Art Gilbert and George Interview

In presenting themselves as a living sculpture Gilbert and George show extreme lengths to which they go for their art. 200% spoke with the inseparable duo.

One of the highlights of the Serpentine Miracle Marathon was Gilbert and George reciting their ‘FUCKOSOPHY FOR ALL’. For fifteen minutes they bombarded the audience with their fuckosophies. The longer their dialogue of swearing went on, the more surreal and hilarious it became.

George: Judge fuck.
Gilbert: Fuckers have feelings too.

George: Ever been fucking fucked?
Gilbert: Fucking 1939-1945

George: Ethical fuckers.
Gilbert: They are not fucking up to it.

The recitation of the fuckosophies is as provocative as their infamous series ‘The Fundamental Pictures’, presented in their trademark photographic panels resembling stained glass windows. In one of the works from this series ‘Spunk – Blood – Piss – Shit – Spit’, they hold nothing back, as the duo depict themselves naked and are surrounded by microscopic enlargements of their bodily fluids.

It is not in their nudity or the excessive use of the four-letter word, but in presenting themselves as a living sculpture Gilbert and George show extreme lengths to which they go for their art. In 1970 at Nigel Greenwood Gallery, they covered their heads and hands in multi-coloured metalized powders, stood on a table, and sang along to a recording of ‘Underneath the Arches’ by Flanagan and Allen. The work was called ‘Singing Sculpture’ and was their breakthrough success. Since then, they always appear in public as a duo wearing their matching suits. There is no border between their artistic and everyday lives. They are the art, 24/7, year in year out.

In order to devote their life to art they have created a simple, orderly life. They moved to Spitalfields, East London in the 1960s and have lived and worked in the same house ever since. They don’t have to decide what to wear each day as they adapted a daily ‘uniform’; matching suits, a white shirt and a tie. They don’t have to decide what to have for dinner as they frequent the same restaurant and order the same meal every evening. This might sound a bit odd, but after so many decisions we have to make in our busy, daily lives, don’t we all wish that we could come to a restaurant at the end of the day and leave it to the chef we trust to decide what we are going to eat? By clearing their plate, from in their eyes daily minutiae, Gilbert and George have created a life that leaves them more time to make art.

The themes in their work are recurring and have been brought down to four: Sex, Money, Race and Religion. They explore issues of identity, address taboos or examine social conventions in a provocative manner. Or to put it in Gilbert’s words during my interview with them after the Fuskosophy performance, “We are interested in the confrontation with the public. Us and the public: our world and their world and maybe they agree or don’t agree. That is about it.”

People have asked me what is it like to interview a living sculpture and aren’t they taking the mickey? Well, one has to take what they say with a pinch of salt. However, all of my questions received their undivided attention and were answered in all seriousness with a dose of English humour. Their different thinking and approach to life are both stimulating and illuminating. They are English gentlemen; polite, congenial and their behaviour is normal, however, at the same time there is something amusingly weird about them.

Before our interview starts I share with Gilbert and George that Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of Serpentine Galleries and initiator of the Marathons, told me that they are the only participants who participated in all the Marathon events.
George: That’s what he says.
Gilbert: We don’t know, we just do what he wants – that’s about it.

200%: Five years ago, you started to carry little cards in your pockets where you jotted fuckosophies down as they occurred to you. What made you decide to recite the fuckosophies at the Miracle Marathon?
George: We realise immediately that it is a Man Made Miracle that we live in a country where we can present this Fuckosophy. If you make a list of countries where you are not allowed to do that it is enormous.
Gilbert: Freedom of speech is becoming very rare these days in more and more countries such as Russia, China or countries in Latin America.
George: It is an enormously privileged life we live. We think that the free world is just Europe, North America, Australasia and a few odd little outpost like Singapore.

200%: Whenever Hans Ulrich presents the theme of the Marathon to you, how much time does it take you what to present at the Marathon?
George: We easily know what it is going to be.
Gilbert: We have the subjects. They are all part of our life making art. All the themes that Hans Ulrich comes up with are in someway already there. We don’t have to think long.
George: When we were in Monaco our assistant was staying in another hotel. We arranged with him to come and meet us in the foyer of our hotel. He arrived with a very young glamorous person: a woman, but in fact a young gentleman, called Victoria. She is half Latvian, half Malaysian and she is very lovely. A bit later Hans Ulrich tell us we’re doing a ‘Transformation’ Marathon. So we interviewed Victoria on stage on her transformation.
Gilbert: She was the transformation.

200%: Do you have a favourite Marathon contribution?
George: This is the best so far. Wouldn’t you say? (Gilbert nods)

200%: Was the idea of becoming a living sculpture born out of necessity?
George: Yes, we came up with sculpture because we had nothing else. We were middle class students, our parents couldn’t lend us money, two people could not apply for a grant – there was not a precedent for that. We couldn’t teach because we were two people so we were left without any money. All we felt was that we were the art.
Gilbert: Walking the streets of London, we were the art. Speaking with people we were the art. We have been the art ever since.
Gilbert: We studied sculpture. We didn’t train as picture makers. Even our pictures come from sculpture. Confronting ourselves with the public as we are is our art. We managed to find this form how we can communicate to the public.

200%: Being a living sculpture is it difficult to remain in character?
Gilbert: No.
George: It is not a character at all.
Gilbert: It became it and that is it. We became it.

200%: The artists, Elmgreen & Dragset, explained to me that the humour in their work is due to the daily conversations they have as humour is a way of communicating with each other. Do you attribute the humour in your work as a result of your collaboration?
George: We never think in terms of humour. The humour comes not because of us but because of the nature of life itself.
Gilbert: Life is full of contradictions. That is what we present in our art. When we did ‘The Naked Shit Pictures’ the public received them with laughter, but it is not so humorous. The public laughed, but not us.

200%: You don’t laugh in the creative process when you make the work?
Gilbert: No, a lot of people say we must have such good fun when we are making the pictures, but no, not at all! It is a very intensive, exhausting to make the pictures.

200%: What are you working on right now?
Gilbert: We are finishing a new body of work all based on the beard. It is called ‘The Beard Pictures’. It is all about seeing the world through a beard.
George: The beard is a metaphor for whatever you want. We were interested in discovering what the beard actually means. So many young people are growing a beard these days. By making the pictures, we found out so much about all different kinds of beards such as the Jewish, the Muslim, the Sikhs, the most famous beard Jesus Christ and the Hipster beard.

200%: A subject right at the doorstep of your studio: East London, the centre of the hipsters beard.
George: Yes, actually we don’t say hipsters but beardsters. We’re amazed the press didn’t pick up on that. On Saturday and Sunday you see young, mixed couples and the girls who don’t have a bearded boyfriend are not quite so trendy and proud. They feel they miss something.
Gilbert: You must remember when I was a child you wouldn’t get a job if you had a beard. You couldn’t be employed. If you were a very good waiter and you grew a beard you would be sacked.

gg1200%: You spent the 1,000 pounds you earned from the sale of one of your early drawings, on getting drunk and making an art work out of that experience ‘Balls: The Evening Before The Morning After – Drinking Sculpture’ (1972). It consisted out of 114 blurred and out of focus photographs in which you tried to recreate a drunkenness shot in Balls Brothers Bar in Bethnal Green. You have been in East London since the 1960s and have witnessed the area transform from a rough area into a hip, trendy area with much gentrification and high-rise office buildings. Do you see the changes in the area as positive or negative?
George: It is always positive. All change is progress.
Gilbert: All fantastic. Living there is fantastic, the people who are living there, it is extraordinary. All young.
Gilbert: Suicide rates are down.
George: It is all young.

gg200%: On the weekend it has also become a party and booze area.
George: East of London has always been like that. Our continental friends are amazed to see girls lying in the gutter with a bottle. You can’t do that in Milan. I remember a group of girls from Italy and they were amazed looking at this girl lying on the street completely drunk.

200%: You see that as positive?
Gilbert: Absolutely, it is freedom.
George: We remember the past and how constrained we all were. Never did so many people have access to so many books, so many movies, or opportunity to travel.
Gilbert: Art is exploding all over the world. It is a kind of freedom. Free speech in some way – that is what it is. When you see a person in an office behind the computer – such a terrible life. That is why they get drunk on a Friday night.
George: We just heard the new city trend: they go out on Thursday night, not Friday night because they don’t want a hangover in their free time on Saturday, but have the hangover in the bosses time. [laughter]

Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers