Gilbert & George are now a brand, an industry even, almost as much as they are self-proclaimed “living works of art”.
Not so in 1981, when they made The World of Gilbert & George, a filmed manifestos that combines elements of their daily environment with their specific interpretation of it and which has now been released by Tate to coincide with a major exhibition at Tate Modern. Back then their house in the now fashionable Fournier Street in Spitalfields, East London, was surrounded by abandoned buildings. Britain was still, culturally, in the 1970s, Mrs Thatcher hadn’t long been in power, and no-one had thought of turning an empty warehouse into a “loft”. G&G were known in the art world, but barely outside of it.
The signs and symbols that would fill their later and better known works are all there in embryonic form: the unsettling images of only just post-pubescent young men sexualised in their objectification, the angular poses and scatological slogans, the fascination with grimy street scenes, derelict lives and nationalist signs and symbols. Their mannered, almost autistic, conversations and prose poems form a large part of the soundtrack.
Their world is one of dislocated Englishness that finds common currency with poet Philip Larkin, Manchester musician Morrissey, film-maker Derek Jarman and writer Iain Sinclair. Their famous dance to the song “Bend Me, Shake Me” is here but there is a companion sequence where they dance slowly, then writhe on the floor to a hymn. There isn’t a woman in sight and when they refer to the “manly human landscape of the cultivated person”, you know they can’t conceive of any other.
The World of Gilbert & George is a compelling piece of artistic archaeology from another time; after watching it you can’t help wishing they’d get out of the factory for a while and make another film.
o The World of Gilbert & George, £19.99, published by Tate Media in association with the Arts Council England
o Gilbert & George: Major Exhibition, Tate Modern, London, 15 February-7 May
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Tate releases 1981 manifesto on DVD'