ARTS REVIEW: Gilbert & George tackle the taboo at the MAC

Gilbert & George in front of some of their pictures at the MAC, Belfast
Gilbert & George in front of some of their pictures at the MAC, Belfast

Artists Gilbert & George are masterful agents provocateurs, creating art that is confrontational, innovative, sometimes bizarre but always intriguing. The pair met in 1967 while studying advanced sculpture at St Martin’s School of Art in London and have worked together ever since, sometimes casting themselves as ‘living sculptures’ and describing their very existence as an elaborate and ongoing act of performance that constitues a unique work of art. The Singing Sculpture, their universally admired 1970 performance that made them famous, saw the duo pose as metal-faced android outsiders singing along to a record of the old music hall classic Underneath the Arches. They have also produced a vast body of pictures from sketches to collage and prints, always returning to provocative questions and issues from morality to cultural practices. This exhibition at the MAC - SCAPEGOATING PICTURES - sees the duo interrogate that base tendency to scapegoat or villify certain figures or groups, a practice that displays our troublesome capacity for being blinded by prejudice and the need to apportion blame. Gilbert & George are here asking why we need to create bogeymen and what are the consequences of sweeping social judgements. Here large pictures of collaged newspapers and signage are overlaid with imagery of both artists in their trim trademark suits, their faces and bodies alternately fractured or coloured, obsured by gimp masks or displayed as shattered against riotously busy backgrounds of veiled figures and strangers, empty canisters of nitrous oxide strangely appearing prominently throughout. Sometimes the images of the artists appear cartoon-like, elsewhere they are sinister and foreboding. Veiled figures point to current anxieties about the rise of violent Islam and Gilbert & George are clearly determined to interrogate how this prejudice or scapegoating of a particular ethnic group displays the fear and pejudice we often experience towards cultural otherness. The palette here is a riot of reds, yellows and stark, dramatic black and white lettering and shapes with the imagery often spliced and distorted, strange patterns emerging and the faces of the artists endlessly repositioned, shattered and reconfigured. Gilbert & George use distortions and complex layering of fragmented pictures to show us a world that is garish, cartoonish, threatening and sinister, empty canisters of nitrous oxide and veiled figures recurring to create freakish imagery that makes us uneasy, dizzy and uncertain. Why do we scapegoat certain people or groups? What does it mean to be culturally marginalised? This exhibition sees the infamous duo ponder such perennial questions in ways that are unsettling, baffling, characteristically absurd. One particularly prominent frieze is covered in all kinds of obscene directives that engage with our attitudes to race, sex and religion. Much of this is shocking and combative. But it leaves us questioning - how do we draw the lines between social propriety and immorality? Are we open-minded or prejudiced towards difference? In so far as it raises such perennial questions and asks us to think about how we impose judgement on others this is an important and engaging exhibition by two artists who dare to confront the taboo unflinchingly at every turn.

SCAPEGOATING PICTURES for Belfast by Gilbert & George runs at the MAC, Belfast until April 22. For more information visit themaclive.com/.