Gilbert & George: “All the museums are now awake”
As I walked into the east London studio of artists Gilbert and George, I expected something like a cathedral. After all, their work over the past five decades has reused the bright medieval aesthetic of stained glass for photo collages of modern city life, their icons ranging from skinheads and bus shelters to sex workers and shit. While there is nothing numinous about their studio, they don’t disappoint on the front of the icon: the first thing I see is a white wall covered in photographs, printed or torn from the newspapers, from everyone from the Queen to big rugby players to Chancellor Rishi. Sunak (several appearances).
“It’s our wall of pin-ups,” said George Passmore, 79.
Medieval is not a comparison that the duo, who have been inseparable partners since meeting at St Martin’s School of Art in London in 1967, do not recognize it, nor any other tradition. “We are not going down this road,” said Gilbert Prousch, 78. âAll modern life is more like our pictures, right? If you go to a Tesco, the whole design looks more like ours, don’t you think? “
âYoung people say it’s more like Space invaders, said Georges.
We meet to discuss a moment in their career that is a little closer to Space invaders than the medieval era: Gilbert and George were featured in the 1982 edition of the prestigious five-year documenta art exhibition in Kassel, Germany, and the Thaddaeus Ropac gallery will present their works and those of other artists from documenta 7 at Frieze Masters next week. In âStreet Meetâ (1982), a young green man poses a bit like San Sebastian in front of a black and white urban scene, while yellow Gilbert and George stand stiff like visitors from another planet.
However, they don’t seem inclined to dwell on this show, beyond Gilbert saying it was “very important” and “extraordinary” to them, without much elaboration. George is keen to point out the freedom, humanism and recognizable signs of their work as a whole: âWe realized as baby artists leaving St Martin that [fellow students] all made beautiful shapes and beautiful colors and beautiful angles; they never discussed life, hope, death, sex, beauty, unhappiness, terror or fear, ever.
Their conversation is antiphonic, one picking up where the other left off. Gilbert follows George: “They all have a formalism – shapes – and we’ve never had that, from day one. We only have . . . the humanism of a person, the center of our art is that. The individual today, how he walks in life. It became our subject and it was quite different, I still think it’s quite different from a lot of other artists. Their latest photos have included the artists displayed in bus shelters, newspaper headline posters (they stole 3,700 tickets in London for inspiration) and postcard arrangements featuring the British flag.
Gilbert and George wish to emphasize their difference from the attitudes and practices of other artists. On the one hand, they dress in identical formal clothes. George today wears a speckled orange suit, white shirt and hot pink tie with blue crows, Gilbert wears the same suit but green and the same tie but blue. Likewise, they don’t care much about the politics of the art world, as becomes clear when I ask about the gallery they set up near Brick Lane to show their work (“Gilbert’s World & George âas they call her) in perpetuity. Are they doing it because they don’t think other galleries, like the Tate, will pass posterity on them?
Gilbert said: “They have 23 [of our] pieces they never show. . . All the museums are now awake. Wake up ? “Yes.” And are you not awake? George: “We were awake before we woke up.” Gilbert: “No, we don’t know what it is, we’re normal.”
Why does the ârevivalâ exclude Gilbert & George, pioneering queer artists? Gilbert: âBecause right now it’s all black art, all female art, all this art and this art. Go take a look at the Tate Modern, I’m sure they don’t have any [Francis] Bacon up. And let’s not even talk about Tate Britain, where mostly British artists are shown, whom Gilbert calls “provincial” and which George absurdly compares to apartheid in South Africa. It’s really different from other artists. It also rings odd with their long-standing philosophy of “art for all”, which does not seem to extend to art. through all.
They also seem sincere about their vision of art for all. Gilbert: âIt often feels like people can’t have anything, all those works of art that are too expensive for everyone except the rich, but normal people can’t have anything.
But you are represented by White Cube, purveyor of art to the rich.
Gilbert: âWe have to sell works to continue. We love, what do you call it, capitalism.
George: “We’re not against anything like all artists normally are.”
Gilbert: “They want to be billionaires but at the same time they say they are socialists.”
(George later adds: “We are very socialists but we would never say we were socialists.”)
I ask if it would be possible for an art student to move to London today, like Gilbert and George from South Tyrol did in the 1960s, and survive college and then do career, given the high cost of living after Brexit. visa difficulties and government cuts in funding for art classes. George doesn’t buy it: âWe would do the same, find the one place we could afford to live. We’re only here because it was the cheapest place in London, that’s the only reason. It was Â£ 12 a month for any floor of any building on rue Fournier, the attic or the basement. (A house down the street sold for Â£ 6million in March 2021; Gilbert and George bought theirs in 1972.)
George points out that London’s vibrant arts scene is a boon for today. “When we were baby artists there were two galleries in London – there was the Marlborough or the Kasmin and that was it.” Gilbert: âNow there are millions and millions of artists out there. It is, of course, a transformed art world.
But the city changed with it, and throughout our conversation I found it puzzled how Gilbert and George can brag about their close observation of London – George puts on the table three pieces of string he found in the street after breakfast, fresh material for a work of art – but also ignore how many of its inhabitants experience it. Perhaps it is precisely that their local universe consumes all their vision.
As our conversation ends, Gilbert and George show me some ink posters they made to be sold for the benefit of the Serpentine Gallery – NO WAY. KISS ME. FUCK ‘EM ALL (âOur General Approach to Life,â George says) – and show me through their immaculately restored 18th century home. I ask to take a picture of them to remember what they are wearing; they oblige, standing a little uncomfortably on the threshold, and it seems to me that in many ways Gilbert and George’s world doesn’t go much further than their doorstep.