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Gilbert & George, ‘Death Hope Life Fear’, 1984, handcoloured photographs

I love The World of Gilbert and George . I saw this 1981 film for the first time one afternoon in a small alternative space in Vienna, 17 years after they had made it. I had just moved to London and fallen in love with an Englishman I met at Spitalfields Market. I felt like I could feel his spirit through this film—his ‘Englishness’. The muted clouds, the buildings and streets we moved around in, the city I was beginning to know—The World of Gilbert and George reflected that to me.

Now, watching the film again, it’s still great. The editing is wonderful—the slow pacing, the moments of silence. It feels so simple, as if anyone could make such a film about themselves and their surroundings. I sense their love for each other, their humour and joy, the awkward honesty of the young men they interview. The film is tender, delicate and intimate. It enlivens history and it elucidates the present. It is emotional. I feel unnerved as I watch it, tears well up for no obvious reason.

But walking through their Tate retrospective I am surprised at how little I am able to connect with the work. My young (English) assistant says that she feels the work reflects the historically closed nature of the English man. Even in the pictures in which Gilbert and George are naked, their nudity is simply another mask. Perhaps the film is the only crack in their system of invulnerability,or maybe something similar can be found in the earliest small photo pieces of their drunken escapades. But at the Tate, those particular photos are hung so high that they are virtually impossible to see. Worse yet, the film is shown as a video on a small LCD screen in the noisy cafeteria —this in a retrospective spanning the entire fourth floor, the largest amount of space this museum has ever allocated to one exhibition. Is this a market-driven decision, to make the works that are not commercial (film/video, older works from collections) nearly invisible? Why do they keep calling their work ‘living sculpture’ when actually their work is two-dimensional photomontages? How did these artists move from innovating ephemeral postcard sculptures to making art that looks like it was designed for a Tate retrospective?

The early drawings, invitations, printed book pages take us back to the world of an aesthete like Denton Welsh. I can feel his sensitivity, romance and elegance in their work, and his historical precedent for a certain way of being gay, for loving life in all its everyday detail. And the 1977 ‘Dirty Word Pictures’ are full of raw emotion. The graffiti itself is potent, and Gilbert and George’s response to it feels poignant—I sense their questions and fears. Here, Gilbert and George are not a masked version of themselves but vulnerable counterparts to the city and its political/economic unrest. The colour also has a palpable relevance—red feels angry, upsetting. I ask myself their question: ‘ARE YOU ANGRY OR ARE YOU BORING?’ and feel inside the reverberations of these words.

But as I walk through other rooms and the work progressively becomes larger and larger, I find myself largely disconnected and even irritated. Why is work from the 1980s so brightly coloured, so acerbic? Why is it so big? ‘Screaming Ambition’? I am reminded of the New York art stars from that time: Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Andy Warhol.

Does this art for ‘all’, speak to me as a woman? Gilbert and George’s imagery is of men—naked in suits, naked men, good-looking young men. Intellectually I can understand the themes expressed in these works—ageing, desire, disease, death. But I am weary of the world of men representing ‘all’ mankind. Angry and Bored.

In fairness, their huge work has great impact, and often the larger it is the more powerful it feels. Their investigations are interesting. It is curious to realise that semen under a microscope looks like a crown of thorns, thought-provoking to see urine samples juxtaposed with lines of city maps, and their bared asses and blood samples are reminiscent of medical exams and redolent of the AIDS crisis. But this content is dominated by their prescribed visual branding.

Was this work made for corporate office lobbies? Perhaps, and this could be their greatest subversion. Looking at ‘Shitty Naked Human World’, 1994, I think of the corporate offices on Park Avenue with their monumental lobbies and huge, banal art commissions. Gilbert and George’s scale and slick presentation is in keeping with such corporate theme parks. The imagery of themselves in suits could speak of corporate male executive power. Yet, they are also naked, pulling down their pants, with giant pieces of shit that form phalluses and a mega-crucifix. I am reminded of a Bob Dylan line: ‘Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.’ I would enjoy seeing this shitty work in the Time Life lobby on Avenue of Americas.

Ellen Cantor is an artist based in London