Ross Thorby: A love letter to Gilbert & George

I was first introduced to the world of Gilbert & George by an art collector travelling companion who had insisted we visit the “MONA”, a uniquely Australian Art Gallery dug into the bedrock of a cliff cantilevered over the Derwent river in Hobart, Tasmania, where their exhibition was reaching the end of its tenure.

I had never heard of Gilbert & George, but my friend had encountered their provocative style of art on his “OE”, many years previously, and that day’s excursion to the gallery was to transform my own way of thinking of what “art” was.

The artists had both joined St. Martin’s school of art in their teens where they decided to collaborate together, beginning a lifelong commitment to themselves and their art. Whilst the other students in their class were elbow deep in clay and paint - the boys deciding that they were too poor to buy art supplies, wondered what they could use to express themselves that would not cost them any money. They hit on the idea of using their bodies. It was the only thing that they had unending access to, also the only thing that they had an unlimited use of.

Their first exhibition consisted of them standing on a table - painted in metallic paint and singing 'Underneath the Arches,' an English ditty written in 1932 about homeless alcoholics living under a railway bridge. Sometimes their performances would last all day. It was to become their signature piece, but it was only the beginning.

The audience was stunned, the audience was shocked, but the audience was also enthralled. It was 1969, the zenith of the 60s countercultural revolution, the decade, “if you remember it - you weren’t there”. There had been nothing like it and it propelled them into the art world forever-more.

Their art was controversial way back then and well before Damien Hirst first sunk a shark into a tank of formaldehyde.

After climbing down “MONA’s” narrow steel spiral staircase and along the tunnels dug into the granite rock we discovered an exhibition that one critic described as: “The relentless photomontages restates the double act's desire to offend on a colossal scale.”

I was entranced, I was hooked.

One of their most famous and controversial pieces asks the question, “Was Jesus heterosexual?” The colourful 2005 piece caused an outcry from the Church and various members of the public at the time and the perplexed artists wondered, “Why the fuss? It’s only a question and you only have to answer “yes or no.”

Skip forward to July 2022 and I was accompanying our editor to the opening of “Gilbert & George The Tamaki Makaurau Auckland Exhibition”. Martin had met the artists years before and I was hoping to engineer my own introduction. Sometimes they say, it can be a big mistake to meet your heroes.

My experience of meeting Gilbert & George was every bit as I imagined. Speaking in clipped English accents, and dressed impeccably in English country-gentlemen suits, they were the very “living sculptures” that they claim to be. They glided effortlessly through the gallery's own “Mona”, charming and enthralling the matrons and patrons attending their New Zealand exhibition. So reserved and English and well, “sculpture-like”, it’s a wonder that beneath their calm exteriors such imagination and artistic temperaments thrive.

“Gilbert & George” consider themselves to be “one artist”. They exist as one; without the other the art does not exist, and neither does the other as an artist, exist.

Although their exhibition here is quite different to the Australian exhibition - the art is less confronting and less naked - it’s more tailored for New Zealand tastes rather than that of the Australian, but it is still undoubtedly, no less esoteric. The images, colourful and thought-provoking.

Gilbert & George’s parting words to us were, “art is all around us and it is our job to point it out”, and they do.

Welcome Gilbert & George you can come back anytime.
Gilbert & George: The Tamaki Makaurau Exhibition until 11 September. (ROSS THORBY)

#ponsonbynews #iloveponsonby #ponsonby #auckland #aucklandshippestrip #onlyponsonby #ponsonbyroad #Greylynn #freemansbay #westmere #ponsonby #hernebay #stmarysbay #archhill #coxsbay #westernsprings #art #contemporaryart #Paintings #brownschoolofart #evanwoodruffe #aucklandartgallery