Contemporary Art

Gilbert & George Go Large: Fifty Years of Money, Sex and Politics

By Gareth Harris

Gilbert & George in their London Home. Photographed by Derry Moore. Courtesy Gilbert & George

“It’s the biggest Gilbert & George show ever produced,” says Daniel Birnbaum, who, along with Hans Ulrich Obrist, is bringing half a century’s worth of work by the London-based artist duo to four European venues. Gilbert & George: The Great Exhibition (1971–2016) will open at the Luma Arles cultural campus in the south of France next month, and is due to travel to Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo and the Reykjavik Art Museum thereafter.

“In Arles, it will be held across almost 3,000 sq m,” says Birnbaum, the director of the Moderna Museet. Works on show will include Bent Shit Cunt, 1977, a panel of photographs and graffiti that featured in their Dirty Words Pictures exhibition the same year, and Vomit, 2014, a brashly coloured photomontage that is part of their Utopian Pictures series. “The show will vary in size from venue to venue. In Arles, there will be around 85 major works, some filling entire walls. Many early works are modest in size but some of the pictures from more recent decades are massive,” adds Birnbaum.

Gilbert & George, BENT SHIT CUNT, 1977. Courtesy Gilbert & George

The vast expanse of the Parc des Ateliers at the Luma Arles campus, an initiative founded by the Swiss patron Maja Hoffmann, lends itself to Gilbert & George’s bigger art. “It’s very, very large, but we have created a new architecture [structure] in this massive space. I think it’s good for this kind of work,” Birnbaum says.

More than 50 years ago, Gilbert & George met as students at St Martin’s School of Art in London and moved east to the under-developed district of Spitalfields. Key works from the past 50 years include 1969 performance piece The Singing Sculpture and the Ginkgo Pictures, which were unveiled at the 2007 Venice Biennale.

Gilbert & George, ASTRO STAR, 2013. Courtesy Gilbert & George

“The show is about Gilbert & George’s entire oeuvre,” says Birnbaum. “It is based on a basic chronology, but there are also thematic threads that run throughout: money, sex, religion, politics.” There are many works on display that are virtually unknown, he adds. “Since we have had access to basically everything, we have selected what we believe are the strongest works from different series – the most recent being the Beard Pictures.”

Gilbert & George, VOMIT, 2014. Courtesy Gilbert & George

Gilbert & George are more productive than ever. Last September, the pair unveiled 170 new Beard Pictures, referring to Santa Claus and Shoreditch hipsters, at their galleries in New York, Paris and London. They also announced plans to convert a 6,000 sq ft former brewery off Brick Lane in east London into a foundation to show their vast catalogue of works. The space, which they bought for £5m, is due to open in 2020.

The maverick artists have worked closely with Birnbaum and Obrist, the artistic director of London’s Serpentine Galleries, on the exhibition. “To curate a show with Gilbert & George always means stepping back a bit. They are at the centre of everything, even the installation [of the works],” says Birnbaum.

“I think that all aspects of human life have been captured in their work,” he adds. “Some people will enjoy the scatology. Others the ecstasy. But there is also intimacy and love. We will see what people like most, and I am curious.”

Gilbert & George, BEARDARY, 2016. Courtesy Gilbert & George.

Gilbert & George: The Great Exhibition (1971–2016), Luma Arles, France, 2 July 2018-6 January 2019

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