Never have kisses seemed more self-consciously sardonic than in Gilbert & George’s ‘Scapegoating Pictures for London’. Each multi-panel photomontage bears the artists’ signatures along with a couple of Xs. These are constants in a shifting sea of inflammatory signifiers. It’s the old contemporary art ‘light touch paper, stand well back’ trick, repeated, scaled up and repeated again for good measure. In fairness, they’re answering criticism that so far in their careers they’ve only had the balls to take a pop at the ‘soft’ target of Christianity, with its endless tolerance and bad knitwear. And since their works are inspired by the area around Brick Lane where they have lived for the past 45 years, it stands to reason that references to Islam would feature. A focus here is on women in niqabs. But there are also hundreds of whippets – bomb-shaped laughing gas canisters, which the pair find on the streets. If there are laughs to be had, the works seem to say, they’re likely to be chemically assisted. The link between recreational highs and religious fervour won’t go unnoticed.
As the image combinations become more troubling, the artists’ presence seems more vaudevillian. They do their Morecambe and Wise dance routine, goon around, stopping short of donning tweed niqabs but putting themselves in computer-generated gimp masks, in hoodies, sunglasses, Carmen Miranda colanders and jauntily angled crowns. They pop up as whippet tin men, knights Templar and ghostly Beefeaters – custodians of their manor and its fractious peace.
Predominantly red, black and white, like the tabloids, the works in this show are designed to provoke. Yet they fill the galleries with all the camp, calculated gloom of a chapel. The show reaches a kind of fever pitch in the triptych ‘Scapegoating’, in which texts invite you to ‘shit in the pulpit’, ‘hug a homo’ and ‘molest a mullah’. Their disdain for organised religion is as explicit as their belief in art. White Cube’s Bermondsey hangar has a tendency to shrink the biggest artists on the planet but it’s no match for Gilbert & George’s unrelenting vision. That there’s no let up seems entirely appropriate given their subject matter of endless claim, counter-claim and blame. Everything here becomes distorted. Even the title of the show is a kind of riddle. In order to identify the scapegoat you first have to pinpoint what they’re being blamed for. Gilbert & George aren’t owning up or letting on: ‘Beware of artists’ reads one of their ‘Scapegoating’ texts. Signed Gilbert & George, kiss, kiss. What a wind-up, what a laugh.