Go See – London: Gilbert and George 'The Urethra Postcard Pictures' at White Cube through February 19th, 2011

January 24th, 2011

Gilbert and George, Buses (2009). Via The Independent

“They made themselves,” Gilbert and George reassure of the 564 postcard works that comprise the Urethra Series, only 155 of which are currently on view at White Cube, Mason’s Yard in London. Since their first exhibition of postcard works in 1972, Gilbert and George have continued methodically collecting postcards, phone box cards, fliers and other ephemeral, everyday modes of communication—two collections of which make up the Urethra Series. The Urethra Postcard Pictures represent 30 odd years of English visual culture, with images of Parliament and St. Paul’s Cathedral shown alongside S+M adverts and other such handouts that litter London’s phone boxes.

Gilbert & George, with installation behind. Via SlamXHype

Gilbert and George, Four Views on a Flag (2009). Via AnotherMagazine

The criteria Gilbert and George imposed on the cards for the Urethra collection were as follows: “Any postcard that has a Union Jack in it was one, any telephone box card that wasn’t boring was another,” according to press materials. George describes hiding them away in a cupboard until 2009 when they realized they had over 500. The pair chose the layout of presentation after the theosophist C. W. Leadbetter’s drawing of a urethra, which he included next to his signature. Leadbetter was a proponent of male masturbation and also wrote Thought Forms with the women’s rights activist and family planning proponent Annie Besant, a book Gilbert and George consider to be the beginning of modern art. The urethra symbol and its background of libertarianism indicates the egalitarian goals of the series through the objective inclusion of iconic British images with discourse at the sexual margins of society. As the Guardian points out, the most shocking aspect of the work is its overall effect of wholesomeness, the St. James Gallery looking like “a Mother’s Union display of patchwork quilts.”

Gilbert and George, 3 Times of Day (2009). Via Timeout

While postcards were easy to buy duplicates of at tourist stalls, finding twelve of the same phone box cards proved more difficult. Finding one “Luke man 2 man horny fit lad 27 years” in a phone box, did not mean more were available. The series poignantly illustrates the way in which modes of communication operate over time. In the 30 years they’ve been collecting phone box cards, London’s phone boxes have been disappearing, and Craigslist has replaced the need for paper advertisements. Gilbert and George’s persistent collection of these not-collectibles reveal society’s shifting systems of operation. Postcards document society’s interests when it comes to memorabilia, which has considerably changed since 1972. Gilbert and George consider today’s postcards to be more abstract, detached images. Together, the two collections that make up the Urethra Pictures are two separate modes of societal communication that run parallel to each other—one queer and existing at the margins of society, the other representing mainstream consumer interest. Shown together, their similarities and points of departure provide insight into the changing social landscape of the past three decades. One begins to see formal connections between the two groups and insinuations between their content that Gilbert and George don’t take credit for. They installed the show using an algebraic formula, they say—any connections between content is purely incidental.

-E C Feiss

Related Links:

Gilbert & George: The Urethra Postcard Art of Gilbert & George [White Cube]
From S&M to Big Ben: Gilbert and George’s card trick comes up trumps [Guardian]
Gilbert & George: The Urethra Postcard Pictures (with Interview) [Dazed Digital]
Gilbert & George: The wild cards strike again [Independent]
Gilbert and George: Urethra Postcard Art, White Cube, review (with Video Interview) [Daily Telegraph]
Another View on the Urethra Postcard Art by Gilbert & George [Guardian]

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