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  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
BRIAN WILSON
WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

Gilbert & George, 1997

WITH DOMINIC DYSON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY WOLFGANG TILLMANS

 

With their trademark near-identical three-button tweed suits, and catchy “Art for All” slogan, Gilbert & George remain after thirty years working together possibly the most influential and famous living British artists.  They were recently the subjects of a two-hour documentary on the South Bank Show, and have completed a new series of photo-pieces called The Fundamental Pictures, which use microscopic images of their bodily fluids to startling effect. Few are indifferent to Gilbert & George’s messianic artistic mission, and the new generation of young British Artists are indebted to their irreverent DIY attitude.  The self-proclaimed “Living Sculptors” have lived and worked in Spitalfields since the late ’60s, an area of London’s East-End  that has become an increasingly desirable address.  We met at their house on Fournier Street and had a long chat.  I saved my question about Brookside, the popular English soap, for last. 



Dominic Dyson:  Who described you as “sick, sad and serious?”
George:  The Reverend Eddie Stride, leader of the Festival of Light, now retired to Africa.  He was our local Vicar and a great friend of Mary Whitehouse.

DD:  And d’you think it’s true?
Gilbert:  Probably. [chuckles]
George:  Sick — well, we always said we’re weird.  We’re not normal in that way.  Sad — we’re always talking about misery, from the first day.  And serious — we certainly are, extremely serious.
Gilbert:  He’s right!

DD:  There is a popular image of you as old-fashioned fuddy-duddies.  Do you see yourselves as modern or advocating old-fashioned values?  Are you part of the modern world?
Gilbert:  Fuddy-duddies!  Who says that?
George:  We don’t see any oddity in that at all.  To live in Fournier Street, which is 18th Century, is in fact extremely trendy.  To wear suits is extremely trendy.  We wear the best ties in the world!
Gilbert:  To have done “Living Sculpture” thirty years ago is very trendy.  It still is.  Every young artist is trying to be only that.  The Self is becoming so important.  There is nearly nothing else in art at the moment except that — the Self.

DD:  How different was the East-End when you first made it your home?
George:  People in the East-End felt much more tribalistic then and much more hostile to so-called newcomers.  Nowadays people are much more liberal because of the artist presence in the East-End.  East-Enders have more money now.  They travel more widely than they did then, they see more television now, they see different magazines, they’re much more gentle.

DD:  Is the East End a more tolerant place now?
George:  Without doubt.
Gilbert:  Yes, we can walk wherever we want.

DD:  Are you aware that Hoxton is currently being promoted as the  fashionable, artistic, cutting-edge place to be!
George:  Absolutely.  Shoreditch — our friends Andrew and David moved there a long time ago.
Gilbert:  In fact, George used to teach in Hoxton.  Young cadets ...
George:  ... at Hoxton Hall.
Gilbert:  [laughs] Yes, for many years.

DD:  And what did you teach them?
G&G:  Art!
George:  Art & Life.
Gilbert:  Art & Life, yes.  And he used to arrange parties for the teenagers in Wilkes Street, and the parents used to come at 12 o’clock at night, shouting up ...
George:  ... to come and get their kids.  I used to have to say. [whispers] “Keep away from the window!”

DD:  What do the Bengali models, familiar to many of your pictures, make of it all?
George:  Bangladesh people are very able to understand visuals, in a very simple way.  They never ask the question, “Is it Art?”  They understand what a picture means immediately.  They love our pictures, in fact.  Every time we show models our catalogues they just love it!
Gilbert:  I think our pictures are visually, in some ways, quite simple to understand, so they just see themselves and they see this amazing coloration.  India is full of color like that.  Pakistan is just full of colors, the most vibrant colors, clashes of color.
George:  Bangladesh people are the sweetest people you can imagine, that’s for sure.  It’s very gentle to live here in a Moslem district.

DD:  Are you contentious?
George:  People bring a lot to our art when they stand in front of it.  When they stand in front of a lot of art they just bring their knowledge of art history.  But when they stand in front of our pictures they think about Sex and Life and Death and Politics.  Lots of complicated things come out.

DD:  Is art boring?
George:  We think that more people go to see more art than ever before in the whole history of civilization.  Never has there been a greater attention.  Every taxi driver goes to exhibitions now.  It’s extraordinary!
Gilbert:  We are doing a different art.  We are campaigners!  Confronting the viewer with this, which is in some ways normal — in every pub, or in every family — but it is not normal in the written language or in newspapers or in museums.

DD:  Who is art really for?
George:  We always said, “Art for all,” from the earliest works. The meaning of that develops and changes, but the strength of that original slogan remains.
Gilbert:  We always said that it’s based on asking questions about life.  We are examining life, that’s what it is.
George:  As long as the artist uses a democratic language and faces the viewer with respect for the viewer, then it will be all right.
Gilbert:  Together we are trying to show them, and they have to be in front of the art deciding if they agree or not ...  Working with people all the time.
George:  We feel very much that it’s an adventure we’re having together hand-in-hand with the viewer.
Gilbert:  If not, it wouldn’t work.  We wouldn’t have fans.
George:  Art only gets into trouble when the form becomes obscure and when the artist has no respect for the viewer.  When he thinks that all the people out there are stupid persons, then it begins to lose immediately.

DD:  Are artists selfish or selfless?
George:  We only believe in the artist that wants to give.  We don’t believe in the artist who wants to make a nice career for himself, with a nice house, nice friends and nice holidays.
Gilbert:  In fact, we have a vision, and we want to win.  I think that’s very simple.  We wanted to make it work, and that is the most important thing.
G&G:  We want to succeed.
Gilbert:  Very much, day and night, we only think of that.
George:  And whether it’s selfish or not, it’s very simple to illustrate because you can just look at the whole history of culture, medicine, science — only the ones who gave of themselves are actually still there on the bookshelves.
George:  Highly developed sense of purpose, we call it.

DD:  Is suffering for art important?
G&G:  For us, yes, it’s unavoidable.
George:  All advances are made with enormous opposition, always.

DD:  Does G&G art inform the feel of the times, or draw from it?
George:  We feel we’re forming tomorrows.  We don’t think we’re showing life, or reflecting society, or reflecting ideas or showing ideas.  The world would be a little bit more like our pictures because we did them.

DD:  Is there a place for irony in your art?
George:  No place whatsoever.
Gilbert:  They’re accusing us day and night of it, but we don’t want that.
George:  When we ask people to explain irony, they tell you some funny words, and when you look them up in the dictionary they mean nothing connected with it whatsoever.  Everyone’s idea of irony is very strange, in fact.
Gilbert:  They don’t believe that it can be true — what we actually do.

DD:  Are you dandies?
Gilbert:  Yes, we like the idea of dandies, we always did.
George:  It’s more for somebody to call us if they want to.  The other evening we were trying to define a dandy, and I said, “Maybe its the person who’s as miserable as every other fucker, but he’s kind enough to pretend to everyone that he’s not.”  That’s an extremely gentlemanly thing to do!  To spend your whole life disguising it!
Gilbert:  But the problem is we don’t disguise it these days!

DD:  Can a G&G be funny?
George:  We never went to the studio with the idea of “funny” in mind, we would never include funniness in a picture.  It is never our intention.

DD:  Are you heretics?
George:  In that we believe the artist is here to question all convention.  We don’t believe there is any convention that we can just accept.
Gilbert:  Break every convention, yes!

DD:  Is G&G art spiritual?
George:  Yes, without doubt.  Every picture has that element.
Gilbert:  Because we know that we are alone in the world, so we have to sort it out for ourselves.  That is a spirituality.
George:  Whether you’re a Christian, Muslim or Hindu or nothing at all, it doesn’t take away the fact that we’re all spiritual beings.  Every time someone says, “Good luck,” that’s a spiritual thing, totally.

DD:  Are you Socialists, Anarchists or Libertarians?
G&G:  Humanists.
Gilbert:  We used to hear this strange word, humanist ...
George:  ... so we looked it up, and it says the study of human beings and their affairs.  So that’s all-encompassing anyway.

DD:  You are very famous.  You’ve been photographed by Beaton and Horst, portraits by Richter and Warhol.  Do you enjoy being famous?
Gilbert:  We never think we are famous, absolutely not.  Even after having one hour on television, next day you walk up and down here — you feel nothing has changed!
George:  We realized that already in ’71 when we were baby artists.  Quite unknown and out of the blue they did a Sunday Times color supplement on us.  There was a big Snowdon portrait, and the Sunday Times color supplement at that time was extremely famous — not like now.  Everybody had it, everybody tore out pages and put it on their walls.  We went on the tube the next day, we walked around London — nobody batted an eyelid!  There is no real fame in art.  Everything is more famous than an artist — criminals, footballers, pop stars, politicians.  It’s very difficult to find someone on the street who can name a living artist.
Gilbert:  We probably became famous because they don’t know how to deal with us.
George:  Within the tiny world of contemporary art we probably are famous, yes.
Gilbert:  In Beijing, the first day we were there they recognized us.  That’s amazing!

DD:  Do you believe in charity?
George:  Yes, of course.  That means gentleness towards other people

DD:  Are you democrats?
George:  We believe in democratic thought.

DD:  Are you egalitarians?
George:  We think egality is something you earn.  We don’t think anyone has the right to be the same as somebody else.  We’re certainly not all born equal or anything, are we?
Gilbert:  We prefer to be left alone and do whatever we want.  No interference.
George:  We climbed out of the sewer, certainly!

DD:  Is there such a thing as low-life?
George:  Certainly, sure.

DD:  I know you felt that people had a classist attitude towards your use of tramps in the “dirty words” pictures, accusing you of being patronizing.
George:  Oh, we don’t think that’s low-life, no.  I thought you meant exotic night life or something, [laughs] which we don’t include in our pictures!

DD:  What are the Fundamentals?
George:  Very often when you make a picture it has its name, you just have to find out what that one is.  And that was the case with these pictures.
Gilbert:  But it was always done by accident, even when we started to use piss, because we were looking for something else — for drops of water, and then drops of piss, and then drops of spunk, and then blood and then shit.
George:  So we were looking for the fundamentals whether we knew it or not.
George:  If you look it up in the dictionary there’s fundament, which is your buttocks.  “Fundamental” means at the base of everything.
Gilbert:  It means sitting on your arse, on your bottom.
George:  Having fun.

DD:  Is shit beautiful or is beauty an irrelevance?
George:  Oh, it’s very important that the shit is beautiful, we think, very important.  As we said in our film, if we believe in the wonders of nature, and we can admire rock formations and frost in the winter on the window panes and love cloud formations, then we have to say that shit is also very very beautiful.  There’s no moral dimension to beauty.
Gilbert:  For a long time we wanted to make them visually very attractive.
George:  Extreme beauty we call it.

DD:  The things I remember most from the documentary about you are the sperm-eating blue bottles — of undetermined sex! — “George Michael arse-brown,” and the sweet little song at the end!
George:  I can see you’ve got a mind like a drain!
DD:  Do you have any other favorite names for your most used colors?
George:  Bedroom Pink, Poor Blue, Easter.

DD:  What d’you think Sarah Kent meant when she described your colors as kitsch?
Gilbert:  No idea.
George:  It’s a common artistic idea that color has a moral dimension, and a class dimension.  We always say that if a lady’s coming down the street with a muddy brown tweed suit and shoes that look sort of oily color, then it’s a professor’s wife.  If she’s got a pink dress and lime green shoes, she’s a prostitute.  This is not actually true.  There’s no reality like that, especially nowadays.  But it’s that old idea that hangs on, that muddy colors are sophisticated and clear bright God’s colors — sunset red, sunrise yellow — are somehow not educated.  A very classist idea.
Gilbert:  It’s very funny, because in fashion bright colors took over totally.
George:  In our lifetime especially.  You still cannot convince a journalist that when I was at school you had a gray jumper, a green jumper, a navy blue jumper, maybe maroon.  That was it.  Color didn’t exist in that way in post-war Europe.  They’re thinking of good taste, and good taste doesn’t exist ... only in that it is changing all the time.  What is a nice color?  There is no God-written message in the sky.  We should have said to Sarah Kent, “We’ve made it more easy with our colors for you to dye your hair yellow!”  Without artists like us she’d be ashamed to do that.  In the ’60s she’d have been a tart for dying her hair yellow!

DD:  In the documentary you talk about feelings and emotions so much.  This is a deeply unfashionable aspect of contemporary art.  Very few young artists would consider emotions or feelings as having any relevance to their art.
Gilbert:  I think they are wrong.  If it is soulless, then it ends up like an empty form.
George:  For years we said that coming home late at night, the streets are deserted, everything’s closed up, you’re passing a house, and there’s a light on, and you can hear a woman sobbing her heart out, and there’s a silhouette of a man against the curtains — the feeling you get then is amazing, and it’s related directly to what’s happening there.  And that’s very difficult to describe, very difficult to say what is that?  And what does it mean?  Should you do something, should you not do something?  It’s feelings like that that we’re circling around ... delicate human stuff.
Gilbert:  That’s what we like, the pain that is inside us — that’s what we want to show.

DD:  The young artists that obviously are influenced by you in many respects would read irony into you even saying that.  They can’t believe that you’re actually being serious.  They would consider that such a passé notion.
George:  That’s their limitation.

DD:  Does this mean that you are emotionally “on heat” all of the time?
Gilbert:  Yes. [chuckles]
George:  Emotionally unstable most of the time, that’s for sure.

DD:  That must be very wearing!
Gilbert:  We’re exhausted!
G&G: [laugh]
George:  We’re sexually on heat, we’re emotionally unstable!  They go together anyway, you can’t have one without the other!

DD:  After a long strenuous day in the studio being artistic, how do you unwind?
George:  Dinner!  Out to flirt with waiters, straight away.

DD:  Do you relax?
George:  We try to convince ourselves that we’re relaxing, that’s what we do.  We pretend that we’re relaxing and hope that it works.

DD:  What is your pleasure?
George:  Being artists.
Gilbert:  Succeeding.
George:  When the reward comes, when the lady comes up at the private view and says, “Black Church Face,” tears are streaming down her cheeks, and we don’t know what the hell she means but we know she’s been deeply affected by one of the pictures.

DD:  What would make your life unbearable?
George:  Not being able to continue.

DD:  What is your favorite currency?
Gilbert:  The bank of images that we have ...
George:  ... that is constantly growing.

DD:  What makes you get up in the morning?
George:  Desperation.

DD:  What are your hobbies?
George:  Reading.
Gilbert:  Not me.
George:  I tell Gilbert everything I read!
Gilbert:  Trying to swim, that’s my hobby.
George:  Trying to stay afloat.
Gilbert:  Trying not to sink!

DD:  Are you brainy?
Gilbert:  No.
George:  It’s close, but it’s not exact.  I would say we’re very thoughtful.  We always think it’s like Eastern poetry.  You can read these small Zen poems — there’s a little stone and there’s two blades of grass and a couple of drops of rain, and then the poem’s over, and you get this amazing feeling because somebody put it together in that amazing way.
Gilbert:  Because in the end we don’t like intellectual people — they are fake.
George:  We’re anti over-educated people.

DD:  Is that just an inverted snobbery on your part because you come from working class backgrounds?
Gilbert:  No, because I think they are repeating everybody else’s ideas, that’s why.  They don’t have ideas.  They are not creative.
George:  We’re very conscious of the dead-end of over-education in a lot of people that we meet.  Their lives are stunted by the amount of education they’ve enjoyed.
Gilbert:  Because they cannot listen.  Because they know it all and they know nothing.

DD:  Who is the most shaggable person on Brookside?
Gilbert:  George rather liked the heroin addict.
George:  Ah yes, he was good.  He was very shaggable.  Jimmy ... soft lad.

DD:  The one that’s dead now!
George:  He’d even do it for a few quid, you could be sure of it!

DD:  Are you mental?
Gilbert:  Extremely mental.
George:  Definitely.  Mental and fundamental — both!

© index magazine
George by Wolfgang Tillmans, 1997

© index magazine Gilbert by Wolfgang Tillmans, 1997

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