Tea with Gilbert & George (2009)

In Brussels last week, London artists Gilbert & George spoke to a packed audience at Bozar, opened an exhibition of new works at Baronian Francey Gallery, were fêted at the Horta House and took tea with The Bulletin at the Conrad. Sarah McFadden did the honours.

Sarah McFadden
artdesigncafé - art | 13 May 2010
This article was previously published in the Bulletin (Brussels) on 17 September 2009.

You have to love Gilbert and George. Kind, gentle, generous, they seem to have stepped out of another time. The art they make is of another order. Critical, visually aggressive and unabashed, it packs disquieting messages about the state of the world as they see it through the prism of the East London neighbourhood where they settled in the 1960s. Ever since, it has served as the matrix for their art. It is where they draw inspiration and take the photographs which go into the making of their monumental, luridly coloured, gridded ‘pictures’, digitally contrived, kaleidoscopic photo-montages replete with allusions to religion, nationalism and sexuality. Portraits of the artists themselves figure in every work, and their signatures, along with the works’ titles and dates, are printed prominently in black in the lower register of each composition. It goes without saying that a Gilbert and George isn’t easily mistaken for a work by anyone else.

Now in their 60s, the two met over 40 years ago as sculpture students at Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London, and they have been partners in art and life ever since. Art is their life. Always together, invariably impeccably dressed in outmoded, boxy tweed suits (a good foil for their flashy matching ties), they’re a delightful odd couple: Gilbert garrulous, short and on the stocky side; George tall, fair, courteous and poised as only an Englishman can be. They almost always say “we” – rarely “I”.

Gilbert says they first donned their singular suits when, as young unknowns, they wanted to appear respectable while shopping their work around to London galleries. At the time, their art was as strikingly unfashionable as their dress. Eschewing the formal and conceptual trends then in favour in art schools and with critics, they adopted “art for all” as their motto and imbued their work with “the taboo things in art: ….emotion, colour, sentiment, feeling, sexuality”.

Until 1984 Gilbert and George categorised all their art, no matter what form it took, as sculpture. They made postal sculptures (mail art), magazine sculptures, charcoal-on-paper sculptures (monumental drawings traced from projected photographic images) and most famously, singing and living sculptures. The last-mentioned brought them fame. In those live performances, wearing their signature attire but with their faces painted shiny bronze, they lip-synched the same song over and over while moving as if in a trance for hours at a time. They literally embodied their art, a practice which seems commonplace now, but it originated with them.

Brussels audiences saw them perform early on. In 1971, at the invitation of Herman Daled, now president of Wiels, Gilbert and George presented Underneath the Arches, a popular vaudeville song from the 1930s, over the course of two days in an empty fashion showroom on Avenue Louise. It turned into a watershed moment in their career. The contemporary art dealer Ileana Sonnabend was in the audience and invited them to put on the inaugural show in her New York gallery. Later that same year, they did, and the buzz their work created helped to rekindle American interest in contemporary European art.

It also led to their becoming the first artists to achieve international star status. How do they feel now about being celebrities? “We’re quietly famous,” [Gilbert] says over a beer (George drank tea) at the Conrad, where they were staying in Brussels. “We live in the same house and have the same telephone number as always. We don’t buy yachts or cars. But it’s rewarding to be known. It’s quite amusing to be recognised as the living sculptures.”

Practised showmen, they adore attention and are ever ready to strike a photogenic pose. But they love giving attention as well. From the affectionate anecdotes they reel off, it’s clear that human sympathy is what they value most.

“We received a letter from an eighty-two-year-old woman who said that her favourite works are our Naked Shit pictures, because they make her think. She got it!” George exclaims. Exactly what she got is perhaps beside the point because, as George had said earlier, every picture speaks different things to different people.

“We believe in the lens of the mind, not of the eye,” explains Gilbert, who is fond of aphorisms and slightly mischievous. “Ugliness is in the mind of the beholder.”

Take the Jack Freak pictures, their latest and largest series to date. The title alludes to the Union Jack, whose red, white and blue pattern is found in many of the series’ 153 images. Here’s how George sees the national symbol: “The Union Jack is very iconic, very beautiful. It’s made up of diagonal crosses and straight crosses. It’s a sign of aggression. People have been put to death on crosses for thousands of years.”

“We like the danger of the Union Jack,” says Gilbert. “It has a freaky aspect.”

The grotesque distortions of their own likenesses in the Jack Freak pictures now on view are freaky too. “As we’re getting older, we’re getting more freakish,” Gilbert offers by way of explanation. “Every person has an aspect that will repel someone else,” says George, but he admits that the real reason why they have portrayed themselves as monsters is as much a mystery as why the series ended with the 153rd picture.

The conversation turns to religion and East London. “For us, our neighbourhood is the centre of the universe. We’re close to the financial centre, so we see rich people from the City behaving like hooligans; we’re on the doorstep of Cockneyland in Bethnal Green; at the end of our street, a synagogue has become a mosque. The street has a French Huguenot name that recalls a history of violence. The local cemetery is the burial place of William Blake, John Wesley, George Fox, John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe – all non-conformists who questioned religion. There’s a sign on the Unitarian church near us that says it welcomes people of all faiths and none. They sing hymns to science there. Like the Alevi Muslims, they’re not against anybody. They believe in culture and dancing and music, and everybody hates them.” George has obviously made this speech before, but it’s as fresh as if he’s saying it for the first time.

They tell me that they walk to dinner every evening when they have finished in the studio, each following his own path. George’s route takes 90 minutes; Gilbert’s, 45. “The barrage of information is amazing,” says George. “People, signs, buildings, flowers ….”

The artists spend three weeks a year taking photographs of those sights and of themselves, then add those images to the huge archive they have amassed and use to puzzle together their complex pictures. Recently they discovered (and photographed) the words ‘behave yourself’ written on a wall. “‘Behave yourself’ —what a church!” George exclaims excitedly, without breaking his composure.

After dinner, they say they return home by car. They feel it’s dangerous to walk in the area at night. “The mullahs are so violent against people like us,” says Gilbert. “We’re losing.”

“Unfreedom terrifies us,” George continues. “The Vatican says pop music is a vehicle for evil and that non-Catholics are deficient. It’s the lies that bother us. A factory can’t produce something and claim that it will give you everlasting life. A business can’t say ‘If you don’t buy this chocolate you’ll burn in hell’.”

“The freedom to be an artist is extraordinary. We see boys and girls in office buildings, sitting in front of computer screens. Lots of them are spending the morning just waiting for their lunch break. It must be awful,” says George. “It’s an enormous privilege that we’re able to take any image and exercise freedom of speech.”

“And be paid for it,” Gilbert chimes in with a big smile.