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.”
Their friendlessness, incidentally, is of a piece with their kitchenlessness. “We used to have a stove, but it was taken away.” Why? “Because it wastes so much time, shopping and washing up, disposing of waste. We keep our brains for the more important things. We only have an electric kettle.”
They began making the Jack Freak Pictures one morning last year. After a quick breakfast (they always go out for breakfast), they walked through the house they have lived in since the late 1960s and into their vast studio (“a former Bangladeshi sweatshop,” says George) and started work.
They had spent the previous 18 months away, preparing their 2007 Tate Modern retrospective and then touring the show around the world. “That absolutely traumatized us,” says Gilbert. “We couldn’t work for 18 months.” “Artists frequently become traumatized by having a retrospective,” says George. “But we’ve had a good trauma — we’ve produced 153 pictures.”
When they arrived at the studio that morning, they had a thought about what they would do. What was it? Gilbert points to the medal at the center of the first work in the new series. It reads: The Metropolitan Police Annual Pornographic Football Awards. “That phrase came to us. We don’t know why.” The medal is flanked by digitally distorted heads, weird tangles of limbs and other body parts. It looks like a right old carry-on. “Doesn’t that look like a man’s balls?” Gilbert asks, drawing my attention to a detail of a digitally manipulated image, possibly of Gilbert’s head. “And that’s a big fanny, don’t you think?”
In another new work, Burn in Hell, their distorted bodies (George with what looks like two vaginas, Gilbert with a corseted quartet of breasts) and folded faces scream in flames.
Are they being punished for their mortal sins? For once, Gilbert and George seem to have a theory.
“It’s only the last 20 years we’ve managed to free ourselves of this idea of damnation,” says Gilbert, who was raised a Catholic and shows all the angry signs of being lapsed. George, raised a Methodist, is more sarcastic: “We think religion would be fine if it came under the same legal umbrella as ourselves. They should be the same as a manufacturer of marmalade. You’re not allowed to make false claims about your marmalade, are you?” He adds: “We think the Pope should be dragged to The Hague in the same way Milosevic was: he’s killed more people, anyway.”
The 153 works were digitally made, with other material and photographs scanned in and worked on incessantly. “We work round the clock. Always have, always will. Artists never retire. We do almost everything ourselves,” says Gilbert. The pair use one of the most powerful graphics workstations in the UK; they have an assistant called Yi Gangyu, who helps manipulate the huge file-sizes their art requires.
“What we do is like automatic writing: we have no idea how we start,” says George. “There is some confusion in our brain,” says Gilbert. “We used to take in a Bangladeshi boy and sometimes he was, ‘You’re so nice. I love you.’ And the next minute he was, ‘I want to kill you.’ We’re like that. Because our pictures are not based on ideas or plans, but just come out from inside ourselves, we feel they must be right.”
They claim they have always worked like this, making apparently unanalyzable but deeply felt things. This wasn’t what they were taught at St Martin’s (art school in London) in the late 1960s. “Color was a bad thing,” recalls George. “Meaning was a bad thing. Thoughts were a bad thing. Feelings were a bad thing. Sex was a bad thing. Love was a bad thing. To say, as we did, that our art was about sex, money, race and religion, was deemed absurd. The opposition formed us. The official line was that art was about form and shape and no content.” Their career began with performance pieces such as the 1969 Singing Sculpture, in which they wore face paint, stood on a table, and sang along to Flanagan and Allen’s Underneath the Arches, sometimes for a whole day.
Their most celebrated early work is a photograph called Gilbert the Shit and George the Cunt, depicting two smartly dressed young artists. “It was a pre-emptive strike,” says George. “They could call us what they liked, but not before we did.”
“Even today the very educated papers still try to abuse us,” says Gilbert. “Our art is capable of bringing out the bigot inside the liberal, and the liberal inside the bigot. A taxi driver who thinks that all modern art is rubbish will say to us, ‘It’s good what you do, guys.’”
Do the educated papers really abuse them? Gilbert says: “The other day the [London] Sunday Times said, ‘Gilbert and George called themselves “living sculptures,” although anyone with eyes in their head could see that they were actually two fruity gays in suits.’” He is quoting from Sunday Times critic Waldemar Januszczak’s review of a show by their St Martin’s contemporary Richard Long.
“They would never say, ‘He says he’s a painter, but really he’s just a boring straight,’” says George. They added that Germaine Greer wrote about them in the Guardian two years ago, under the headline: “There is only one way Gilbert and George can complete the work — by dying, in unison.” “She wanted us to commit suicide,” says Gilbert.
“We think compliments are the most important things in life, next to a smile,” says George. “We realize how painful insults are.”
But Gilbert and George are makers of images capable of upsetting viewers’ pieties. The overwhelming pictorial element in the Jack Freak Pictures is the union flag. In these images, Gilbert and George regularly appear in what look like union flag bondage masks. They are wearing these in an image where they appear on either side of the crucified Christ. “For the first time in 2,000 years, Jesus has a union-flag halo and a union-flag loincloth,” says George. And they are the thieves flanking Jesus? “What?” says George, feigning affront. “Oh, flanking Jesus.”
They claim, despite all this, not to be anti-religious. George says: “There’s a Unitarian church in Newington Green [in London] which has a wonderful sign, ‘We welcome people of all faiths and none.’ Charming, don’t you think?” And they found a similar message in an ethno-Muslim sect called the Alevi, which originates in Turkey, some of whose members live in their neighborhood. “They have no problem with Judaism or Christianity,” says George. “They have no problem with Sunnis or Shias. They like music, they don’t mind a glass of beer and they’re discriminated against by other Muslims.” The young man memorialized in their studio was from the Alevi sect.
Nowadays, Gilbert and George are feted elder statesmen of the British art world, strolling their manor in distinctive tweed suits. “We are still here in the East End of London, but we are universal.” Why do they dress so smartly? “We used to say because we never wanted to be the artists their mothers would be ashamed of, but it didn’t work out quite like that.”
Are their mothers ashamed of them? “No, they’re very proud.” says George, quickly. “We don’t alienate anyone. The suits are very good because they are odd. We always get a table at a restaurant anywhere in the world. We’re never searched at airports. Even boys on bicycles with crazy dyed hair will screech to a halt and say, ‘Great suits, guys!’ They enable us to get away with a lot.”
What are they getting away with? They exclaim in unison: “The art!”
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