No 1 (89) 2012
January - March

Spitalfields Forever

The meeting of the three stars of the British art world - Gilbert, George and Tim Marlow, the London White Cube Gallery director - has caused dismay of the petit bourgeois part of the audience on one hand; and absolute delight of, mainly, young art graduates, on the other.

Agata Nowosielska

Art critic. She publishes texts on contemporary art.

Agata Nowosielska

THE VISIT BY LEADING CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS ended with a round of rapturous applause, after Gilbert Proesch had given the young a controversial advice1). They can get away with anything, I thought. For forty years now they have been shocking, provoking, bordering on extreme artistic means of expression. It is enough to mention the Jack Freak Pictures, their most famous series that refers to Union Jack, as the British flag is called, and offers a number of controversial visual signs. Christian England. This shows an image of Christ crucified in the central part, and Gilbert and George to the left and right, respectively. The three of them dressed in the national flag. Beneath one can see sacks full of gold that might bring to one's mind the wealth of the British clergy? Or Judas's pieces of silver? Provocation?

The work by the artists, entitled Frigidarium, has been placed in a central position during the exhibition in the Bath Contemporary Art Center in Gdańsk. An antic location - a pool filled with chilly water to cool down - have been transformed by Gilbert and George into a brick cubic resembling a bunker. Behind the silhouettes of the artists (wearing their everlasting, trademark suits) one could spot an underground passage to the tube. All these against the background of the map of East London, where Gilbert and George live. Brick walls remind the famous Brick Lane street, today vibrant with life, mainly thanks to young designers and artists. As the artists tell, it has moved far from the climate it used to have 50 years ago when cutpurses were rambling the old London neighborhood. This is the map of the Eastern part of the city - a former colonial superpower - that is most interesting for me. Why? The possible reason is that the map contains points and lines that shape a type of personal territory of these artists.

Other works also refer to the Spitalfields area. Earlier it was a dangerous district, today - much desirable spot with the Whitechapel Gallery showing the works by Wilhelm Sasnal. The World of Gilbert and George video depicts East London streets interwoven with the artists' own impressions, interviews and songs. One of the latter - Bent It - features them dancing, bending forwards and backwards as though they were Swiss pocket knives. The artists cherish the myth of the neighborhood. This has been their home - in both, a literal and metaphoric sense: Spitalfields houses a number of cultures and art.

Many of the images created by the artistic duo have been strongly deformed. The Home or Spider works being an example. The former depicts the artists standing, as though they were gods, on each side of the map shaped as a Gothic rosette. The latter shows a small spider with tiny legs that are in fact streets leading to Liverpool Street. The Fournier Street has been crowned on the map with the name: Shoreditch. This is a very special location, a specific Mecca for the today artistic Europe, considered by artists a label put on a well designed dress. The UK is a similar case. The map - maintained in the palette of the national flag, with centrally placed Spitafields - has been a main component. The artists are twisting their faces, their shout held in by fingers presented in different saturation. Are they terrified with the city itself, with what London was and what London is? The motive of a map reappears in the GB; again the map of East London and disturbing silhouettes of the artists shaped into a grotesque creation that replaces their bodies. Spitafields forever, as the center of the world.

Has the artistic statement, delivered by the duo, been a pure mockery at the audience? It could have. This has been a total statement containing human fear and human laugh. Homo ludens. Cancan - a grotesque dance in the colors of the British flag, and stuck out tongues. The ambassadors of contemporary art, marked by  tragic and comic motives that are mutually permeated. The darkness and mystery of human existence, the search for love and meaning. On the other hand, good spirits and laughter in spite of the desperation of existence. Weird portraits and the hegemony of eyes - scared and popped-out, reflecting fear. The map and territory of the representatives of the race of dying sophisticated intellectuals, sharp, inseparable artists, who created a Living Sculpture thus opening onto the whole world.

1)„Fuck the teachers!" - words spoken by Gilbert Proesch.

Gilbert & George, "Jack Freak Pictures", the Bath Contemporary Art Center, Gdańsk, November 2011 - February 2012.