The Historical Locker Room

Underneath the Arches: Gilbert & George, Homosociality, and Post-War Reconstruction

A railway arch, now bricked up, off Cable Street in East London. Photo by the author

In October 1969, the artists Gilbert & George celebrated a year of performing their ‘singing sculpture’ work Underneath The Arches by inviting figures in the art world and East London residents to a special performance in the street. The invitation read:

We would very much like you to be present at 3pm on 26th October when we present the above piece in the most naturalistic form, revealing to you a clear picture of avant garde art. Heading East from the Tower of London along Royal Mint Street brings you to Cable Street where we have chosen Railway Arch No. 8 for the historical occasion of our anniversary of ‘Underneath the Arches’.

Gilbert & George have since become amongst the most prominent artists active in Britain, famed for their performances as ‘singing sculpture’ and, more recently, photo works that draw on London’s East End as inspiration. This special, public event in 1969 was a performance of homosociality that spoke of the flux and instability of reconstruction in post-war Britain, and can tell us about the connections between the relationship between homelessness, queerness, and the still powerful memories of the Second World War at this moment.

The title of Gilbert & George’s performance came from the music that soundtracked it – ‘Underneath the Arches’ was a song by the music hall double act Flanagan and Allen from 1932. Its lyrics are about homelessness and refer to men sleeping rough under railway arches. For their performance, Gilbert & George wore what would become their conservative uniform for the rest of their career – shirts, ties, and flannel suits – and moved with fluid but mechanical movements to the song. As they moved, they sang along; they became ‘singing sculptures’. One held a cane and the other held a glove, and, in several performances, the bodies of both men were painted with metallic paint to give them the appearance of bronze sculptures. Once the recording ended, the person holding the glove moved to restart the recording, the two men then exchanged glove and cane, and the performance began again.

The lyrics of ‘Underneath the Arches’, to which the artists sang along, evoke communal sleeping between displaced men. They dwell on the difficult experiences of being homeless, endured together; ‘tired out and worn’ from sleeping rough, but persevering through rain and a lack of comfort. But they also consistently gesture to the possibility of transcending these circumstances. The repeated refrain of ‘underneath the arches we dream our dreams away’ gestures to sleep, obviously, but also another possibility: another way of life and, perhaps, a home. With Gilbert & George performing this together and singing in unison, there are tentative, gentle undertones of homosocial bonding and even homosexuality in admittedly bleak circumstances. This may well have played on

Alongside this potential homosociality, Gilbert & George’s performance also tapped into popular memories of the Second World War. ‘Underneath the Arches’ had taken on new resonance during and just after the war, and appears to have become something of a tonic to those who faced nightly threat from bombardment. Newsreel footage from 1941 shows Flanagan and Allen making an appearance at a communal feeding centre in Kentish Town (dubbed The Arches Restaurant), which had been set up to provide meals for those who had lost homes during the Blitz. They served food and then led a singalong with the audience to ‘Underneath the Arches’. For the two artists to revive and perform a song like this in the context of late 1960s and early 1970s Britain is to (depending on your audience) evoke nostalgia for a mythic moment of ‘pulling together’ in wartime or to appear strangely out of time, as their appearance would have underlined.

Flanagan and Allen, Underneath The Arches, 1941, Pathé Gazette, UK 

Returning to the memory of the railway arch would have also evoked a darker, seedier history of wartime experience. Railway arches had been adopted by those who lost everything during the Blitz and had nowhere else to turn; they were also used to house makeshift and not entirely legitimate stores and businesses.  They were also spaces of crime and vice, and were notable spaces for gay cruising, particularly during the blackout. As a result, there are competing evocations of the recent past at play in Gilbert & George’s performance: nostalgia for wartime pulling together and community and a less easily recalled, though clearly intertwined history of homelessness, crime, vice, and social decay.

The setting of Gilbert & George’s performance was particularly important – Tate have published a photograph that documents it. At the end of the railway arch, a mixed audience of adults, young people, and children gathered. The ground under the arches was muddy, and worn, jagged debris hung from the underside of the arch, just above the heads of the two performers. In amongst the audience there was a pile of rubble, which some of the children clambered on in order to get a better view. Behind the audience was a derelict wall as well as a more recently-erected corrugated fence. Behind this, blocks of flats were under construction, with scaffolding supporting the brick frameworks of new homes for this part of East London – perhaps even intended for some members of the audience. The context for this particular performance was a site bearing the signs of post-war reconstructive flux – new homes and homelessness, the debris of construction as well as decay – and its audience was, it would seem, predominantly young: the post-war generation This younger audience was, inevitably, excluded from the complex interplay of wartime memories evoked by Gilbert & George’s performance, but they were also caught up in it too, as young, unsuspecting witnesses to the past’s faltering haunting of the present.

Extensive bomb and blast damage to Hallam Street and Duchess Street during the Blitz, Westminster, London 1940. City of Westminster Archives Centre

All this amounts to a rather idiosyncratic vision of ‘home’ in the wake of post-war reconstruction: inherently homosocial, devoid of consumption and the material culture of home, formed out of loss and displacement, and rooted in both past and present. In a literal sense, home, for Gilbert & George, famously was – and still is –  ; they have become almost synonymous with this particular home and the surrounding location of East London. But Underneath The Arches seems to stray from the certainty of a specific location and structure, allowing the experience of homelessness to be transfigured into a performance that evokes queer masculinity, the uncanny workings of popular memory, and a home simultaneously embodied, dreamt, and just out of reach. As a performance, its vision of wartime homosociality troubles the limits and legacies of post-war reconstruction in the late 1960s.

The Historical Locker Room explores homosociality – same sex social bonds – in historical context. Read the previous articles in this new feature: 

A Hundred Men Bathing: Male Bonding in the Early Medieval West

“Never in the Presence of Any Woman”: Male Homoeroticism and Elite Education

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