Gilbert & George
As the eternally unfathomable Gilbert & George prepare to launch White Cube Hong Kong, we meet the artistic duo at their home in London’s East End and discover how they’ve managed to avoid becoming part of the establishment. Interview by Chris Waywell. Portraits by Rob Greig
George sits opposite me to the left and Gilbert to the right. It occurs to me that, from their point of view, they have arranged themselves as ‘Gilbert & George’: Gilbert on the left, George to his right. One unit, as ever. I make a note to check later if they always present themselves that way round: quite an achievement over 40-plus years in the public eye – but they don’t. So I have already been forced to question a perfectly everyday human interaction. Since they met at art college in 1967 the pair have made work together; right from the beginning Gilbert (born in the Dolomites, still strongly accented) and George’s (born in Devon, South West England) work has shocked and disturbed, but also beguiled. They were singing sculptures, leveraging nostalgia before everybody was at it with a protracted mime to music-hall classic Underneath the Arches; they have also made works with names like Naked Shit Pictures. An early work from 1969 sees them with cut-out paper words on their already-suited torsos: George the cunt and Gilbert the shit. Above them, they grin happily, a taste of what’s to come. Perhaps more significantly, they have made themselves and their work inseparable: their bodies, their words, even their house.
Today, ‘blurring the boundaries between art and life’ seems to hardly cover it: there is nothing blurry about Gilbert & George. The February light outside is ruling with graphic clarity every stone of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church Spitalfields, which sits at the end of the street where the artists have lived and worked since the early 1970s. Their house (one of two they own in the street) is severely Georgian in decoration and possession-free. The artists wear their customary matching ties and tweed suits, though Gilbert’s is more green-hued and George has a flower bud in his buttonhole. The studio space we’re sitting in, windowless and clinically clean, still manages to feel theatrical. There are models of the galleries where selections from their new series of London Pictures will be shown: ranging from the new White Cube in Hong Kong to its sister space in Bermondsey. Tiny versions of the pictures are hung in the miniature rooms. “We’ve chosen them very democratically,” explains George. “Some spaces can accept larger works.” He goes on to describe the process whereby the pair nicked the posters of street vendors and newsagents with the day’s most attention-grabbing story on them (“One of us would buy a Mars Bar while the other stole the poster. You should try it.”). It makes such limpidly perfect sense, so why is it all so troubling? George looks at me across the table. “You have to ask the questions,” he says.
How do you characterise the works that are in this show?
George: London Pictures is the largest group of pictures we ever did: 292, and they are composed out of 3,712 individually stolen newspaper posters which were stolen over six years.
Gilbert: We feel that we managed to create an amazing townscape that is real – it’s not a fake one. It’s the real story of London.
London has appeared frequently in your work before but never so specifically. What’s different about this series?
George: I think we made it a more emotional group of pictures than we ever did before because we realised that by saving all these posters we were able to address something we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. How would we start making a picture called Murder or Tiny Tots? These strange subjects. We realised as we were walking in the evenings past the terrace flats and we would see hundreds of front doors and then – not infrequently – you would see a policeman and policewoman ringing a doorbell. It was awful to see the horror that something terrible was about to descend on this family. And these pictures are very much to do with all of these dark things as well.
Gilbert: It’s pieces of different parts put together, kind of floating together. It’s like Dickens: all the stories are universal. They’re all done around here but they talk universally. We have subjects that are very important: sex, money, race, religion. Whatever subjects we have in London.
George: We always say that whatever happens in the East End of London is about to happen in the rest of the world. If you look at our Nine Dark Pictures, which were done before September 11, we had all these stickers along Brick Lane which were anti-homosexuality, anti-alcohol, anti-drugs, anti-teenage pregnancy, anti-teaching Christianity in schools: we knew that something was brewing but nobody took any notice.
Did last year’s London riots influence the series or was it already complete?
Gilbert: We finished our designs on the
night of the riots. We were celebrating in a Turkish restaurant…
George: … and the waiter said: “Can you leave? Please gentlemen, just go!” We hadn’t even had coffee! He said: “Look, look!” And there were 300 teenagers crashing down the street. It was that very night. It was a surprise, the riots.
Gilbert: The idea was that they were free to go into anybody’s shop. It was to do with the freedom to walk into everybody’s house and do whatever they want. But it’s not new: you always had riots, 18th century, 19th century.
George: We know we live in a very privileged city. There are no dead bodies on the streets.
Gilbert: For us it’s very simple: we would like to stimulate and excite young people. I feel they’re not excited by anything. When we were young we had to be somebody, we had to survive.
George: We were war babies, we came out of a broken world. It was full of people with one eye, half a leg, my home town.
Gilbert: And they don’t have to survive in that way. They don’t have to succeed like we felt we had to succeed, to make a living.
You aren’t as visibly central to these images as you sometimes have been hitherto in your work…
Gilbert: We are in the middle of our work: we are walking and speaking, and that is all part of one big picture. Our vision. Every artist does that.
Working from this kind of poster for tabloid and local papers, the overriding theme must be death. Does this sort of material change your own attitudes towards death?
George: Murder and money are the biggest themes; sex a lot. Suicide… I think we are lucky because we are artists, people refer to ‘my late aunt’; ‘When my grandmother was alive we used to go round for lunch’. Nobody says the ‘late Van Gogh’. People think that they’ll be immortalised by having a block of flats or street named after them. It doesn’t work.
Gilbert: The art is somewhere. It is solid, it’s not like a body rotting away – it’s an object standing still in some way. That’s the whole history of humanity. It’s only if the art speaks that it stays alive, it means something.
One of your earliest works was you making yourselves into statues. Is there a theme there of you immortalising yourselves?
George: We didn’t have any money, we didn’t have a studio, we weren’t creeps who got a grant or a scholarship or teaching job, which was lucky. So we were left alone for ourselves and, in a way, we became the art.
Gilbert: We always did a kind of dreamlike art like Bloody Life (1975), Dusty Corners (1975) or Dirty Words (1977), all speaking of what we feel inside ourselves: a kind of loneliness, or happiness, like every human being is, roughly. We meant it not just as a slogan but we also felt the words.
George: That’s why every single one of the London Pictures has under the signature ‘It’s written all over them’. It refers, in a silly way, to the pictures it’s written on but it’s also a phrase that exists in every language.
Like criminals in China once having to wear a collar detailing their offences?
George: There were just photographs of the criminals of that part of China in the street, when we were there.
You went to China first in 1993. What was that experience like?
Gilbert: It was extraordinary. It really was extraordinary. No other artist had a big show like us. I mean we paid for it, us and the gallery. And the army, they delivered the art work…
George: … in open trucks. Just cadets.
Gilbert: It was a very big show, in fact. I think maybe 200 Europeans came with us.
What drew you there?
Gilbert: Confronting Chinese people with our art, to see if it worked or not.
George: They never saw them; they never saw one of our pictures before.
Gilbert: We were introduced to the ‘good artists’ and the ‘bad artists’ – the government ones and the not-government ones.
George: The [government ones] toasted us as ‘very good artists’ and the dissidents toasted us as ‘bad men, because we too are bad men’!
Gilbert: The dissidents became nearly all very successful: all the names that we know now are the ones that we saw there.
George: They had a copy of our 1980 catalogue, which was very difficult to recognise at first: the edges were rounded. It had been gone through so many tens of thousands of times.
Gilbert: And some of the artists there were actually doing that kind of living sculpture, with bleeding heads.
You felt there was a rapport?
Gilbert: Yes, they wanted to be modern. It’s very simple – in some way they looked to the West. They don’t look to old Chinese art to make themselves famous. Art is modern art. They looked to the West at the time and the art of that group became much more famous than ours.
George: To be modern is to be free now in China – or as near as possible. We are free spirits to them. We can do whatever we want in our pictures.
Gilbert: And that is why we believe that showing in Hong Kong is very good because they want to be part of modern art. They
want to try and understand it. It’s like buying a Gucci bag.
But one of the criticisms levelled at the Chinese art scene is that it’s speculative, a kind of venture capitalism…
George: It’s their choice.
Gilbert: It will come and go. It will happen. Even here, nobody liked art in 1970: the galleries were totally empty. I remember they did a big show at the Hayward Gallery of new art and we were a part of it, and the whole summer perhaps 6,000 people came.
George: We always said that you would walk from here to Marble Arch and ask people to name a living artist and no-one could. They could name a living murderer, skater, anything. Now everyone can name two, three, four, five.
Gilbert: I mean, the Chinese art was bought by the West: China doesn’t go in for buying art. It’s exotic. It’s exotic to see something different. After that they are all trying to buy the Russian artists and they are all trying to buy the Indian art. We don’t look so much at other people’s art: we want to keep to ourselves because there are so many artworks today. You have the Indian ones, you have the Turkish ones, you have the South American ones: they’re all doing their own art, so it’s very important to keep it very clear and clean. We want to do this, fight for that. And we do that. It’s very down to earth: simple. Fighting for what our vision is – and hoping to succeed. And we do.
So what do you think White Cube Hong Kong will bring to our art scene?
George: It’s not that they’re going to buy our pictures like we buy theirs. But they’ll see our pictures and we know from years of experience that the people who see our exhibitions will always be slightly different from the ones who don’t go. It’s our job.
Gilbert: I really believe very much that the East want to be part of the West. They want to know what modern art means. Because they have a different tradition of art, the Chinese, but they want a new, Western tradition.
George: It’s difficult for the Far East, because they didn’t invent it and they’re jumping on board late in the day. They look at Western art and go: “It’s free and it’s crazy. I want to do something crazy as well. I want a lamppost coming out of my bum. I want a fish coming out of my ear, because I’m a crazy artist.”
But it’s natural for artists to test the limits of what’s acceptable. Right from the beginning your work was confrontational.
George: And subversive as well. We never wanted to confront someone with something and say: “Do you agree with this? If not, you’re an idiot.” It was always gentle, always kindly. We’re more weird and more normal than other [artists]. The others could always go and run daddy’s pig farm if necessary, could always get a teaching job. There’s no tradition of two people getting one teaching job.
Gilbert: We were the outsiders who had to succeed. We were never part of anything: we were never part of the establishment.
Do you still consider yourself not part of the establishment?
George: Of course we’re not; not for one second.
Gilbert: Okay, we can persuade Jay Jopling or other people to do things for us but we are not part of the establishment. Never have been.
But how did you avoid being co-opted?
George: Tell the truth. Day and night. That’s all you have to do. Do your best and tell the truth. And you’ll get a huge following within the vast general public. Because they can see that. They know all the artists are looking down their noses at them. But they don’t see that with us. They think we tell the truth. They say that to us.
Has having such a recognisable identity helped?
Gilbert: It’s good.
George: We didn’t want to be weird artists who alienated the general public.
Gilbert: It became a uniform – and it did work. It became immediately recognised.
George: It means we can get away with murder as well. A lady friend of ours took her mother to the Tate Modern retrospective, hoping she’d be offended by it. When they came out, the daughter said: “What do you think?” And she said: “I wasn’t entirely sure of all of their pictures, but they do dress nicely.” We got away with it! We don’t want to offend the mothers. There’s no reason to.
Gilbert & George’s London Pictures is at White Cube Hong Kong Mar 2-May 5. Read our interview with Graham Steele, director of White Cube Asia here.