And What Do We Have Here? : Social Appropriations of Gilbert and George, and Gabriel Kahane (Updated)

Posted: January 9, 2011 in Uncategorized

(Update I, with video, Below)

Two decades after their first exhibition of Postcard Art which took the form of tourist attractions in England and iconic representations of the Union Jack, Gilbert & George have composed a second version of the found postcard object with a series called the Urethra Postcard Pictures. Along with the found nature of the objects and the structured arrangement of the “cards” (with information label) this is Gilbert and Georges largest production of art pieces for a series, comprising 564 new pieces.

Gilbert and George, Embankment 2009

“I’ll drag you round my posh flat by your nuts you filthy vetch”

“Was born a girl. Sex changed to male. ½ only still girl. Handsome Turkish 21 yr old”.

For the last decade Gilbert and George have again been accumulating the “card”s  but this time,  as opposed to only the innocuous postcards of the tourist trade, added are the advertisement flyers for the hidden, yet revealed, sex industry which is found littered about the local phone box or the public space (see the quotes above). Their rule for collection was simple and straightforward, they were looking for sexual worker flyers which were “not boring’ and they were able to obtain 13 of a like type. The number was to be used to form an “angular” urethra (warning this link will take you to a photo of the male urethra, but you can then see the idea) which is a square of flyers with a single leaf in the center. The form was a squaring of the “chakra” of the urethra based on the system of “powers” developed by the spiritualist Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854-1934) to visualize and comprehend the chakra forms of the body.

Leadbeater THE CROWN CHAKRA 1927

The System of Seven Chakra points was developed in his book of the same name (1927) and was at times used as a signature by him in his letter correspondence.

Gilbert and George, Big Ben Flagsy 2009

Leadbeater, a leading member of the Theosophical Society, considered the activity of masturbation and the activation of the urethrain chakra a health inducing energy for the body and soul. After accusations were made in the regard Leadbeater’s inclination for discussion of masturbation with young boys he withdrew from the Theosophical Society in 1906. Never denying the allegations Leadbeater wrote to Annie Besant the same year explaining:

So when boys came under my care, I mentioned this matter to them [masturbation], among other things, always trying to avoid all sorts of false shame, and to make the whole appear as natural and simple as possible… a natural function exists, which in itself is no more wrong than eating or drinking.

Leadbeater regained his status to the Society when Annie Besant became its leader in 1907 and returned to membership in 1908. Though he was accused of immoral conduct he was never accused of any crime and later scholars were to assess his discussions of masturbation in light of a more open sexuality and a healthier psychosexual self.  For instance John Kersey in Arnold Harris Mathew and the Old Catholic Movement in England 1908-52 writes:

Leadbeater’s approach was not that of the libertine, for he taught self control and moderation in sexual habits… he was frank in his talk of sex, as well as promoting a generally open attitude to the body that was forward-looking in the early years of the century.

Leadbeater… believed that by teaching masturbation and encouraging it, he was making it less likely that sexual experimentation would lead to unwanted pregnancies, since contraception was not widely available at this time. A factor in this approach was also that initiates in the Theosophical Society, including Leadbeater himself, were expected to remain chaste and not engage in sexual relationships with others. In this context, Leadbeater’s teachings on auto-eroticism were a means, as he saw it, to enable initiates to remain within these bounds.

Likening the process of creation of the work to ‘automatic writing’, which was used by the Theosophical membership to communicate with the spirits and their own hidden powers, Gilbert and George are utilizing the form as a reconstruction of private power (sexuality) which inevitably irrupts on the surface of the public sphere. For Gilbert and George the automatic writing of the private self needs be written on the social and it is necessary that we confirm and recognize its forms there. Ignorance of this can only lead to a misunderstanding of the interfaces of self and the social and lead to a violence against the individuals who comprise the public and its manifest operations.

C. W. Leadbetter The Chakras (page from book, 1927)

Whereas the found object of Gilbert and George is a mapping of the vibrant through energies of the self Gabriel Kahane’s 2006 release “Craigslist Song Cycle,” or “Craigslistlieder” are an appropriated object of the self which can only funnel itself into a disturbed lonely echo in the social.  The four operatic numbers of Kahane’s Craigslistlieder are set to a libretto of New York Craigslist personals ads. Using the piano and voice, and tripping over a slew of musical styles to gather a meaning which is elusive inside of the digital plea of the ad for social meetings, the scenarios placed by yearning individuals for social contact are bathed in the cycle with a light of impossibility and darkness of individual containment. The private voices harvested by Kahane are continually distorted and destroyed in public exposure. Where the individual desire and articulation is founded on the idea of revealing and articulating the self we see, as with the libretti of   “You Looked Sexy”, what can be expressed in the public arena of the Craig list negates itself at the onset of its exposure: “You looked sexy / Even though you were having a seizure.”.  The Craigslist song cycle through its appropriations   tells the tale of a social space which negates the energies of the body and self. A public which countermands, and ultimately obliterates, the private.

This is the 4th movement of the song cycle craigslistlieder. Texts are actual ads from craigslist.
The text of the original ad, and sung by Kahane here is:
neurotic and lonely – 20
average height, brown eyes (slightly disportionate), brown curly hair (jewfro), 20 y/o, slightly hunched, occasionally employed anthropologist, chainsmoking jew, currently living with parents, off from school to deal with emotional problems (medicated), seeks gorgeous artsy genius woman interested in philosophical discourse, making out, television, woody allen movies, thelonious monk, the nazis, chinese food, thomas pynchon, digestive disorders. must enjoy video games. must own a video game system. (my parents refuse to buy one for me) no ugg boots. no long island.

The Urethra Postcard Series will be exhibited at White Cube Mason’s Yard 14 January to 19 February, London England

The 564 Urethra pieces which will comprise the entire second volume of the soon to be released tome: Gilbert and George, The Complete Postcard Art by Michael Bracewell, Prestel publications.

Update I:

“Everybody has one but nobody knows what it is”.  Gilbert and George talk about the Urethra Postcard  series.


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