The Urethra Portraits of Gilbert and George make for whirling inventory of life at White Cube

By Rebecca Wright | 21 January 2011 | Updated: 20 January 2011
A photo of the inside of a gallery
© Ben Westoby
Exhibition: The Urethra Portraits of Gilbert and George, White Cube, London, until February 19 2011

When you first walk into the structural compositions at the start of this show, it’s easy to be duped into believing that you are in a temple of high modernism.

Then from all angles one hones in on the collections of souvenir postcards, sex ads and mass-produced flyers which make up these structural collages.

Male groins, naked ladies, the union jack, Buckingham Palace, adverts for medical fantasy services, requests for sexual favours such as spanking, golden showers, all kinds of “toilet treatment” and even the promise of a “dungeon school room TV boudoir” all act as an assault on the senses. 

At this point, you realise that the composition uniting all the works (a rectangle of cards with one in the middle) visually comprises, in the artists’ words, “an angulated version of the sign of the urethra”.

For Gilbert and George, the urethra is both a tube out of the body and the theosophist symbol used by CW Leadbetter. As Gilbert and George collect this found ephemera, they perform what they call a mode of automatic writing.

Just as fluids flow through the urethra, so London’s nitty-gritty underbelly of sex and perversion filters through Gilbert and George, who in turn act as automata.

Sleepwalkers in the sea of modern life, Gilbert and George absorb everything. Alongside the iconic images of Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye, we encounter the forgotten, the longing and the lonely, all mixed together to leave us unsure of what we are going to get.

With a neat label at the bottom of each image clarifying the subject, date and location in which each postcard was found, the show forms a powerful inventory drawing on all layers of life, tricking us into forgetting the boundaries between the real and unreal.

The practice of collecting postcards, incorporated into the artists work in 1972 when the pair were becoming living sculptures, makes this exhibition a testament to an artistic practice reaching back almost 40 years.

  • Open 10am-6pm Tuesday-Saturday. Admission free.
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