‘We believe that art is the ultimate democratising power’ Gilbert & George interviewed by Geordie Greig on their museum.
By Geordie Greig
Their picture titles are enough to stop anyone, Tory or Marxist, in their tracks: Date Stone F*** and Eaten Mess are two newly displayed works for their exhibitions, Paradisical Pictures and Corpsing Pictures. Gilbert and George like to grab the viewer by the balls – they depict only men (usually themselves) to create prophetic, socially-charged, bold images on the themes of sex, death, fear, money, race and religion. (...)
The artists love their new Gilbert and George space. “We believe that art is the ultimate democratising power. It changes people. We like expressing ourselves and now our works will be on display forever. It is about being alive. That is what it is,” they intone, almost simultaneously. More than 400 pictures owned by them will be rotated for different exhibitions. “We open to the world. We never look back; whatever is finished is finished. We only look at what is in front of us every day,” says George.
It is 55 years since the couple met in London at St Martin’s School of Art school and, apart from when Gilbert’s mother died and he went to Italy to bury her, they have barely spent a night apart. George, 81, from Devon, and Gilbert, 79, from the Dolomites, dress every day like semi-identical twins, sharing the same Spitalfield house as well as the same ideas, themes and even phrases for their art.
Yet their bond is complex. Key word to avoid: collaboration.
“We NEVER collaborate,” says Gilbert.
“It is a dirty word from the last war,” hisses George, only half joking.
Nevertheless, they are generous about each other’s contribution.
“We would never have done what we did alone. Ever,” says Gilbert, before adding, “Don’t you think, George?”
“No question,” he agrees. Interviewing them is not unlike watching ping-pong as they bat answers back and forth, fast and often with a devilish top spin. “Don’t think we are not weird,” adds George.
When it came to their purpose, they “didn’t want to do what every other student did at art school which was to make a living. We walked around London and wanted to make art for all. And we found a new way of making it,” says Gilbert… or is it George? Not a cigarette paper can be slipped between them on anything. (...)
Their talk combines the certainty of scholars, the ambivalence of comedians and the obsessional dedication of artists. They sway from wisecracks (jokes not suitable for a family newspaper) to homespun philosophy (“We never waste time being negative about anything”). George laughs when I look perplexed: “As I just said, we are weird, but you know that,” he reminds me. (...)
I ask Gilbert what he loves about George.
“Too much,” George interjects. “This is intrusive.”
But Gilbert answers anyway. “George is the most clever and most funny man in the world.”
George’s turn. “Gilbert is the most important person I have ever met,” he says, reluctantly but heartfelt.
Privacy is an unlikely issue for this couple who, for their art, have posed naked, ditched all modesty and decorum, and never shied away from sex, death, drugs, even pubic lice as subjects upon which they and their art merge absolutely. “Just remember we are private as well as very public. I just advise people who want to know more than what we tell interviewers that they should look at our pictures. Everything is revealed there.”
“One part is art, and the other is the art,” adds Gilbert. “The art we are making is completely open, but Gilbert and George are separate.”
“Look at the pictures,” says George. “Sex, race, religion, death, hope, life, fear. It is all there.”
“What is most striking and completely unbelievable is we've lived 55 years together,” Gilbert says. “It is unbelievable. You could not make that up.” George nods.
They are funny and original, mysterious and magical, controlling and controversial, and over five decades they changed the language of art. They are also as recognisable in person as their artworks (“And we did it without using buckets of paint!”) Their art is a photographic process. And they have always avoided category or definition. “We walked through the streets of London in the 1960s and realised we could be the subject of our art,” George says. (...)
Their new pictures, some of which date back several years but have never been exhibited in the UK, show images of bones, leaves and jungle forest. And, as always, Gilbert and George in suits. So how do they decide what to depict alongside themselves? They explain an almost mystical connection and process.
“Things like the bones tell us things, like the bones we saw. They speak to us. We don’t specifically look for things of interest and even though we have seen bones for 50 years it was only when they started to speak to us that we started to think of life and death,” says George. (...)
And so to the paradisical pictures. “We show an artificial jungle which we created to walk through in order to pretend to be in paradise. It is about the here and the now – every living moment is paradise. We created them for people who believe in the afterlife and also for those who don’t believe in the afterlife. The pictures address both communities.” A sort of cake and eatism!
The pair show the fervour and certainty of gurus but with no faith or belief except in art. They are missionaries, crusaders even, but their credo is their very irreligious subjects. “We walk the streets of London, Manhattan, Sydney, Melbourne, plus cities in China and Russia. We want to spread the word of art as well as our own art,” says Gilbert. (...)
Gilbert and George are impossible to pin down on identity politics. They know which controversies to poke and which to avoid. They are also cool about the art market.
“Ninety-nine per cent who look at our art and admire it never think of pictures being for sale. Young people at shows never ask the price: they might think what the hell is this about, but not what price it is. Most young people compare our art to space invaders. We prefer that to those who have been dragged into cathedrals by middle-class parents who then compare our work to stained glass. We are on the side of the young. We want art for everyone.”
The Gilbert & George Centre opens on 1 April.