Gilbert & George interviewed on their global takeover
We talk to artists Gilbert & George as they launch a global White Cube takeover with their 'London Pictures'
George sits opposite me to the left and Gilbert to the right. It occurs to me that, from their point of view, they have arranged themselves as 'Gilbert & George'. I make a note to check if they always present themselves that way round, but they don't. Still, for over 40 years they've made themselves and their work inseparable: their bodies, their words, even their house. The studio contains models of the galleries where their new 'London Pictures' will be shown: from the latest White Cube in Hong Kong to its sister spaces in London's Bermondsey, Hoxton and Mason's Yard. George points to the tiny images while describing the process whereby the pair nicked posters from street vendors and newsagents with the day's attention-grabbing story on them: 'One of us would buy a Mars Bar while the other stole the poster. You should try it.'
How do you characterise the works in these shows?
George '“London Pictures” is the largest group of pictures we've ever made. There are 292 in total, and they are composed out of 3,712 newspaper posters which were stolen over a period of more than six years.'
Gilbert 'We have created an amazing townscape that is the real story of what is going on in London today.'
London often appears in your work, but never so specifically.
George 'I think we made it a more emotional group of pictures, because we realised that by saving all these posters we were able to address something we wouldn't have been able to otherwise. How would we start making a picture called “Murder” or “Tiny Tots”? These strange subjects. As we were walking in the evenings past the terrace flats and - not infrequently - you would see a policeman and policewoman ringing a doorbell. It was awful to see the horror that something terrible was about to descend on this family. And these pictures are very much to do with all of these dark things as well.'
Gilbert 'It's pieces of different parts put together, kind of floating together. It's like Dickens: all the stories are universal. We have subjects that are very important: sex, money, race, religion.'
George 'We always say that whatever happens in the East End of London is about to happen in the rest of the world. If you look at our “Nine Dark Pictures”, which were done before September 11, we had all these stickers along Brick Lane which were anti-homosexuality, anti-alcohol, anti-drugs, anti-teenage pregnancy, anti-teaching Christianity in schools: we knew that something was brewing but nobody took any notice.'
Did the London riots of last summer influence the series?
Gilbert 'We finished our designs on the night of the riots. We were celebrating in a Turkish restaurant…'
George '… and the waiter said, “Can you leave? Please gentlemen, just go!” We hadn't even had coffee! He said, “Look, look!” And there were 300 teenagers crashing down the street. It was that very night.'
Gilbert 'For us it's simple: we would like to stimulate and excite young people. I feel they're not excited by anything. When we were young we had to be somebody, we had to survive.'
'We were war babies, we came out of a broken world. It was full of people with one eye, half a leg.'
Gilbert 'And they don't have to survive in that way. They don't have to succeed like we felt we had to succeed, to make a living.'
The series is also showing in Hong Kong as well as London. Why?
Gilbert 'They want to be part of modern art, they want to understand it. It's like buying a Gucci bag.'
George 'To be modern is to be free now in China, or as near as possible. We are free spirits to them, we can do whatever we want in our pictures.'
But you first went to China in 1993? What was that like?
Gilbert 'It was extraordinary. No other artist had a big show like us. I mean we paid for it, us and the gallery. And the army delivered the art work…'
George '… in open trucks. Just cadets.'
What drew you there?
Gilbert 'Confronting Chinese people with our art, to see if it worked or not.'
George 'They never saw them; they never saw one of our pictures before.'
Gilbert 'We were introduced to the “good artists” and the “bad artists” - the government ones and the not-government ones.'
George'The [government ones] toasted us as “very good artists” and the dissidents toasted us as “bad men, because we too are bad men!”.'
Gilbert 'The dissidents all became very successful and some of them were doing that kind of living sculpture thing, with bleeding heads.'
You also started out by testing the limits of what was acceptable, by being confrontational.
George'And subversive as well. We never wanted to confront someone with something and say, “Do you agree with this, if not you're an idiot.” It was always gentle, always kindly. We're more weird and more normal than other [artists]. The others could always go and get a teaching job. There's no tradition of two people getting one teaching job.'
Gilbert 'We were the outsiders, we were never part of the establishment.'
How do you avoid being co-opted?
George 'Tell the truth. Day and night. That's all you have to do. Do your best and tell the truth. And you'll get a huge following within the vast general public. Because they can see that. They know all the artists are looking down their noses at them. But they don't see that with us. They think we tell the truth. They say that to us.'
Has having such a recognisable identity helped?
Gilbert 'It became a uniform, and it worked. It was immediately recognised.'
George 'It means we can get away with murder as well. A lady friend of ours took her mother to the Tate Modern retrospective, hoping she'd be offended by it. When they came out, the daughter said, “What do you think?” And she said, “I wasn't entirely sure of all of their pictures, but they do dress nicely.” We got away with it! We don't want to offend the mothers, there's no reason to.'