For decades, the art duo Gilbert & George (b. 1943/1942) have been figureheads of British art. Having placed themselves at the centre of their art from outset, they have become their own trademark: always smartly dressed, both “very British” and refreshingly anarchic. “We are two people,” they say of themselves, “but one artist.” With their mixing of private life and artistic expression, it is never entirely clear where humorous provocation ends and disturbing earnest begins. Their works are displayed and collected by major museums around the world. They took part in the documenta in 1972, 1977 and 1982; they won the Turner Prize in 1986; in 2005 they represented Britain at the Venice Biennial; and in 2007 Tate Modern honoured them with a major retrospective.
Thanks to the collectors Kerstin Hiller and Helmut Schmelzer, Neues Museum is now able to present four works by the duo under the title Gilbert & George. Fuckosophy. This is actually a reunion, since the two artists made a high-profile appearance at Kunsthalle Nürnberg in 1970 as The Singing Sculptures. As there is no document of this event, Gilbert & George selected a film made in 1991 at Sonnabend Gallery in New York that shows the performance much as it took place twenty years earlier in Nuremberg at the opening of the exhibition Das Ding als Objekt. Europäische Objektkunst des 20. Jahrhunderts. By declaring themselves to be sculptures, they made an important contribution to expanding the definition of sculpture.
In their large-format photomontages, usually featuring strong colours, Gilbert & George pose as the protagonists of provocative visual arrangements. Nothing is sacred to them, and nothing deters them. Taboos are only there to be broken. They speak out against homophobia, discrimination and racism, against religion as a whole, but above all against Pietism and Catholicism. Spit Law (1997) is one of a series of thirty New Testamental Pictures. In this tableau consisting of 28 segments, the artists openly profess their homosexuality.
The second large-format picture is one of The Beard Pictures (2016), a group of 173 works. In this series, the shaven-headed artists surprisingly appear with sometimes hypertrophic facial hair. Gilbert & George are interested in the motif of the beard both as an awe-inspiring attribute of religious authorities and as a style marker of a younger generation: “When we were teenagers, you wouldn’t have got a job with a beard,” explains George. “Today, in Stoke Newington [an area of London] you wouldn’t get a job if you don’t have a beard.” Fuckosophy for All (2016) shows the artists as caricatures with huge heads. A blue beard connects them like a banner bearing the picture’s title. A strip of barbed wire along the lower edge expresses the artists’ concern over the fortress mentality now rampant in the United States and Europe.
Fuckosophy for All was chosen as the title for this exhibition at Neues Museum. On two walls, wallpaper printed in black and red features hundreds of versions of the F-word. For Gilbert & George, this tirade is a “great experiment in literature”. They see fuckosophy as a “kind of utopia where you can say whatever you want.” Compared with philosophy, fuckosophy is “more democratic,” they stress, “more art for everyone.”