The Gilbert & George Centre may be a temporal paradise ‘Is this gallery our legacy? We prefer the term leg-over’
By Rachel Campbell-Johnston
Forget St Peter and his pearly gates. We have a new portal to Paradise. It’s green and metal and it looks, at least at first glance, rather like something that Jack (of beanstalk fame) might have grown. However, take a step back and you find, amid the twirls and swoops of its tendrils, the letters G & G. They stand for Gilbert & George. Because these are the gates of a new gallery created and funded by the eccentric duo to serve as a permanent display space for their work. And the first series of pictures that will be put on show are their vibrantly colourful — if somewhat unconventional — images of Paradise.
Gusts of cold sleet are blowing down Fournier Street, east London, as the smart-suited pair of self-proclaimed “living art works” leave their immaculately restored Georgian home to offer The Times a first preview of their new establishment. (...)
“It’s art for all,” Gilbert announces as the green gates are pushed open. “That’s always been our motto.”
“We wanted to make it available to ordinary people,” George says. Although the pair hope that the sale of limited edition prints and other pieces of G&G memorabilia (badges, posters and swear boxes included) might help to boost finances, entrance will be free. (...)
“We wanted an art centre where visitors to London can always find our work. We are always being stopped on the street by people who say, ‘Oh! I love your art,’ and we say, ‘Where did you see it?’ And they say, ‘Oh, we’ve never actually seen it.’
“They have always come across it in a magazine or newspaper or catalogue in a friend’s house, but never an actual exhibition . . . Big shows of artists are very rare. We have had more museum shows all over the world than any of our contemporaries.”
“We’ve had more than a hundred,” Gilbert chimes in enthusiastically.
“But we still feel that if someone wants to see our work . . . Where? There used to be nowhere. Well, now there’s a place,’’ George says.
“We think that the gallery will become known as the G&G. There’s the Tate, the National Gallery, the Imperial War Museum, the V&A and now there’s the G&G,” George declares as he leads me on to the site of a former brewery that has been converted with all the care that one might expect from a couple who have found in their historic Spitalfields neighbourhood a creative microcosm of the wider world.
During their career they have focused on anything from graffiti scrawls through stains of spat-out chewing gum to the double entendres of street names.
The visitor crosses a courtyard. “Blue for the boys, pink for the girls,” George observes, drawing attention to colour variations in the cobblestones. A narrow screening room runs down one side. Films of their performances, interviews and documentaries will be shown there.
Then on, via a flanking gingko tree (a reminder of the Gingko Pictures done when they represented Britain at the 2005 Venice Biennale) and a Himalayan magnolia, its puce tips just breaking into bud, towards the galleries: three state-of-the-art spaces, one dug out completely underground that covers 300 sq m. Here their pictures will be on permanent show in displays that will be changed around once a year.
The centre will open on April 1. The date is no accident. It is perfectly in keeping with the provocatively playful pair. (...)
Gilbert and George have never been quite what they appear. The dapper pair who met in 1967 as students at St Martin’s School of Art are far more than mere tailor’s dummy dandies. In 1969 they produced their Magazine Sculpture in which they photographed themselves, young, fresh-faced and smiling, with signs pinned to their suits that read “George the c***” and “Gilbert the shit”, a pre-emptive strike at the critics who, they thought, might soon say as much. They have revelled in shocking, outraging and delighting — and sometimes all three at once — for more than 50 years. (...)
Their massive, gridded collages, usually polychromatic and including their portraits, are among the most distinctive in contemporary art. “We have found our form,” George declares. “You can recognise it from miles away. Before seeing exactly what it is, you know that it’s us. (...)
“Our art is about what’s speaking to us now. Art is the experience of being alive,” Gilbert adds.
The first exhibition at their new centre will be Gilbert & George: The Paradisical Pictures. It is a series that, although shown overseas, has never before been on display in this country. “Most people think of Paradise as the after-party” George explains, “but we are doing it for our launch.” (...)
Do they see their new centre as their legacy, their own Paradise in that it will be their life after death? “Death, hope, life, fear — it’s one of our pictures,” Gilbert chirps. (...)
I press on the idea of legacy. “We prefer the term leg-over.” George closes the conversation down.
“Our motto is ‘next’,” Gilbert adds.
“Next!” George calls.
“They are all asking for shows,” Gilbert intercuts. “Next!” (...)
Maybe it’s a more temporal paradise that the artist duo desire. “Paradise is here, it’s here,” Gilbert cries. “It’s the here and the now,” George insists. “This centre is not an ending, it’s only a beginning. We are moving into our mature period. We are so busy. We have made 80 pictures this year.” (...)
The Gilbert & George Centre (gilbertandgeorgecentre.org) opens on April 1 at 5a Heneage Street, London E1. Gilbert & George: The Corpsing Pictures will be at White Cube Mason’s Yard, London SW1 (whitecube.com), Mar 29-May 20