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Emily Speers Mears

Gallery Walks Emily Speers Mears on London

Gilbert & George, „Major Exhibition“, Tate Modern, London, 2007, Installationsansicht Gilbert & George, „Major Exhibition“, Tate Modern, London, 2007, Installationsansicht

It was the warmest April in the UK since records began in 1659, and some kind of horny spring theme could be tentatively assembled from a tour of London galleries. At Sadie Coles, John Bock caricatured Toulouse-Lautrec in his hour long film “Dandy” (2006), making “perfume” with secretions from his female assistant, with suitably surreal props. The Gilbert & George retrospective at the Tate Modern, “Major Exhibition”, featured secretions aplenty and an opportunity to reflect on the artists’ influence on art in the UK today – if you could swallow the hype. With a comparative lack of bombast, Cary Kwok presented comings: drawings of superheroes ejaculating that juggled camp and draughtsman’s expertise, on view at Herald Street. “Der Ficker”, a group show at Fortescue Avenue, was most blatant in its sexual reference – for German-speakers anyway – but more obtuse in its presentation. Loosely gathered together (note: not curated) by Franz West, it introduced a counter-theme to the exhibitions surveyed, in that it offered an element of aesthetic doubt – of which more later. And finally, Ei Arakawa’s performance “1979 Pink Floyd As Reconstruction Mood” at the Royal College of Art, meant setting up an elaborately conceived and choreographed operation and bringing on the chaos in its implementation.

John Bock’s “Dandy” was filmed at Lautrec’s Chateau de Bosc. There, the fictional 19th century aristocrat Monsieur Lautréamont, played by the artist, devises absurd experiments in pursuit of aesthetic perfection, or “urge-ingeniousness” as he calls it. He is assisted in his endeavours by the beautiful Louise, all succulent breasts and pouting compliance, who he orders round with the temerity and histrionics of the petty tyrant. Bock created an elaborate, surreal world at the Chateau, full of his own makeshift sculptures and other ornate machines; in it, the white-gloved Lautréamont dives under Louise’s skirts, makes her pull down her pantyhose so he can catch the essence of her farts, and scrapes beads of sweat from her armpit.

Despite her attractiveness, M. Lautréamont didn’t quite know what he ought to do with Louise; they perform a series of elaborate rituals, while Lautréamont intermittently succumbs to dizzy spells, until their final scene together, which descends into an orgy of abandon. Thus their sexual tensions sustain the awkward, self-indulgent but rather brilliant film which, in a twist that would’ve made Niki de Saint Phalle (whose 1973 film “Daddy” seems the natural precursor of “Dandy”) proud, climaxes in Lautréamont’s murder of Louise’s outraged brother.

Gilbert & George opened at the Tate Modern to much satisfied trumpery. As George proudly announced in the Tate’s online guide to the exhibition, this was the first time a living artist had occupied the entirety of the fourth floor. I find the duo difficult because of their continual positioning of themselves as outside the establishment, storming the barricades. It’s a lazy stance, not least because the exhibition’s lenders include an impressive roster of international institutions.

What was interesting, though, and worth the revisit, was the chance to think about how G&G influenced art in the UK today: both artists, and the way in which art is received. Much of their early work brilliantly combined populism with aesthetic backbone, and their championing of “Art for all” initially represented a valid critique of Britain’s art institutions. The barmy “Singing” and “Drinking Sculptures” and other works from the early 1970s managed to critique Englishness as much as the art object, while deftly balancing silliness, sexual tension and solemnity, and this same balancing act is evident in some of the better work of the Young British Artist generation.

Disappointingly, much of the early work was on display in vitrines in the fourth floor’s concourse, which gave it little of the breathing space it needed; likewise the exhibition proper crammed in as many large-scale works as possible, which diminished their once scathing effect. The strong, angry Aids pictures in garish colours over which the late Robert Rosenblum once crowed appear trivialised next to the later “Naked Shit Pictures” (mid-1990s); “The Dirty Words Pictures” (1977), with their terse juxtaposition of images of urban degeneration, graffitti’d swearwords, immigrants and tramps alongside prim yet perturbed G&G, had looked fantastic at the Serpentine in 2002, but at the Tate the series was lost amidst similar, not quite so sharp attempts.

Although blame for the negative effects of art’s populism in the UK can’t be laid solely on Gilbert & George, it’s difficult not to read in their sensationalism and triumphalism the precursors of the dark side of the YBAs: artist-celebrities such as Tracey Emin, who follows on from Gilbert & George in 2005 as this year’s British representative to the Venice Biennial. Her every activity, artistic and otherwise, is given lavish coverage in the broadsheets and tabloid press alike – including the unveiling of a stupendously trite flag at the South Bank this April with the legend “One Secret is to Save Everything”, against a backdrop of swimming sperm. G&G have always cultivated this conflation of artist and work, and Emin embodies the unfortunate outcome of such an approach.

Having started off as a fashion illustrator, it might be said Cary Kwok takes his cues from Warhol rather than G&G – certainly the artist manages to deal with bodily fluid in a far more delicate manner. Kwok’s small-scale biro drawings of ejaculations are precise and carefully-worked, à la Tom of Finland. In “Sperman” (2007), Superman gasps as cum spurts up over his chest and off into the background of the picture, in suitably superheroic volume; Spiderman gets it in his face (“Here Cums the Spider”, 2007). Kwok repeats the joke with the Incredible Hulk, Tintin and Popeye, whose is coloured spinach green. It should get boring but it doesn’t, perhaps because the works have no pretensions to Gilbert & Georgian monumentality. Instead, Kwok sets up a neat tension between the messiness of the fluid and the precision of his drawings to present a camp, funny take on desire.

“Der Ficker”, also in East London, threatened to match up in horniness but thankfully didn’t: the title is a reference to Wittgenstein’s sometime editor, the publisher Ludwig von Ficker. The group show, which featured Franz West, Sophie von Hellermann, Thea Djordjadze, Josh Smith, Tamuna Sirbiladze, Emily Wardill and Mick Peter, was subdued but rigorous. Sirbiladze had built a wall in the gallery, which jutted out at an odd angle to disrupt the space, and painted it in blurry camouflage blues and blacks (“The Wall is No Husband”, 2007). Djordjadze contributed three simple experimental sculptures in foam and plaster, like minimalist Wests; von Hellermann’s painting “Sophie von Fick” (2007), named after a relative of the artist, depicted a vaguely pornographic image, in suggestive brown curves.

Ei Arakawa’s “1979 Pink Floyd As Reconstruction Mood” was also in line with this muted form of practice, of holding something back, which in contrast to the horny spring presentations on view elsewhere, spoke of uncertainty and of self-interrogation, of “an engagement with the notion of failure as a way to articulate difference, to intervene in the discourse of winning that is western art in one’s own terms”. [1] Arakawa had the students on the RCA’s curatorial MFA assemble a magazine, a makeshift stage, and thus the performance, in a glorious, frenetic yet organised shambles.

It would be too much to set up a dichotomy between the first three exhibitions and the final two (not to mention that there is variation within their respective approaches). There is something about the nature of the fractured London art world – in terms of geography alone, if not in relations – that doesn’t allow easily for generalisations or the conception of any cohesive theme. Suffice perhaps to say there was none, but a feeling of uneasiness despite the spring sunshine.

John Bock, Sadie Coles, February 22 – March 24, 2007;
Gilbert & George, “Major Exhibition”, Tate Modern, Februar 15 – May 7, 2007;
Cary Kwok, Herald Street, March 23 – April 29, 2007;
“Der Ficker”, Fortescue Avenue, March 23 – April 29, 2007;
Ei Arakawa, RCA MFA curatorial show, March 22, 2007.


[1]Gregorio Magnani, in his catalogue essay for “Rebecca Warren”, Kunsthalle Zürich, 2004.