Nettle Dance

Gilbert and George

August 2009 - Civil Disruption

On the launch of Gilbert & George's latest exhibition, The Jack Freak Pictures, the duo - two of Britain's most infamous and widely-acclaimed artists - took time out to talk to David Hudson...

On the launch of Gilbert & George's latest exhibition, The Jack Freak Pictures, the duo - two of Britain's most infamous and widely-acclaimed artists - took time out to talk to David Hudson...

I felt unusually nervous preparing for my interview with Gilbert & George. These two elder statesmen of British art are - to many - living legends, but published interviews reveal a pair of men almost as well known for their eccentricity as for their work. They famously claim to have no friends, don't like to theorise about their art and aren't keen to talk about their private lives. They have resisted the label 'gay', and for many years preferred not to talk about the exact nature of their relationship. Given that I was allowed an all-too-brief ten-minute slot with them, I was hesitant as to the welcome I might receive and unsure what exactly I could ask them.
Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. The press launch of their new exhibition - The Jack Freak Pictures - (which took place at the Mason's Yard branch of the White Cube gallery) was indeed something of a media circus, with the typically be-suited G&G as the gracious star attractions. They tirelessly posed for photos and were interviewed by several film crews. However, despite being almost last in a long list of inquisitors, when my time slot finally arrived, I found them unblinkingly courteous, warm and genuinely excited about their latest show.

Despite a reticence to talk about certain personal issues, Gilbert and George have allowed enough details to slip out over the years to build up quite a detailed picture of themselves. Gilbert Proesch (the shorter of the two), 65, was born in the Dolomites area of Italy in 1943. He studied in Austria before moving to England to attend St Martin's School of Art in the 1960s. George Passmore (the taller, bespectacled one), 67, was born in Plymouth, before he too moved to London to attend St Martin's. They met on 25 September 1967, with George confiding to The Daily Telegraph in 2002 that it was "love at first sight".
They have been together since then, first working together as self-titled 'Living Sculptures' in 1969, when they donned their trademark suits, painted themselves with metallic paint, and mounted a gallery plinth to sing 'Underneath The Arches'. They quickly moved on to canvas, and have developed a trademark style that began as a mixture of grid-like, photomontage and paint. Notable collections include 1977's Dirty Words series, which gained widespread attention for its use of hardcore obscenities taken from local graffiti. Enjoying their ability to shock, they won the 1986 Turner Prize, despite some left-wing commentators criticising them for 'glamourising' skinhead culture and racism (one of their pictures from that body of work was of an Asian man next to the word 'Paki'). Other collections have included 1994's Naked Shit Pictures (which included images of their own faeces) and 2001's New Horny Pictures (using escort ads culled from gay magazines).
They have lived in the East End of London for 40 years. Their Spitalfields home famously has no kitchen as they prefer to go out to eat. In fact, they can be spotted walking in their local area almost every day, favouring the same cafˇs and local ethnic restaurants night after night. They are always beautifully attired in their tweed suits and ties. They never go on holiday. Lesser-known information came to light in the run-up to their major retrospective exhibition at the Tate a couple of years ago. It was reported that prior to meeting Gilbert, George was married, and that his former wife and two children live near him in the East End. However, this is not a topic open to discussion. "Everyone has history," is all he would say when pressed by a journalist in 2007.

The duo have always been prolific, but even more so since they started utilising computers to help them create their large-scale photo-pieces. This latest exhibition - showing across both White Cube galleries - contains no less than 153 works. Gilbert and George, typically, feature in almost all the pieces - posing like statues or striking disturbing and comical poses. Sometimes the imagery has been cut, rotated and pasted, creating monstrous human hybrids. The Union Jack features prominently in several pieces, as does a recurring motif of medals. The duo believe that the Tate's mammoth retrospective of their career spurred them on.
"We think we had a positive trauma after the Tate Modern show," says George, sounding the perfect English gentleman. "A lot of artists have a negative trauma after such a retrospective."
"They feel it can signal the end of their career," adds Gilbert, who, despite living in London for over 40 years, still retains a heavy Italian accent. The duo began, as usual, with a blank canvas, eventually coming up with an idea that prompted a flow of creativity.
"We did this one picture that changed everything," says Gilbert.
"It was the first picture," adds George (they often end each other's sentences). "It was called - and we still don't know where the title came from or how - we gave it the title 'The Metropolitan Police Annual Pornographic Football Awards' - and that gave us a big freedom, once we'd said that and created that picture, it freed us up and opened up ideas."
The rest of the pictures quickly followed. The pair work around the clock, with the help of an assistant, and their methodology has, in the past, been compared to stream-of-consciousness writing.
They were attracted to the use of medals because of the way they signify human achievement - being of tremendous value to whomever they may be awarded to, but then of little meaning to whomever might inherit them.
"We wanted the medals because we saw the prevalence of crucifixes on people. We saw a film about Faliraki, about all the drunken girls on holiday, but if you look, they're all wearing crucifixes. And we thought that medals were the secular opposite of crucifixes. It's to do with human achievement and human endeavour. Singing well, dancing well, playing golf..."
Gilbert: "It's nostalgic for achieving something. And they are then left over, that's all that is left. A cheap piece of metal that someone else can buy." George: "All these dead lives: we'd like to celebrate them."

Given that they've travelled all over the world, and observed the different relationship that different nationalities share with their national flag, I wonder what they make of the relationship between the British and the Union Jack.
"It means so many different things to so many different people, it's quite extraordinary," says George. "You seeing it being burned on television, along with the American flag. It means something different from north London to south London. Another interviewer asked us, "What about the BNP?", and I realised that for us, the BNP stands for Bangladeshi National Party, because it's written up all around Brick Lane."
They talk at length about their local area, and their artwork is very much a product of their habitat - frequently reflecting the multicultural part of London in which they live. I ask them if they could ever imagine leaving the capital. They look amused at the very suggestion.
"Not just London," says Gilbert. "We never leave East London! We never go west."
"A lot of people that moved to London - whether from South America or Japan - they didn't move to London, they moved to east London," confirms George, as if to stress the point.
"We never go to the country," adds Gilbert.
Despite both being "country boys" in their youth, the East End will remain their home. Rare excursions to the countryside have quickly sent them scurrying back to the city.
"We tell this story of going to north Devon to see a friend a few years ago," says George, "but I suppose we'd forgotten that we rather don't like the country, and we got there and we rather liked it. It was early in the morning, with the birds singing, so pretty. And then we walked up the high street. You could actually hear the insects, it was so peaceful. And then we came to the Parish church, which was medieval and beautiful, and outside the parish church were a young couple with a baby in a pram - it was an extraordinary scene. We said 'Good morning' and the young man turned to us and said 'Fuck off, you weird looking cunts!'. Then we remembered why we don't like the country."

They detect no such hostility towards them in the East End, and only in the press do they feel themselves occasionally subjected to negative commentary. I ask them what criticism particularly annoys them, and Gilbert immediately and emphatically answers, "Lies."
"And sexual bigotry," adds George.
The Sunday Times art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, in a recent feature about the artist Richard Long, wrote "Gilbert & George called themselves "living sculptures"... although anyone with eyes in their head could see that they were actually two fruity gays in suits." It was a comment that incensed the pair.
"Disgusting," reflects George. "And that's The Sunday Times. As I said to the editor when I phoned him up, 'What does it mean to you?' And I timed him. It was one and a half minutes before he answered. He was racking his brains for what to think, and then he said, "Affectionate! It was meant affectionately!" I said you're not telling the truth, and he said "Are you calling me a liar?", and I said I'm sure you're not telling the truth. Do you think he was telling the truth?"
Put on the spot, I say that the use of the term 'fruity gays' sounds more dismissive than affectionate, and that some respectable journalists still seem to think it's acceptable to be snide about sexuality in a way that they wouldn't be if discussing, for example, race.
"They would never say, 'He's says he's a painter, but really he's just a boring straight," says George.
"We feel that it is not criticism. It's personal attack," adds Gilbert. "It's not about our art."
"We've never discussed our sexuality with The Sunday Times!" states George, still clearly troubled by the whole episode.

Of course, everyone knows Gilbert and George are gay, even if they don't use the word themselves. Unsure how I should approach the subject of their sexuality, I decide to ask them if they've ever attended a civil partnership, and they surprise me by telling my how important they felt such an arrangement was for them. Sorry...? Just a couple of weeks earlier The Guardian had stated that they had never married and preferred to "live in sin". It appears that they have, just in the days prior to our meeting, decided to tell the press that they have had a civil partnership.
They tied the knot at a registry office in Bow, east London, last year. Their two staff acted as witnesses and they celebrated afterwards at an Indian restaurant close to their home.
"[Civil partnerships] are very, very important," says George solemnly, "because if something were to happen to one of us, it could be a nightmare." The two have undoubtedly amassed a fortune. The Jack Freak Pictures are on sale for between £50,000 and £175,000 each.

Given their closeness, the two must know each other inside and out, and I wonder whether they still surprise each other, whether through an action or a point of view.
George says that he thinks they do, but Gilbert struggles to come up with a recent example. Do they ever disagree or argue?
They think for a moment before George says, "We don't go anywhere near anything that's not... productive, really."
"We are quite relaxed about it," says Gilbert, in his heavily accented English. "Because we know, roughly, not to offend ourselves."
Clearly, gleefully offending the more prudish sections of the art establishment is another matter...

The Jack Freak Pictures by Gilbert & George are at the White Cube until 22 August 2009.

An abridged version of this interview was published in Out In The City,
August 2009 © David Hudson

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