I first encountered Gilbert & George at the age of 9. They exhibited a work entitled ‘Drunk With God’ (pictured above) at Rosc ’84 in Dublin; an enormous photograph based piece that took over an entire wall. They won the Turner Prize two years later.
This childhood memory was reignited by a two-part South Bank Show special on the artists in 1997. It was fascinating to watch the creators of that colourful Rosc exhibit conducting their daily business in east London, eating in the same cafe and restaurant every day, never cooking at home, and walking around Spitalfields daily as a dapper duo, aliving and breathing human sculpture.
I regularly see Gilbert & George out and about around Fournier Street, a gorgeous row of 18th century Huguenot houses between the Ten Bells pub and the Brick Lane mosque. Other Fournier Street residents include Tracey Emin and Jason Pierce of Spiritualized. Keira Knightley bought a house on the street, but re-sold it when she found the restoration and maintenance to be too demanding.
My first street encounter with Gilbert & George was priceless. I was taking this photograph of a mural by a Dublin born artist called Ian Harper that features Gilbert & George in the Ten Bells. Then, the real life Gilbert & George sauntered by the pub’s huge windows, patiently paused at the pedestrian crossing outside, and crossed Commercial Road, and walked towards Spitalfields market and Liverpool Street station.
Gilbert & George are creatures of habit, celebrity artists, and national treasures, but they’re also extremely approachable, friendly, and impeccably polite. Once I passed by George (Passmore – the English one with glasses) on the street, and he complemented me on my black St. Pauli t-shirt, which in fairness, seems to initiate conversation whenever I wear it.
In late 1999, I travelled to Belfast to attend an event called Afternoon Tea with Gilbert & George at the Ormeau Baths Gallery. I published the following feature In Hot Press from a fascinating public Q&A with the artists. The exhibition stoked the ire of Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church, who staged a small protest outside. Paisley himself reportedly blasted the duo as an “abomination more malign than the harlot of Rome, or even Gerry Adams, for tainting the sacred soil of Ulster with their filth.”
Next year, Gilbert & George return to Belfast with an exhibition entitled Scapegoating Pictures in the Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC). It opens on 25 January and runs until 31 March, 2018. Scapegoating Pictures debuted at the White Cube Gallery in Bermondsey in 2014. The imagery is dominated by empty laughing gas canisters, collected from early morning walks on the streets around their home, as Brick Lane was nicknamed Balloon Alley a couple of years ago as nitrous oxide (laughing gas) consumption went through the roof. These canisters mimic the look of ‘bombs’ in the Scapegoating Pictures.
The press release for the exhibition begins with a quote from Oscar Wilde that could well describe Gilbert & George themselves: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
GILBERT & GEORGE are perhaps the most controversial artists of their time. EAMON SWEENEY met them in Belfast to discuss blood, shit and piss.
“We invented and we are constantly developing our own visual language. We want the most accessible modern form with which to create the most modern speaking visual pictures of our time. The art material must be subservient to the meaning and the purpose of the picture. Our reason for making pictures is to change people and not to congratulate them on being how they are.”
– From ‘What Our Art Means’, Gilbert & George, 1986.
Since the late ’60s, Gilbert & George have courted a wider public than most artists alive. As exponents, developers and innovators of photographically based art, they are, as writer David Sylvester has remarked, perhaps second only to Andy Warhol.
If Andy Warhol’s achievement was to show that art was lurking inside every kitchen cupboard in the world, then Gilbert and George explore and expound on the art in every single drop of blood, sliver of urine and piece of faeces.
As early as 1969 they had a dream: “We began to dream of a world of beauty and happiness, of great riches and pastures new, of joy, and the laughter of children, and sweets, of the music of colour and the sweetness of shape, a world of feeling and meaning. A newer, better world, a world of delicious disasters, of heartening sorrow and of loathing and dread. A world complete, all the world an art gallery.” (G & G, 1969, and also an inscription welcoming the viewer to the Ormeau Baths Gallery)
Some snooty observers dismissed their work as simplistic ‘folk art’ for the masses. The duo struck back: “The expertise that the profession has, knowing when a piece of art is fake, or early that or late this – they use that to abuse other people. They think that they are making the subject elaborate and sophisticated, when in fact they simplify and make it bloody boring. We’re not doing simple pictures for lower class idiots, as the professionals think, we’re making pictures that are so complicated that they can be used by people.”
They’re no strangers to controversy, and at the Belfast protesters from the Free Presbyterian Church gathered outside to voice their objections to what they perceived to be immoral crudity and smut.
The number of protesters numbered no more than ten, contrary to sensationalist reports in the Belfast Newsletter. Also, in very un-Presbyterian manner, the protesters were very quiet with no brim and firestone pronouncements, but polite Father Ted style ‘Down with this Sort of Thing!’ placards.
The quiet protest didn’t stop the show, and as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s activities, Gilbert & George, live and in the flesh, hosted a ‘Afternoon Tea’ session to meet the public. Stuffiness and exclusivity is not for them.
“All the artists of this century were famous for loving art, for producing pictures and for having exhibitions,” they say. “We want to be different from that, in that our love is not for art but for the viewer of our pictures. We love every single viewer.”
With this self-proclaimed manifesto they cordially listened and answered any questions a bemused and enthralled crowd wished to ask.
Q: Recent Pictures is a personal selection by Gilbert & George of work from The Naked Shit Pictures, The Fundamental Pictures and New Testament Pictures. You could call it a G & G Greatest Hits of the 90s, although the common thread is how they deal with the ‘fundamentals’ of human existence – blood, sweat, tears, urine, faeces and semen. Why shit, piss, spunk and blood?
George: “Our pictures show the beauty that lies within all of us.”
Gilbert: “Yes. For example there is an amazingly complete landscape in a single drop of piss.”
George: “When we began filming the South Bank Show documentary we had just begun work on the Fundamental Pictures. The director would look at the designs on the wall, and chuckle away to himself saying, “You must find all this tremendous fun! Working with shit and piss!” We’d reply that on the contrary, we often found it to be incredibly hard, because it can be very hard to emotionally and psychologically deal with shit and piss and blood.
Then his poor sister contracted leukaemia, and he realised that her entire life would depend on all the elements we were dealing with. He began to view our work completely differently, and realise how these things are so very important to us all. His sister died and he touchingly dedicated the film to her memory.”
Such raw honesty and compassion is what really sets G & G apart. Do Gilbert & George see themselves in fitting into the art establishment in any way?
George: “No. We are outsiders. The young artists are the establishment. We have never been asked for tea at Downing Street, all the young artists go for tea at Downing Street. However since we started we think it is such a great thing that people have become more aware of art. In 1970, if you asked someone to name a living artist they couldn’t. Now they could name five or six. It is a good thing that a society at large recognises more than just its killers, sportsmen or ballerinas.”
So, if they are not part of the establishment, do they have any affinity or common ground with any particular artistic tradition?
Gilbert: “Yes. The tradition of extremes.”
Gilbert & George also heavily appropriate stark religious imagery in displaced and thought-provoking situations, such as ‘Naked Body’ (1991) which fuses a man displaying his rear end with both artists in their underpants inside a cemetery, with a crucifix and Celtic cross featured prominently in bright lurid pinks, purples and yellows.
“Many artists, most famously Picasso, would completely leave out religion and proclaim themselves to be atheists,” adds George. “We think that this is far too cold and cruel a division for art to make. We are drawn to the suffering man throughout history. You might find it surprising but we have always got on incredibly well with clergymen, or at least up to now! They realise that there is a lot of shit and piss and the Bible, and enjoy confronting our work.”
Such an open-minded attitude was not forthcoming from the arty-farty set when Gilbert & George announced that one of their London exhibitions would be entitled the The Naked Shit Pictures.
“There was a considerable number of sponsors involved in the show,” explains George. “And every single one pulled out when they found out what we were going to call it. Even the London Arts Board, who are statutory obliged to assist every single show in this particular gallery, pulled out, which was actually illegal. We just pressed on ourselves and everything worked out fine. We placed our own adverts in Time Out every week. Each advert would feature a close up detail of one of the pictures and our naked bodies. There were two complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, one based on the language used in the advert, The Naked Shit Pictures, and the other because the ad featured two naked men. The Advertising Standards Authority ruled both complaints out, one because there is a tradition of nakedness and nudity in fine art. The other because the title, The Naked Shit Pictures, was deemed “a true and accurate description of the particular exhibition in question.”
Since the art is so vibrant, confrontational and lively, one would imagine that you would be inundated with design requests. “Oh, indeed we are, but we have never done advertising or marketing campaigns,” says Gilbert. “The Pet Shop Boys have asked us loads of times to work with them.”
Earlier, George told a bizarre little anecdote concerning advertising.
“The only advertisement we were involved in proved to be a little bizarre. We did an advert to help the campaign for the cancellation of Third world debts, which used one of The Naked Shit Pictures. In the television ad, Ken Livingstone walks in and makes this little speech; ‘Who would have ever thought that there are more vitamins and proteins in a single turd than the nutritive requirements that it takes to keep a Third World child alive for a week?'”
As we adjourned for ‘Afternoon Tea with Gilbert & George’, the artists stayed on to talk to the public about their work and sign prints and programmes. As I’m taking a last glance around the gallery before hopping on the homeward bound train, I notice Gilbert in the distance taking a shot of me standing wide-eyed in the midst of their work. God only knows where it might end up. This little incident conclusively proves that they most certainly do love their viewers, as the declaration they wrote and signed for The Recent Pictures proclaims:
“We Gilbert & George, are delighted to be here in Belfast. We have never seen so many good-looking people before. We offer these pictures as visual love letters to you the viewer. We hereby declare that Belfast is our favourite city.
With lots of love,
Gilbert & George.”
I hereby declare that Gilbert & George are Belfast’s favourite artists. Unless you’re a ‘Free’ Presbyterian.
What is Gilbert & George? by Michael Bracewell is available now through Heni Publishing. A limited number of signed copies for only £9.99 are available here.