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Artist interview

Interview with Gilbert & George on originality and art: “Artists are very limited”

The duo dislike art that only the art world can understand and explain their campaign to be different

Gilbert & George have formed an artistic double act ever since they first met on the Advanced Sculpture course at St Martin’s School of Art in 1967. Instead of making sculpture, they became it, performing their now-legendary “Singing sculpture” marathons, in which they danced deadpan, sometimes for hours on end, to repeated playings of Flanagan & Allen’s “Underneath the arches”. These days, Gilbert & George’s “Art for all” takes the form of giant, carefully composed, photopieces, always featuring the inseparable duo, which have been exhibited world wide. Last March, after over two decades with the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, the pair jumped ship to Jay Jopling’s White Cube where their “New horny pictures” are currently on show.

TAN: Your “New horny pictures” consist of small ads from newspapers and magazines soliciting sex. There is a huge amount of them. Are they part of a collection?

George: Yes. We collected them for a long time, but we didn’t use them until we began to feel their moral dimension. This is the same with all of our subjects: we took pictures of chewing gum for years, and it was only when we began to realise that each one comes from an individual person—some of them are dead, some are alive. We realised that nobody loves chewing gum; that everybody hates it, that we could find a moral dimension: each would tell its own little story, if it could.

Gilbert: For many, many years we took images of spit, but we couldn’t use them because we couldn’t make them speak.

TAN: So you photograph all the time and store your images up for future use?

Gilbert: We take them again and again and again, and then one day we feel, “Yes, we are able to defend ourselves.”

George: To justify them...

Gilbert: ...and to defend ourselves: that’s very important. If we can’t, then we don’t do it.

TAN: So how do you defend the “New horny pictures”? What do you feel to be their justification?

George: The moral dimension came to us one day when we were looking through a catalogue to check something of our own, and we saw the pictures we did of cemeteries and we thought, “My God, the name is on the tombstone, the age when they died and then a sentence about their life: it’s exactly the same.”

TAN: So you have not changed anything in the texts on show; these are all real people and these are all real telephone numbers?

George: Yes, absolutely. We’ve collected them over a huge period of time, so many must be out of work; some must be dead. One day they will all be dead. That’s why we think they look like huge war memorials, like the Lutyens war memorials in the Somme. You can’t even look at a photograph of those war memorials without getting this amazing secret feeling.

Gilbert: We put a circle on top of them, or a rectangle so they don’t look like a collage of newspaper print; they look more alike.

TAN: They are all men?

George: Except one that says “female changed to male”, I think.

TAN: So you continue your tradition of never presenting women in your art.

George: Art for women, yes. For centuries the artist has been pampering the heterosexual male because he knows that the men have the chequebooks.

Gilbert: People have wanted it to be that we had made this big decision not to have women, but it was not based on that. It started out as us, only us, for eight years nobody else was in our pictures except ourselves, and so when we were looking at other people we preferred to keep it a continuation of us.

TAN: How are the “Horny pictures” divided up?

George: First, we did the three main pictures. One is called “Named” because everyone there is advertised by their name, which we all have with us in our life...

Gilbert: But only the first name, like a criminal being named. We include ourselves, of course; that’s very important. Then, the second big piece is called “I am...” because, although you are Louisa, you are always described as yourself as a certain person...

TAN: So you have removed the “I am” from each of the texts and made it the title, and just left each description: “Hot Scottish blonde boy”, “Dark sexy student”, and so on.

George: Yes. then the third large one is “Ages”, which is probably the most important one. The youngest is 18: that’s a legal question. They could be younger, but they’re not allowed to say so. The oldest is about 28, that’s a fact of life.

Gilbert: That’s also why we’ve chosen numbers for other titles. You see pictures called “13”, or “8” or “9”, which can already lead the recipient into thinking something, wrongly....it’s quite good, that...

TAN: All the subjects are identified, but at the same time they remain anonymous.

Gilbert: But there is one theme going through, they are all horny!

George: They may be brown, they may be Scandinavian, they may be dark, they may be chocolate, but they are all horny!

Gilbert: That’s why we gave it the title “New horny pictures” because they are all horny!

TAN: They are also selling themselves. Many of them are probably prostitutes, rent boys.

George: They would never use that term.

Gilbert: They don’t use either of those words and we would like to keep to that.

TAN: I am saying that perhaps these people are horny because that is all they have got to sell—they have to be horny to order and that’s rather sad.

George: Sure.

Gilbert: We like this kind of title. It is totally unartistic.

George: Like the phone, the phone is such a big reality in the world today more than ever before.

Gilbert: We have to make these people art because at the moment they are so overlooked.

TAN: Even if you never ring these people up, the viewer is nonetheless having a little sexual encounter with them.

George: And London is the city in the world for doing that, every phone box is stuffed with cards. Even the Sunday Telegraph, the most Christian, conservative newspaper has a half page of sex ads. It’s extraordinary...and when you speak to Telegraph readers they say, “Oh no, no”, but it’s there, half a page...

Gilbert: It’s very exciting when you watch men passing the telephone boxes. They pretend they don’t see them, but their eyeballs are moving...

TAN: Your self-portraits are the only images of individuals to appear in all these works. What is your status here? Are you everyman among the every men? Are you the potential purchasers of horniness? Or are you perhaps putting yourselves up for sale?

Gilbert: We could be the tart and we could be the punter. One of the two.

George: One of the pictures is called “8” and there are eight advertisements in it, this one is called “10” and there are eight advertisements, and then our two pictures.

TAN: Your presence in the work is also very architectural. Your images articulate the series of texts rather like pillars or roundels

George: Or the two soldiers in the war memorial.

Gilbert: Or the two targets that you can shoot—in one, you’ve even got the sights of the gun.

TAN: Over the past few years your work has been becoming more overtly formal and restrained. You tend to use your own faces and figures, along with elements that appear more abstract, pieces of money, or massively magnified samples of blood, urine or semen. Is the move to text an extension of this?

Gilbert: We used a little last year in Paris. They weren’t like this exactly, and the response was extraordinary, especially by the women ...

George: Women are much more free about these things.

Gilbert: Men are terrified. They think, “Oh my God, am I becoming queer now?”

George: In a way, every subject is there.

Gilbert: It is relentless, again and again and again.

George: Like the war cemeteries, relentless, acre upon acre of young people...

Gilbert: We always feel that writers, film makers—they deal with many more subjects than artists. Artists are very limited.

TAN: You always work within very particular limits—the city and the people in it

Gilbert: Us, us, you and the world. We are anti-elitist; we dislike art that only the art world can understand. Our stuff is still cheap in some ways. It’s all hand made by us; it’s not marble, it’s not bronze, its not canvas, its just-

George: Modernistic.

Gilbert: It’s campaigning. Our art was always campaigning for something. To be different.

George: And original. We speak to our young Bangladeshi friends and their concerns are: family, religion, race, sex, drugs, money. That’s it.

TAN: I have never seen you apart. Do you ever go anywhere alone, one of you leaving the other behind?

Gilbert: George goes to the sauna alone, that’s about it.

TAN: But do you never get fed up with the dual personae? With keeping the façade of Gilbert & George intact?

Both: No, no.

Gilbert: Because we feel we don’t succeed. We would like them to see a big show of ours in London.

TAN: But you have a very high profile: the show at Milton Keynes that went on to the Gagosian Gallery at the beginning of 2000; the massive attention to the South London Gallery show; not one, but a pair of South Bank television shows; a retrospective in Paris...

George: People stop us all the time on the street and everybody has one question, “When is your next show?” And before we can say, “At White Cube”, they say, “It’s at the Tate is it?” That’s what everybody wants; that’s what they all want.

Gilbert: We have never had a real retrospective here. The Hayward wasn’t a retrospective; South London was just one group of work, not back to the beginning.

TAN: But doesn’t the Tate support many of the things that you object to in contemporary art?

George: We only dislike the split by nationality and race. We think that’s very, very poisonous and anti-art. Everybody we speak to inside and out of the art world thinks it’s a ridiculous idea.

Gilbert: It feels as if you have modern art, and then you have English modern art.

TAN: So a retrospective would have to be at Tate Modern. You would not agree to an exhibition at Tate Britain?

George: We wouldn’t set foot in there. Not to visit or anything.

Gilbert: The bigger spaces are perfect because we are able to adapt anything we show. We had a big show at the Musée d’art moderne in Paris which was probably the most successful show we ever did. That was the first retrospective.

George: And only one review in a British newspaper, the Financial Times.

TAN: I read in an earlier interview that the very first work that you made together while still at St Martins was a sculpture of a mask. Was that a pointer towards your future construction of a shared identity?

George: It was sculpture; it was colour.

Gilbert: It was transparent resin colours like we use now. I would pour some in, he would pour some in; he’d muck it up, then I’d muck it up...

TAN: Do you still work like that?

George: No.

Gilbert: Our work comes out of subconsciously getting images together. We don’t actually know what will work and what will not work, and that’s why we take images again, and again. We don’t use them for years, but we keep them. Like the advertisements here.

TAN: There must be some kind of discussion between the two of you while you are working?

Gilbert: Only on the day that we make the sketch to make the artwork. We have many tables and we put out contact sheets on all the tables. One table has only us, the other has only urban landscapes.

George: Or piss, or maps, or money...

Gilbert: So we are putting them together and then that’s it. We never talk too much about it.

George: It’s too emotional. We design the show blank first, we have blank pictures in the right sizes and then we do the actual designing of the pictures.

TAN: You have often said that you are not two artists, you are one artist. So if one of you got knocked over by a bus, who would the survivor be, Gilbert or George or both?

George: The likelihood would be that we would both walk under the bus together.

Biographies

Gilbert: Born, Dolomites, Italy 1943. Studied: Wolkenstein School of Art; Hellein School of Art Centre; Munich Academy of Art.

George: Born, Devon, England 1942. Studied: Dartington Adult Education; Dartington Hall College of Art; Oxford School of Art.

Met and studied at St Martin’s School of Art, 1967.

Shows include: 1968: Frank’s Sandwich Bar, London; Robert Fraser Gallery, London; 1970 Konrad Fischer, Düsseldorf; 1971: Sonnabend Gallery, New York; Nigel Greenwood Gallery, London; Whitechapel Gallery, London; 1972: Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London; 1980: Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; 1981: Pompidou Centre, Paris; 1985: Guggenheim Museum, New York; 1987 Hayward Gallery, London; 1990: New Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow; 1990: Palac Sztuki, Krakow; 1993: National Art Gallery, Beijing; 1995 South London Art Gallery; 1996: National Gallery of Art, Bologna; 1997: Musée d’arte moderne de la ville de Paris; 1999: Milton Keynes Gallery (inaugural exhibition).

Current/forthcoming exhibitions: White Cube2 (until July 15); Chateau d’Arenthon, France (until 30 September); the Factory at the Art School of Athens, Greece (5 October to 30 November 2001; Centro Cultural de Belem, Lisbon, Portugal, (10 January 2002 to 14 April).