Thu, Feb 01, 2007 - Page 15 News List

Mad as March hares

They are a British institution, loved by the public, but on the eve of their long-awaited retrospective at the Tate Modern museum in London, Gilbert and George are feeling feisty

By Rachel Cooke  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Controversial British artists Gilbert, right, and George are preparing for a retrospective of their work which is to open at the Tate Modern in London.

PHOTOS: AGENCIES

Gilbert and George live in one of the finest early Georgian houses in London, by Brick Lane in the East End, and this is where we meet on a cold, bright winter's morning. Of course, when Gilbert and George bought their house in 1973, this was not the desirable area it is today; they were pioneers. George opens the door. He is one of those men that, though obviously quite strange (we'll come back to this), you can't help but take to. He's warm, friendly, an enthusiast. "Come in! Come in!" he chivvies. "You must be cold." His voice, the result of boyhood elocution lessons, is a posh whisper: it's rather seductive.

Behind him, in the gloom of the narrow hall, Gilbert appears. ''Ello," he says. How odd. In spite of the fact that he has lived in this country for 40 years, he still sounds so very Italian (he comes from the Dolomites), reaching for words the way others reach for memories: "You know... what ees eet? How you say?" You might think, if you were a suspicious type, that he was hamming it up, but then, after you've spent a bit of time with him, you notice that his expression is always puzzled. There are moments when it is almost as if he wonders what he is doing here, in this big house, in this heavy worsted suit, with this funny man and all these rude photographs.

They whisk me off on a tour — not of this house, but of the one next door, which they have also bought, and are renovating immaculately for friends to use when they come to stay. To get to it, we go out of their own house and into the Victorian factory building that stands where the garden should be, and which is now their studio. This, in turn, connects to the factory building that stands behind the new house, also part of their studio. Finally, we go into the house itself. It's amazing. I love the care they are taking, the way they've found a craftsman able to replicate the missing panels in the drawing room, the way they've stripped it back and yet given it new life by installing unseen luxuries such as underfloor heating. Most of all, though, I like the fact that attached to every internal doorframe, there is still a mezuzah (a tiny box that contains words from the Torah) — a legacy from the days when these houses were inhabited by Jewish immigrants. George strokes one lovingly. '"We'll leave these here," says this famous enemy of organized religion. "They're lovely, aren't they?"

After the tour, we go back to the studio, where their Chinese assistant serves me tea, and them instant coffee. On the wall behind us are copies of the new work that will be shown as part of their retrospective: Six Bomb Pictures, a series that is intended to reflect how Londoners have long lived with the threat of terror, and to be a memorial to those who died in the Tube bombings of July 2005. I peer at it. Gilbert and George peer, too. The work incorporates newspaper billboards stolen by the artists from outside train stations, and is executed in the black, white and red color palette that they last used 30 years ago.

"We like to be moral," says George. "We never use a subject until we find the moral dimension."

"We don't make art for selling," says Gilbert. "We make it to confront people."

So is there any subject they wouldn't use?

George: "Oh, yes. We would never show attacking, or killing."

Gilbert: "We don't even like it in the movies. It's so artificial."

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