There is a photograph of a dead young Kurdish man stuck to the door of Gilbert and George’s studio. The caption reads: “Serhat Sagir, 1985-2007.” Two years ago, Sagir committed suicide; he used to work in a shop the artists visited every evening on the 3km walk from their home in London’s East End to the Turkish restaurant where they have dinner.
George sidles up to me as I look at the photograph. “I feel more bereaved by him dying than almost anyone else, because we saw him every night for five years,” he says. “And then suddenly he was gone. Extraordinary, really. I saw him more than I saw my mother — I see her two or three times a year.” Why did he commit suicide? “We don’t know.” It seems they never asked.
I didn’t expect this. I didn’t expect grief. I expected Gilbert and George’s usual shtick: vexingly glib, occasionally unsavory, programmatically strange. As if not wanting to disappoint, George (Passmore, 67) stops talking bereavement and joins Gilbert (Proesch, 65) to pose for photographs. As the Guardian’s photographer snaps away, they do what they have always done, ever since they became what they call “living sculptures” in the late 1960s: George’s eyes chill into a thousand-yard stare; Gilbert’s expression mutates into that of an angry bulldog, undone by a comically raised right eyebrow.
The unexpected memorial to the young Kurdish man resonates with the memorials in their most recent work, 153 images they call the Jack Freak Pictures. It is the largest group of pictures they have ever made. Many of them include copies of medals collected from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, given to obscure people for achievements long forgotten. In Dating, for example, we see medals awarded for singing and attendance; one, presented to Master Alec French for the year 1884-1885, is for pantomime. “We have so many dead people in our pictures,” says Gilbert. Why? “We don’t know,” says George. “We have no theories about what we do.”
Rescuing the forgotten from oblivion looks like a strangely tender thing to do. But, in Gilbert and George’s hands, it is not just tender — it is paradoxical. The two are proud of their defiant friendlessness, and yet their art memorializes strangers, people they do not know or love.
“We made a big point not to become friends of anybody,” says Gilbert, when I ask if they have befriended neighbors like Tracey Emin and the Chapman brothers. Why? “It’s purer.” Entirely without friends? “Almost entirely,” says George.
They decline to discuss their previous lives, which is a shame because this is where the masks of Gilbert and George, living artworks, slip. Three years ago, it was reported that George had a wife and family before he moved in with Gilbert. His former wife reportedly lives nearby, as do his two children. But they are not part of Gilbert and George, the 40-odd-year-old work of art, and so are not fair game for journalists. If George has tender feelings for his family, he won’t give them up for the likes of me.
Gilbert and George have never married, preferring, they say, “to live in sin.” “We want to be weird normal,” says George. “We don’t want to be informed as everyone else is, because then we wouldn’t have something to say.” George’s politics seem to stem from the same impulse. “I’m nothing, but George is a Conservative,” says Gilbert. “Strangely, that’s completely acceptable with any taxi driver, any waiter, but not in the art world,” says George. “For them, left equals good. Art equals left.” Gilbert adds: “They believe in equality. We don’t. We want to be different.”