In the 21st-century lexicon of urban development, the term utopia has all but vanished from the descriptors of a contemporary city. It’s more comfortably consigned to the archaic vocabulary of 18th-century academia. Yet it remains a silent ideological underpinning of economic policies, an elusive goal that governments strive toward but leave unacknowledged—seen, for instance, in laws forbidding “transgressive” behavior, constant political entanglements, or even in perpetual urban developments intended to enhance civic life.
The twenty-six photomontages of Utopian Pictures at Arndt Gallery in Singapore, by the British artistic team Gilbert Prousch & George Passmore, gleefully parody that lofty ideal. Each photomontage presents utopia’s flip side and depicts a fiercely hostile, turbulent environment of dire warnings, threats, and nonsensical graffiti in a provocative mishmash of garish colors, as though cataloguing the battle scars of a city splintered into factions. Defiant voices (“Anti-fascist zone,” “No racists in working class areas,” “Toffs out”) clamor to be heard and clash with the heavy hand of authority amid sinister undercurrents of racial, class, and sexual exclusions.
The irony is heavy and unmistakable, of course. It seems cheekily fitting that Gilbert & George have chosen, for their first solo exhibition in Southeast Asia, to stage Utopian Pictures in the conservative city–state of Singapore, whose infamously repressive laws have been simultaneously lauded and disparaged by people living in and outside the country. But one doesn’t need to travel that far to see such aspects of authoritarian rule in action; Gilbert & George have asserted that the divided reality of the city can be found in its entirety in the gritty East End of London, where they live and work.
Unlike the rhetoric of the literary vision of utopia that imagines a future surpassing the general living conditions of the present, the chilling pluralities in the photomontages of Gilbert & George ground us strictly in the unfiltered, raw hues of urbanism. The stark pronouncement of ”God guides us” is surrounded by St. George’s dragon, which has the English flag for wings and is incongruously matched with the warning, “Alcohol control zone,” bordered by the white squares containing red “prohibited” signs. On large grids demarcated into sections, scrawls of “Homo Riot Homo,” “Nationalists make me sick,” and “The only good fascist is a dead one” capture the decay and rot of London, of humanity stripped down to its ugliest. This is no blueprint for the future, but rather a showcase of the cracks evident in the system. The artists’ works appear to imply that laws exist only to be defied; it is as though restrictions on aberrant behavior result in a proportionate amount of the very behavior these laws are trying to prevent.
Through it all, the artists themselves are two silent sentinels ever present in their own canvases, their faces covered by masks, paint, balaclavas, or medieval armor as they preside over the dizzying images of chaos and rebellion. Their stares are blank but nonjudgmental even as they actively insert themselves into the estrangements and anxieties in the extraordinary schisms that exist in this era. They exist not as complicit or disapproving figures but as part of the hieroglyphs of their montages, like repeated motifs that ghost through every slogan, threat, or warning; they are as dissonant as the seemingly endless number of labels defining the multilayered social reality we live in.
Utopian Pictures is on view at Arndt Gallery at the Gillman Barracks through April 12, 2015.