"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." — Samuel Johnson

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Kisses from London

I recently visited the unappealingly titled but fascinating exhibition The Urethra Postcard Art of Gilbert & George at White Cube Mason's Yard in London.  The exhibition consists of arrangements of hundreds of framed postcards and telephone sex cards, each frame containing 13 identical cards arranged in a pattern based on the medical symbol for the urethra.   The postcards are of iconic London sights and cultural icons such as the union flag, Big Ben, the Tower of London, London buses, bridges, Harrods, black cabs etc. Hanging side by side with these are the cards to be found in telephone boxes, advertising all manner of sexual activities on offer, ranging from 'two way corrective massage' and 'spanking delights' to 'transgendered boy' and 'medical fantasy specialist', and anything else in between that you care to imagine. The repeated juxtaposition of the two creates a bizarre yet compelling effect - the civic pomp and pride and sleazy, sexual energy both being products of the same modern urban world, dual aspects of contemporary London.  Perhaps you can't have the one without the other.

Gilbert & George Urethra Postcard Pictures

Gilbert and George have been using symbols associated with London life in their collaborative art for many years.  In a review of the exhibition, the Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones recognises the importance of London as the setting to their work:  "But there is a third player in this creative team: London. In these works, Gilbert and George seem to be channelling the city, letting it flow through them. This paper trail – of London sights and its citizen's secret affairs – adds up to a monstrous portrait of the city, in all its bombast and sleaze."  

The tourist view of London is one that normally passes underneath my radar - the sights have become so familiar that they hardly register in my consciousness.  Yet this is the image of London that most visitors take away with them.... 

The famous red telephone kiosks in central London are still stuffed with their sad little displays of sex cards though I didn't see any advertising anything as adventurous as in the exhibition.  Does anyone really use these cards or are they just taken home as a souvenir of your visit to London?  With mobile phone use almost universal, I couldn't remember the last time I actually saw a phone box in use.  But as luck would have it, that very same evening, I spied an occupied one - was he calling a cab, phoning Directory Enquiries, dialling the Speaking Clock?  I like to think that perhaps he was enquiring about a Medical Fantasy Specialist.... 

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