The art world’s oddest couple, Gilbert Prousch and George Passmore, have been collaborating as artists for 40 years. In summer 2010 they stage the first major show, ‘Jack Freak Pictures’, at Zagreb's newly opened Museum of Contemporary Art. Time Out visited them at their home and studio in London during a brief respite in their globe-trotting schedule.
You famously always wear matching tweed suits. Won’t you have to change into something lighter for your trip to Croatia in the middle of summer?
George: ‘Never! The secret is to have suits in three weights of fabric. Today’s are medium weight but when we’re abroad it’s usually warm enough to wear the lightest.’
And you’ve already been there twice to oversee the show, right?
George: ‘Yes and Zagreb is a beautiful city with lost of Arts & Crafts buildings. The public library is a masterpiece, beautifully restored.’
Gilbert: ‘We were also taken to some lovely restaurants and fantastic markets.’
And what did you think when you were asked to present the first major exhibition at the new Museum of Contemporary Art?
Gilbert: ‘We were thrilled. We love the idea of pioneering shows. Our shows in Gdansk and Linz have also been pioneering.’
Weren’t you among the first living Western artists to show in Russia?
Gilbert: ‘We showed in Russia early on and in China as well, when it was very difficult. We sponsored the whole thing ourselves; we even had to pay to get our pictures back!’
Which country was that in?
George: ‘Both. It was blackmail, they wanted a bribe to release the pictures.’
You must have a lot of stamps in your passports?
George: ‘We were very lucky to fly on that new Airbus recently. I said to the steward: “Isn’t it time you took off?” and he said, “We’ve been in the air for five minutes.”’
Gilbert: ‘That was our trip to Australia, which was quite extraordinary because the last time we were in Sydney and Melbourne was for the ‘Singing Sculpture’ in 1973.’ We assumed that they would have long forgotten us, but 37 years later they met us with enormous affection – they organised a talk that was just announced in the local newspaper and thousands of people applied.’
Do you always get the red carpet treatment?
George: ‘Not like that. The first time we landed in Australia we were greeted by a Rolls Royce courtesy car that took us everywhere. We went to see the Sydney Opera House and all the tourists were looking at our car. That was rather impressive.’
Where are your craziest fans?
Gilbert: ‘Belgians are our biggest collectors.’
George: ‘We have a vast following with the French general public too – they’ve adopted us in a strange way. But there is this group in Yorkshire who meet once a month to dress like us and discuss all things G&G. They’re perfectly serious, middle-aged people.’
Gilbert: ‘They came to see us at the house once. There were two or three sets of them in suits and glasses.’
George: ‘Our French dealer Thaddeus Ropac was asked to give a talk in Abu Dhabi for the Royal Family as well as invited poets, writers and intellectuals from nearby countries. The moment he mentioned us, this group of Iranians ran up to him crying out “Gilbert and George!”, flashing a postcard of our one work that’s in Iran. Extraordinary. They carry it with them everywhere, apparently.’
What’s the worst, most violent reaction you’ve ever had?
Gilbert: ‘Usually it’s just in the media. We did get shouted at in Northern Ireland and the Bishop of Salzburg once tried to stop one of our pictures going up. But that was just amusing.’
George: ‘On the other hand, when we were in Munich, there was a sermon preached in favour of our exhibition, in which it suggested that if Jesus Christ were alive today he would be standing in one of the four-square split pictures alongside Gilbert & George.’
Are there any topics you’ve ever had to avoid?
George: ‘I think we’ve had to be very delicate with religion. When we did the “Son of God Pictures” all of the Christians were up in arms, but they were so self-centred that they didn’t even realise that we’d mixed in elements from Jewish, Hindu and other faiths.’
Gilbert: ‘We wouldn’t tackle Islam, though, they might kill you!’
You don’t you set out to be confrontational?
Gilbert: ‘No, but we are confronting people with other possibilities. We ask the question about religion – is it true? Or not? We are not making abstract work. We have all these messages inside.’
So, what are the ideas behind the ‘Jack Freak Pictures’?
George: ‘The whole series began with images of medals we’ve been collecting which reward effort in physical activities; dancing or sports. When we began to fold and repeat the first image – of a footballer – the legs began to resemble mad sexual activity.’
Gilbert: ‘We also thought that the pattern looked slightly like the Union flag, which lead to that also being a theme. And of course the crosses in the Union flag refer to the crucifixion so that too became part of the works.’
And you’ve folded and manipulated photographs of yourselves on computer in a similar way…
Gilbert: ‘Yes, and it’s extraordinary what can happen when an image is repeatedly folded. We can look like anything from ghosts to strange insects.’
George: ‘We like the idea of making ourselves into freaks. They don’t have an exact translation of that word in Europe – they say monster. We all have a part of ourselves that can be repulsive as well as a part that can be attractive.’
Text is important in your work. In these images you’ve included graffiti and slang as well…
Gilbert: ‘Words that relate to the Union Jack include Jackanape; Jacksy – as in backside; Jack off – as in sex and Jack Shit – an Americanism, but we like to be inclusive. We’ve also used derivatives of Jesus – Jeez, Jeepers Creepers.’
George: ‘The graffiti all comes from this area. We found the best one recently – it just said “Behave yourself”. Who would write that? We also used some unpleasant texts on one wall that reads: “exterminate the poor”, “kill all yuppies” and strangely, “more public toilets”.’
You are synonymous with London's East End but doesn’t the gentrification bother you? Would you ever move or leave?
George: ‘No, not in a million years. We don’t have to go anywhere, we just take images that we see everyday on Brick Lane. Round here that’s the centre of the universe.’
Gilbert: ‘It’s just different that’s all. It’s always been changing.’
All the houses on your street must be worth over a million pounds now.
Gilbert: ‘They are at least two or three million-pound houses. But we bought it for £22,000. We restored it ourselves, the electrics and everything.’
George: ‘A lot of people in the district thought we were nuts or were suspicious of what we were up to. Taxi drivers in the West End asked us why we wanted to come here, because it was like a slum.’
Do you still have your routines?
George: ‘Oh yes, identical. We’ve been eating at our favourite Turkish restaurant every night for 15 years, non-stop.’
Gilbert: ‘They are so friendly. They have all these waiters lining up, waiting for us. In the mornings we still go to Dino’s grill where we used to go for breakfast as students. But the working-man’s caffs hardly exist. You can go a bit farther out and you’ll find them, but not in this district. I blame the artists!’
You still never cook and don’t have a kitchen?
George: ‘We’ve never even boiled an egg. That way we keep our brains for other things. We calculated that we’d probably have spent seven years washing up if you added it all up, instead of thinking and feeling.’
You devote nearly all of your time to your work. Is it a fun process?
Gilbert: ‘It’s absolutely no fun, it’s agony, because the work comes from inside ourselves.’
George: ‘The satisfaction only comes when the pictures are finished and hanging in the gallery and it’s the private view evening and we have a glass of wine in one hand and we’re surrounded by teenagers licking us all over. That’s the fun.’