of London.

Both types of card now seem thoroughly dated, though one hardly need say that when it comes to both sex and the sex trade there really is nothing new under the sun, whatever the advertising medium. Here a gay S&M theme is dominant amid enticements for watersports, “corrective” massage, toilet training and enemas. “I’ll drag you round my posh flat by your nuts you filthy vetch”, promises one. “More than just sex, it’s Bloody War” (pictured below, 2009), threatens another. One set of cards, just as floridly descriptive, talks of Arse Facts and anal mucus exchange, though we learn that this has, in fact, been printed as part of a health-education campaign.

Gilbert__George_Bloody_War_2009_xvgaG&G have produced a total of 564 new works for The Urethra Postcard Pictures, though there is room for only 155 in this exhibition. In each, 13 duplicate postcards have been arranged in neat geometric patterns to form angularised symbols of the urethra – a rectangle with a single postcard placed in its centre. This symbol, denoting part of the penile organ, was apparently favoured by the late-19th and early-20th-century Theosophist, suspected pederast and advocate of the health benefits of masturbation, CW Leadbetter. From a distance the images look like decorative tile mosaics.

Amid the cards for both the respectable and the disreputable types of tourism, one work features postcards printed and signed by the artists themselves. “We are the most disturbed people we have ever met”, the cards read gleefully. Silly, yes, but the anarchy that coexists beneath the surface of the immaculate G&G persona neatly encapsulates the kind of stereotypical Britishness that secretly relishes spanking games, rude words and mayhem.

Meanwhile, the works themselves, seeped in their seedy nostalgia, throb with a sense of aching loneliness and longing. Rather Larkinesque, one might argue.

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