The Urethra Postcard Art of Gilbert and George

A collection of postcards disturbs as much as it amuses, says Alice O’Keeffe.

Gilbert and George have proclaimed 2011 "the year of the urethra". To celebrate, they have brought forth an outpouring of 564 new "postcard pictures", of which 155 are displayed at White Cube in Mason's Yard, London.

The relevance of the urethra to these images is not immediately obvious. Each consists of several - usually 12 - mass-produced postcards, arranged in a rectangle with one more in the middle. We learn that this shape echoes a symbol used to represent the urethra by C W Leadbeater (1854-1934), once a leading light of the theosophical movement. Leadbeater apparently believed that masturbation brought one closer to God and was dogged throughout his life by allegations that he sexually abused the boys under his spiritual tutelage. A typically provocative choice of inspiration for the pair, then, in this age of paedo-fear.

At their best, The Urethra Postcard Pictures celebrate the glorious strangeness of human sexuality. The artists, magpie-like, collected these cards during their habitual walks around London. They are arranged into three categories: tourist picture postcards, all of which feature the Union Jack; flyers advertising gay clubs and sexual health advice; and telephone-box cards offering a smorgasbord of erotic services.

The telephone-box works are by far the best. Relics of the pre-internet age, these cards are suffused with nostalgia and a strange kind of innocence. "I'll drag you round my posh flat by your nuts, you filthy vetch," screams one in livid green capitals, combining sadomasochism with a hint of Hyacinth Bucket. Another, in neat, black Times Roman on a cream card, politely offers: "Toilet training: medical exams, enema and rubber treatment, golden showers, brown showers, PVC and rubber pants, bizarre clinical scenarios."

By comparison, the images composed from picture postcards are run-of-the-mill. You will find the same images of London buses and Tower Bridge on display outside every news­agent in central London - so why go to see them in a gallery?

Gilbert and George have made a habit of confronting the art world with taboos. It was giant turds in Naked Shit Pictures (1994); here, they foreground the Union Jack and other trappings of seriously uncool conservative nationalism. With the telephone cards, they bring an underappreciated expression of marginal culture into a mainstream setting, their creed of "art for all" at its most effective.

This approach is undoubtedly entertaining but it also has severe shortcomings. The artists' preoccupation with the outward expressions of difference and diversity - the bizarre tastes in sex, the array of religious, nationalistic and sexual signs and symbols - blinds them to the feelings and experiences common to us all.

For all the exotic services on offer here, there is no hint of real sex, in all its emotional messiness and ambiguity. We are invited to marvel
at the fetishes, rather than relate to the people who have them. Looking at the anonymous, faceless telephone cards is a little like going to a zoo:"Ooh, look! This one likes spanking - and there's a ladyboy!" It is as if Gilbert and George, shielded by their sharp suits and campy shtick, are observing the world around them from a great distance.

At its worst, this lack of engagement with life can lapse into glaringly bad taste. One image in the exhibition was so wrong that it was still troubling me the day after my visit. Entitled Toddlers and Tarts, it juxtaposed a number of bare-breasted women (the tarts, presumably) with photographs of a baby boy wearing only a nappy and bow tie. Had the baby boy appeared on his own, he would have looked funny and playful. As he was, surrounded by highly sexualised images of women, it was impossible not to see in his jaunty pose an echo of the stripper or the porn star.

Almost all of the other pictures featured one repeated postcard, but here Gilbert and George had chosen to combine three. In doing so, they imposed a new and disturbing meaning on the picture of the baby. Despite enjoying much of the perversity on offer, I found myself concluding that some taboos are worth respecting.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency