Shrill chirps resound for sixteen minutes over the furry drone of video static. A pair of men loiter in the shrubbery; they pass each other, turn, look the other way, turn again. The suited figures retreat to grey shadows before emerging once more. Cruising? Perhaps. Conspicuous? No doubt. Cloying birdsong and noisy picture resolve as calculated aesthetic antagonisms, and exasperation is only a tweet away.
Gilbert & George’s ‘In the Bush’ (1972) announces itself as I enter the meringue hallway of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Dover Street. Both quasi-historical document and facetiously unremarkable performance, the video recalls the bygone tradition of public homosexual encounters while diverting those very encounters by way of a titular allusion to female anatomies. Dry humour is the tonic to dry gin for Gilbert & George. At once serious and frivolous, collected and caustic, it compromises a boundary without truly breaching it. This same tension manifests in the current exhibition “Drinking Pieces & Video Sculptures, 1972-1973”, where early photographs and videos hemmed in by antiseptic stucco mouldings nevertheless transgress these genteel white borders with their ‘depraved’ subjects and situations.
“Drinking Pieces & Video Sculptures, 1972-1973” is an ode to drunkenness, to inactivity, and finally to London. Works depict the artists in varying states of intoxication, and themselves are arranged to connote an inebriated experience. Some photographs tower over the viewer; others are nestled below mantlepiece level, drawing the undulating eye tipsily around the room. Together they appear to conform to the walls and yet surreptitiously they betray them, recalling not the rarefied environs of a Mayfair establishment, but Balls Brothers Wine Bar in Bethnal Green, the reception room of an eighteenth-century Spitalfields townhouse, and the local park –– all locations harbouring the potential for simultaneously ordinary and queer connotations.
Ironically, the black-and-white photographs at Thaddaeus Ropac are sober visual gestures compared to the later modular pictures that have come to define Gilbert & George’s lifelong practice. Narrow frames enclose not a topography of turds but a selection of gelatin silver prints which depict the artists fully clothed, devoid of provocative slogans, and lacking in penile scenery. Denying the corporeal, an atmosphere of gay ennui permeates the works instead. In ‘Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk’ (1972), for instance, the artists labour their increasing insobriety by gin and tonics. Viewers encounter the couple at home, seated prudishly apart, as they pour and sip, and reject productivity in favour of banal time. Andy Warhol’s 1965 film ‘My Hustler’ comes to mind, in which time –– and indeed inactivity –– are delivered by “water cocktails”, the act of drinking operating to stave off total boredom in the gay haven that is Fire Island.
Returning to London, Gilbert & George’s works resonate not only with the gay drinking establishments of the East End, many of which have since fallen victim to the mechanisms of gentrification, but also with their current setting at Ely House, the former home of the Albemarle Club following the Marquess of Queensberry’s scandalous confrontation with Oscar Wilde at 13 Albemarle Street. Wilde was imprisoned a sodomite, while Gilbert & George came to their alcoholic art five years after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, the fiftieth anniversary of which is marked this year. I detect a queer sensibility in works such as Smashed (1972), a constellation of photographs which by its derogation of perpendicularity –– the literal refusal of ‘straightness’ –– temporarily reclaims the space at Ely House as a queer one. Mirroring their Spitalfields home, the front room of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac becomes Gilbert & George’s private club, and indexes the presence of the artists themselves with a pair of bottle-green chairs arranged before the fireplace.
Like a cruising spot on Hampstead Heath, “Drinking Pieces & Video Sculptures, 1972-1973” registers at the intersection of disparate histories and peoples. A single ivory room in Mayfair becomes by their art the stomping ground of Spitalfields traders and East End pub patrons, the surrogate setting of Hogarthian debaucheries, and a perfect doorway onto Oscar Wilde’s pederastic trysts. Gilbert & George may regard their videos as self-portraiture, but they also emblematise a national culture with London dry gin at its core. With patriotic import, their works reiterate the alleged outburst of George Michael upon confronting reporters while roaming the Heath: “Fuck off! This is my culture.”
Archive post: entry for the Frieze Writer’s Prize 2017. Drinking Pieces and Video Sculptures, 1972-1973 was shown 28 April – 29 July 2017.