Even before sitting down to write this review, I mentioned to artists Gilbert & George my idea for a provocative headline. While I didn’t offer any guarantees -- giving them the right to vet the wording would be a Faustian contract that would cost me my job -- I figured a pair who have been using art to shock for more than 40 years would approve.
I wasn’t mistaken. “Good, very good,” said George as I nabbed the duo striding toward the elevator of Hong Kong’s Four Seasons Hotel. “It’s very sweet,” added Gilbert.
Indeed, headlines form the heart of their latest exhibition, “London Pictures,” which just opened at the new White Cube in Hong Kong and at three of the gallery’s exhibition spaces in the U.K. capital. The works, 292 in all, are an assemblage of 3,712 posters used by news vendors to flog the tabloid newspapers.
Each “picture” is composed of panels containing one headline each, grouped together according to common words or phrases such as “SEX PEST,” “KNIFED TO DEATH” and “HOOKER.” The headlines are superimposed on images of the artists who hover like ghostly witnesses to the violence, pain and drama of urban life depicted by the text.
The duo spent six years pilfering the headline posters before deciding how to incorporate them into their art.
The way Gilbert & George tell it, one would stroll into the shop to distract the vendor’s attention with the purchase of a chocolate bar while the other pilfered the poster.
It wasn’t until one night when they spotted a policeman and policewoman standing outside someone’s home waiting to deliver devastating news to the family inside that they decided to create the London Pictures as a homage to the victims of those anonymous headlines.
“We are celebrating the lives and deaths of people, their tragedies,” said George. “We wanted to present their moments frozen for a long time,” Gilbert said.
While I don’t doubt the sincerity of these sentiments, the exhibition failed to raise much empathy in me for the sufferers behind the headlines.
The show succeeds more as a critique of the tabloid press, which numbs us to bad news through the constant barrage of sensational headlines.
Yet assembling so many posters into such a sprawling exhibition only served to repeat the theme that constant repetition of the shocking renders it banal.
Gilbert Proesch was born in Italy in 1943 and George Passmore in Britain a year earlier. The two met as students at art school in London in 1967 and have been inseparable ever since. The only times they have been apart were for funerals of their respective parents, “because we didn’t want to act like a normal straight married couple and go together,” said George.
The pair made a name early on by pushing the boundaries of taste and decency with works such as “The Sperm Eaters,” “Piss Mooning,” and “Was Jesus a Heterosexual?”
Over the years, however, the self-styled outsiders have become embraced by the art establishment. In 1986, they won the U.K.’s Turner Prize for contemporary art and in 2007 Tate Modern mounted a retrospective of their work.
Their appearance and behavior belie the skanky nature of their shared oeuvre. Impeccably buttoned up in identical tweed suits, with fountain pens inserted firmly into their breast pockets and sporting ties that resemble Rorschach tests (I correctly identified a pattern depicting two men kissing, much to their delight), their Tweedledee-Tweedledum act is disarmingly polite.
They have been together so many decades, the two speak as if sharing a single mind, though they assured me that at least in sleep their thoughts are their own. Still, I got the sense that their spiel is as well rehearsed as any stage duo’s act.
To describe the exhibition, as the catalog does, as a “visual novel” of contemporary London that is “Dickensian in scope,” is a stretch. The only monumental aspect of these works is their size -- the largest consists of 65 panels running more than eight meters wide and almost four meters high.
They lack the visual wit and vibrant colors of much of their earlier work and, if you will forgive the pun, the message is lost in the medium.
Tim Marlow, director of exhibitions for White Cube, told me he chose Hong Kong as the first leg of a global exhibition that will continue on to Paris, New York, Brussels and Berlin. The decision to show the London Pictures in Hong Kong first is meant to make White Cube stand out against “a lot of other galleries who bring the crap here they can’t sell anywhere else.”
Sales don’t seem to be a problem. The day after the VIP preview almost half the 22 works shown in Hong Kong were either sold or put on reserve. Prices among those works range from 50,000 pounds ($78,000) for a four-panel piece to 90,000 pounds for a 12-panel work. The largest items go for 250,000 pounds.
For my money, the best deal is the exhibition poster which can be had for a mere HK$100 ($13).
“London Pictures” is at White Cube Hong Kong through May 5, and at the gallery’s Bermondsey space until May 12, Hoxton Square through April 14 and Mason’s Yard until May 12.
(Frederik Balfour is a Reporter at Large for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)