Last month we went to visit The Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) in Belfast to explore Gilbert and George’s acclaimed exhibition Scapegoating Pictures.

The exhibition is the first significant presentation of work by Gilbert and George in Ireland since their attention-grabbing show back in 1999. Occupying all three of The MAC’s gallery spaces, the large-scale exhibition marked the 50th anniversary of Gilbert and George’s collaborative practice, which began when they met as students in 1967.

Upon entering the first gallery space you are greeted with a number of large, powerful works which incorporate newspaper headlines and other snippets of text, set in and around an angry colour palette of vivid reds, blacks, whites and greys. These are the main colours used throughout all of the works in the exhibition. Their stark ‘tabloid’ hues impart an unsettling and uncomfortable feeling which only builds as you traverse from artwork to artwork. One of the most striking things as you move around the gallery spaces is the sheer scale of Gilbert and George’s work. This size and heft is no more apparent than in the Tall Gallery space on one of the upper floors where the ceiling sails above you into the distance and great stretches of white gallery wall erupt from the floor up into the sky. You feel like you’re at the base of a towering iceberg. However, these walls aren’t pristine white as they are dotted by Gilbert and George’s stark and charred depictions of inner city life in the ‘age of terror’.

Many of the artworks include hundreds of nitrous oxide canisters (collected by the artists on their early morning walks around side streets and back alleys that surround their home) which play out the visual pun of bombs in this world of terror.

At this point it might be useful to try and unpack the idea of ‘scapegoating’. Writer and regular Gilbert and George commentator, Michael Bracewell summarises this neatly in his exhibition notes:

“From its Biblical origins, ‘Scapegoat’ is now defined as a broader, modern term “as a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency.” While ‘scapegoating’ (according to Wikipedia) is “the practise of singling out any party for unmerited negative treatment or blame as a scapegoat.” More journalistically, we could think of ‘scapegoating’ as a characteristic within ‘a culture of blame’, in which, individually and collectively, we are all either victims or aggressors simultaneously, all of the time. Judgement and value become solely dichotomous.”

Scapegoating Pictures unflinchingly describes the volatile, tense, accelerated and mysterious reality of our increasingly technological, multi-faith and multi-cultural world. It is a world in which paranoia, fundamentalism, surveillance, religion, accusation and victimhood become moral shades of the city’s temper. Gilbert & George take their place in these works as fragmented and spirit-like forms – at times masked, at times as grotesque skeletons, at times dead-eyed and impassive. There were definitely points where you feel the whites of their eyes following you around the gallery, adding to the unsettling and overwhelming atmosphere.

The MAC has welcomed over 20,000 visitors to their galleries since the exhibition opened in January and for good reason. As always, Gilbert and George challenge our deep-seated preconceptions by acting as a mirror to society; provoking us to examine the world we live in – and our complicity in its chaos – in greater detail. We look forward to seeing more work from them in the future.

Find out more here: gilbertandgeorge.co.uk