Mark Lawson talks to the controversial artists and 'living sculptures' Gilbert and George, who met as students at St Martins School of Art in 1967, about their lives and careers.
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This programme contains very strong language.
They started in very different places.
Gilbert Proesch growing up in Italy, George Passmore in Plymouth.
But after meeting in London in 1967, they became personally and professionally inseparable,
their surnames forgotten, as Gilbert and George.
Artistically recognised with the Turner Prize in 1986, they also have
unusual public recognition, through art that frequently uses their own images,
as living, singing sculptures, or in pictures, meticulously suited or naked.
But because their work features words - and turds,
among other bodily substances - that some consider taboo,
they have also, by their opponents, been called names other than Gilbert and George.
Their latest show, The Urethra Postcard Art, featuring sex cards from phoneboxes,
shaped in a twist on genital geometry, will continue the reactions of both fans and detractors.
Is it an equal partnership always, or is one of you the dominant figure?
We would say it's very equal in a modern way.
-I think I would say we are both able to do different things
in an extraordinary way.
And together, we make a whole.
I think one is more able towards that
and the other towards the other, but together, we create a total idea.
As we always say, it's two people but one artist.
That's the key to it, the secret, really.
Have you ever had serious arguments, first of all professionally, in the case of the art?
Because as you know, many, many people who write together or who perform together,
they end up not speaking. But have you ever had a serious disagreement?
We say that we don't argue, and we wouldn't tell you if we did!
But we don't argue. No, we're very conscious of the pain and hostility and fighting in the world.
We think that is... every day, we think of that, that human suffering is so great,
that why should we become part of that?
Why should we fight or argue?
Alone, we would be lost. So we don't want to destroy that.
Being one removes self doubt in both of our cases, which is very powerful.
Extremely powerful. It's a great strength, being two.
That's why most of the world is divided into twos.
-It's perfectly normal.
-And not only that, it created for us a world that we don't need anybody.
We don't need friends, we don't need cities, we don't need to go anywhere to be happier.
But together, alone, we are able to think in a very interesting way.
We think we're enormously privileged that we can go to our studio
in the morning, and say exactly what we want in our pictures.
Nobody can interfere. We don't have to ask anybody or refer to anybody.
That's an extraordinary privilege, very few people have that freedom.
And the other privilege is to be able to take those pictures out, into the world,
to thousands of people in London, or in Madrid or New York.
We're very proud of having made a path that's able do that.
The parallels that people have often used, one is a comedy double act,
which is obvious, going back to The Singing Sculptures, you can see why.
Another one is a marriage, a married couple.
We just think Gilbert and George the artist, really.
It's much clearer then.
Expressing our new feelings on the walls, to create a new sculpture.
Who cares about marriages or whatever? Nothing.
Being normal and being weird at the same time, that's what we always want.
Never just the one.
How is the tea, Gilbert?
It's very nice.
Would you like some cake?
Thank you. Yes.
-Would you like some cheese?
I would like very much a piece of Leicester.
Here you are.
Thank you, George.
How do you feel, Gilbert?
I feel relaxed.
After the long walk.
How do you feel?
I feel fine, thank you.
Rather brainy and relaxed.
You may not want to answer - it has been said that you are married, which would be possible, but are you?
We did have a civil partnership recently, yes,
but for more practical purposes rather than as an imitation straight marriage, yes.
-Practical purposes, presumably, financial and practical and so on.
-When I look at you now,
today, for this interview, you have suits of similar design, but different colours,
ties of similar design, but different colours, similar shoes, is all of that carefully planned in advance?
We just want to devote ourselves to art.
We're all dragged at increasing speed towards the grave.
Any picture we don't make will be not made by somebody else, so we don't need to go shopping.
We don't have to cook.
Everything's based on having a very similar life, including the tailoring.
We don't have to change style every three years, like the boys in the city.
We don't have to have pegged trousers and big shoulders.
It's always the same style and very simple.
The shirts we buy every three years, they're always white.
Ties, we only wear the ones that we're given as presents.
It's a very, very simple life, devoted to art.
But it started out as Sunday best. When we used to go to see galleries,
to try to promote ourself at the beginning,
we had what you call the Sunday best and we kept to that, and it became
like the uniform for a monk, or the uniform of all the politicians.
They all have, in some way, the same kind of suit on.
OK, not all the artists have a suit on, but more and more artists have suits now.
We always said that it's like if you go for a job interview,
or if you go to a funeral, you put on a suit, and we come from that sort of background.
We even said early on that we wanted to be the artist that the mother wouldn't be ashamed of.
Didn't work out exactly like that, but...
Well, we'll talk about that later, about some of the content which would actually worry some mothers.
-They're versions in pairs, though?
-Yes, they are versions in pairs.
Yes. It's a myth created by the media that we have identical suits.
If we had identical suits, one of us would be very ill-fitting, wouldn't they?
-It is a kind of uniform. It is. Yes.
"The responsibility suits of our art," I think we wrote in 1969.
Does that ever become a burden that you can't nip out for a pint of milk
wearing tracksuit trousers and a sweatshirt?
Why should we do that? That would be...
-Mad. It's very good. It's very simple and very anonymous.
You can travel anywhere in the world, Australia, Johannesburg, New York.
Everyone wears suits. It's completely normal. Every Prime Minister in the world.
We never want to change that. It's fantastic.
You're never searched at airports.
You can always get a table in a restaurant. It's extraordinary.
It never becomes a burden, that 40 years ago, in effect, you set the rules in the laws of sculptures?
No, works so well. Even a young lady friend of ours took her mother
to the Tate Modern exhibition with the hope of disturbing or upsetting or...
and on leaving the exhibition, the mother said, "I'm not quite sure
"of all of their pictures, dear, but they do dress so nicely." So you see, we got away with it.
Getting away with it, that's very important.
We never wanted to be the scruffy artist, anyway. The so-called conventional artist.
Do people generally know which one is which, or are you addressed randomly as Gilbert, George?
I think amongst our friends and colleagues, they will know, yes.
But we don't care about that so much.
It's very funny, because a lot of people believe that Gilbert is a more English name than George,
and that's why when we go to Germany and other places, they always think
George must be the German or the Italian one.
It's extraordinary. It's a sort of tribal thing. They say,
"It's a vonderful exhibition, and we're especially proud of you, Georg!"
Extraordinary. And I say, "Sank you so much."
It's very good.
This is another of the legends, that you go to the same place each day to eat, but is that literally true?
Yes. We go to the same restaurant every evening, when we're not entertaining,
and we have the same meal, month in, month out, until we decide to change it.
Then we'll change it and that will be the same meal every evening until we change our minds again.
We don't like the idea of reading menus or thinking about food, it seems rather a waste of brain to us.
So the whole life from the suits, to the restaurant, it's all about leaving time for the work?
To free up the brain.
To use the brain in a special way. Not to be cluttered.
To be free people that can think whatever they want.
We trained ourselves to clear the head, the most extraordinary thing that you can have -
it feels like a big desert in front, panning out like that, which we can do something with.
What's your favourite TV programme?
Songs of Praise.
Why did you choose to live as artists?
It was not our choice, we are driven to be artists.
What's your biggest hope?
We hope for better recognition.
What's your biggest fear?
We fear everything.
All the time.
Much of the work - and we're going to talk about this more - has been regarded as shocking
by some people in terms of the words used, the materials used, has that ever been your intention?
We always talk about de-shocking, really. We prefer to think of it in those terms.
We're not the artists who make people run screaming
from the museum or gallery, or have the police involved.
-We're very subversive, really. Not so controversial in that way.
-Why do you use the term de-shocking?
Tell me more about what you meant by that.
When a person says, "You shouldn't have made that picture, Shitted, it shouldn't have been exhibited,"
we say, "That's your view, but you're too late, because we're talking about it."
It's as simple as that. People in general are not shocked,
only the media say that people are shocked.
They have this patronising idea of the ordinary person.
Ordinary people are very, very complex and elaborate and sophisticated.
It's newspapers more, I think, not ordinary people.
Never had a taxi driver or waiter say, your pictures are shocking or provocative. Never.
They love them. "Good on you guys," they say.
I think shocking would be more like killing somebody, or hurting somebody.
The news, television news, that's shocking.
Hurting people. I think that's shocking.
You also play with expectation, because some people, and indeed, some journalists,
seeing the word "urethra" in the title of this exhibition, they have a very different idea of
what they might see from, in fact, what they do see.
I suppose, to some extent, the urethra is de-shocked in these,
because if your urethra really looked like that, you should see a doctor quite urgently!
We like the word "urethra", because people don't use the common term for it.
We wouldn't even use it on television probably.
-It would allow the bleeper immediately.
And have you been to a urethra exhibition before? Certainly not. So it's very good to have one.
Even after all, it is the beginning of life. That's where we come from, roughly.
The sperm. By the urethra. We are fascinated by all this,
what you call opening up new ways of thinking, you know.
Everybody's excited in some way, even when they are shocked in some way,
but for us, it is stimulating. Even like the telephone box leaflets.
Everybody who goes into a telephone box tries to look at it only from
one eye, and pretend the other eye is looking somewhere else.
And now, they can come in and look at it, straight out.
You're talking about those little - which you have used in some of these - those little postcards
-advertising the services of often young men and women. Often not so young.
We were fascinated. They're part of London life. Paris, New York, they don't have them.
Rome, they don't have them. It's another first for Britain. It's extraordinary.
It is, in the end, a huge social document that we collected all of these cards.
They don't exist anymore, the ones in this show. They're all different now.
They're more boring now, so they are really from the golden age of telephone box cards, you could say.
So the cards in these, they are real cards?
They're all real cards, stuck down. Yes, that's very important.
Were you tempted to ring any of the numbers and see who was on the end?
They're doing it for us. A lot of people.
Are they? I thought they might be.
Yes, it was very funny, because actually, we did another group of pictures
called the New Horny Pictures, and some of the, what you call, the gentlemen who are advertising,
they thanked us for being in the artwork.
-Becoming immortal, they felt.
-Do you read reviews,
and if so, to what extent do you take notice of them?
My motto is, I don't want to know.
That's what I say to myself.
Day and night.
-And George is... in the end, I will see them as well.
-I tell him the good bits.
But because we realise, it took a long time to realise, we wouldn't change our way of making art.
It's either good or bad.
So, I mean, they are very useful to get people into the gallery, that's what we like to do,
but more and more, we are doing the campaign outside the reviews ourselves.
Because a lot of art critics are prejudiced. They go with idea, they know exactly what they see.
They don't even have to come to see the show. They know it.
They are prejudiced towards certain kind of ideas.
I want to talk now about the one area of your life which was separate, which is childhood.
If we start with you first, Gilbert, what are your earliest memories of your Italian childhood?
I remember quite a lot.
Yes, I must admit that.
It's a fantastic village, where I come from.
It's a little village of 900 people in the Dolomites.
Beautiful mountains, extraordinary.
Was there any interest or sense of art in your family?
Very much so. It's very exciting, because my father was a shoemaker.
I had an uncle who had some kind of bone cancer.
He was in many different hospitals, like in Venice and elsewhere.
He always used to paint.
In fact, he actually went to an art school when he was very young already, and that's it.
That's what I wanted to do.
I must have been six or seven years old when I became interested.
George, you, presumably, growing up in Plymouth, a famous naval town,
there was a much stronger sense of the post-war period?
We were actually bombed out of Plymouth in '42, so we ended up in Totnes, an old borough.
I think I had quite a privileged childhood, considering the times, really.
It was just my mother and my brother,
and we were never allowed to play with the other children, which was very good.
We never became the local rough idiots. It was a very good idea.
Was that because she thought they were rough, your mother?
I think she wanted better things for her children, and she was quite right.
Did you feel the lack of a father? There must have come an age when you were aware of that?
No. Nothing was ever mentioned in the family about father or Dad or anything.
It felt very normal, really.
You must have been curious about him at some point?
I was curious, and when I was 21, I went to see him, yes,
for the first and last time.
It wasn't necessary to go back again.
I had to find him in a pub in the village,
and the barman pointed him out to me.
I went up and said, "Do you think we could go to the other bar?"
He said, "There's no need to do that, what's your business?"
I said, "Could we go to the other bar?" probably 17 times.
I said, "My name's George and I think I'm your son." He said, "Good God, let's go to the other bar!"
It was very amusing.
Was there any sense of art in your family?
No, I think not, probably.
No, absolutely not.
I was interested in art from being a child, and as a teenager,
I bought a second hand book of Van Gogh's letters.
That convinced me entirely, because I realised that it was somebody who hadn't done the right thing,
hadn't had the right training, mixed in the wrong circles,
behaved very badly, but still succeeded totally in being able to speak from the grave forever.
That impressed me completely. I'm still impressed by Van Gogh.
Did you know relatively early on what your sexuality was?
We don't think of it in that way. We try to be post-gay, in a way.
To say that everyone is sexual in some way, everyone is capable of everything.
We prefer the idea of nil, the non-divisional way of thinking about sex.
That everything is fine.
They used to do it, even. All the Romans, they did everything.
You didn't have to be one way only. Sex is sex.
We don't like to be part of shows towards a certain kind of sex.
Not at all. We accept sex, that's about it.
But we don't want to be divided into certain sections.
I think it is very bad, even.
Because anybody is able to do whatever they want, no?
Different ways of sexuality.
We don't know what everybody does behind their bedroom doors.
When you're listed, as you have been, in those lists
of the 100 most influential gay people in Britain...
Oh, that's perfectly all right, of course.
-So, although that is a division, that doesn't irritate you?
-We wouldn't be irritated by that. Not at all.
There is nothing we can do about it!
The moment when you met - ideally, as on the TV show Mr and Mrs,
we would send one of you into a soundproof booth,
to check that you have similar memories, but this first meeting, 25th September 19...
-Good heavens, you have the date!
Are your memories, in fact, the same of it?
I always say something that came over us, like an atmosphere or a cloud.
It wasn't something we decided or went for.
I think we were almost artists before we realised.
People were commenting on it.
The most common comment at that time was, "How interesting, but of course, it can't last."
Because twos didn't last at that time.
For me, it was simple. I went to St Martin's School of Art. I couldn't speak English.
I wanted to be there, because when I was in my last year in Munich,
I thought I had to be somewhere else
where it is happening. And London was it.
I became very fascinated by St Martin's School of Art.
I managed to squeeze in, in some way.
I remember walking up there and George took an interest.
That was it. I don't ask him any questions, he took an interest in me.
We went out and we created a world for ourselves.
He showed me London, he showed me the East End of London.
At that moment, we really became two persons together,
without actually making a big decision.
We weren't like the other students, that's for sure.
They were all intent on becoming artists and working out how to become an artist.
We felt we were artists anyway.
The G&G world started
when we were stranded outside St Martin's School of Art, when we left.
The moment that you leave school, you are alone for the first time,
because they don't want to know you any more. The teachers think, that's it.
They turned against us, in fact, they turned against us.
-In what way?
-Even the head of sculpture, the very famous Frank Martin, turned against us.
He felt that we were betraying the cause of sculpture, probably.
We were very unsure of the attitude of the college.
We asked a friend to write a letter,
saying she was interested in doing some project, would they recommend us?
Back came a letter from the college, "Under no circumstances have anything to do with these people!"
Even then, we felt very proud. We thought we must be doing right.
It was very exciting, because then we had this idea for the Singing Sculpture,
and we thought, OK, we have to go back to St Martin School of Art,
the Royal College of Art, the Camberwell School of Art, the Slade School of Art,
and we did amazing publicity for it. Everybody was there.
# Underneath the arches
# We dream our dreams away... #
Anyway, Frank Martin left immediately.
He stormed out in the middle of it.
500 students saw this man enraged, stomping out. So they knew it was a marvellous sculpture.
If they weren't sure, that told them.
It was very good, because they rejected us,
then we knew we had to do it on our own.
# Heralding the dawn
# Sleeping when it's raining... #
What led directly to the idea of the Singing Sculptures?
We didn't do just the singing... we did every day, something different.
We did a Walking Sculpture, Singing Sculpture, the Eating Sculpture, Magazine Sculpture,
the Postal Sculpture, every day, creating a G&G world,
without having to be in a gallery. So the world... all the world...
-What did they say in the text?
-All of the world was an art gallery.
-All the world an art gallery.
That is what we did. We were able to speak to artistic people, in some way,
with the Postal Sculptures we did in '69,
sending out to collectors and stuff like that. And even, in 1970,
'71 or '72, we did a Magazine Sculpture for the Sunday Times.
We realised we couldn't be in a gallery, but we still wanted to be artists.
We were able to create a total new world. It was very exciting.
It was the Living Sculpture that led to the Singing Sculpture going to Germany,
which was an enormous success. It was the first great piece of chance luck that we had.
There was a very famous international touring exhibition, called When Attitudes Become Form,
or Live In Your Head, it was called, as well.
Wherever it went in the world, a curator was asked to add artists from that city to the exhibition.
It was coming to the ICA in London.
We knew the selector and we knew we would be included.
And to our shock and horror, he didn't invite us, we were amazed by that.
We were some of the very few artists who could be included in that show.
We were rather desperate. We were very downcast.
We thought it was a missed opportunity.
We thought that the only thing we could do about it was to be living sculptures, which we are already.
We will take ourselves to the private view and be living sculptures.
We went there, with our hands and heads covered
with multi-coloured, metallised powders.
And we stood stock-still in the middle of the opening.
We stole the show entirely.
At the end of the evening, a young man said,
"I am Konrad Fischer, you will do something for me in Dusseldorf, huh?"
The most famous art dealer of his age, and it was an invitation any artist would die for.
We went to Dusseldorf and did the Singing Sculpture, to enormous success.
It was very strange, it's a completely normal and democratic thing for the general public.
You have sculptures in museums, on plinths.
To see two men moving on a table is not unlike a sculpture.
It's called a Living Sculpture, anyway.
People of all backgrounds and age groups could stand and look at this sculpture for hours on end.
It was an enormous success.
# Underneath the arches
# On cobblestones I lay
# Every night you'll find me
# Tired out and worn... #
Three Dozen Streets, a work from 2003, is particularly significant, I think.
Because it has the names of East London streets.
That has become central to your work.
What took you to East London in the first place?
Was that just chance, luck again?
Just the cheapest place to live.
£12 a month for one floor of any building.
And you could live, work or work or live, didn't matter.
At that time, if you had a bedsit, you wouldn't be allowed to paint or sculpt in it.
If you had a studio, you wouldn't be allowed to stay overnight.
In these buildings, you could do both, very cheap.
Based on accident, we like that, whatever happens happens,
sometimes bad accidents turn out to be extraordinarily good ones.
That's what we like very much.
It became the centre of the universe, anyway.
If you get on an aeroplane or a train, sit in a restaurant anywhere in the world,
within three or four minutes, somebody says, "Brick Lane". It's quite extraordinary.
I really believe that George is the only English person in Spitalfields!
Were you regarded at that time as eccentric? Did you stand out there at all?
We have always been the favourites of the Cockney people.
They are very proud that somebody lives there.
We are not born Cockneys.
But we are settled in what they feel is the East End. They are very proud of us, in fact.
Even the Bangladeshis are quite proud of us. We feel we are honorary Cockneys,
honorary Bangladeshis, honorary Muslims, honorary Alevi Kurds now. We're close to the Alevi people.
We don't believe that eccentric means homophobic in some way.
No, I wondered about that, because you were two men living together.
The odd couple and all of this.
It is still going on, non-stop, this "eccentric". What do you mean?
It can mean anything, it can mean the way you dress.
We know roughly what it means, yes.
Were you aware of homophobia at that stage in the East End?
Of course. It is endemic to this day. Now it's only amongst the educated people, isn't it?
Ordinary people are much more liberal now than ever before.
Other artists, as they have become rich or famous, Antony Gormley,
Damien Hirst, they have bought huge houses in the country.
Have you ever been tempted to go?
No. We have everything that we want.
We are not that normal!
But you have never left the area?
No, we don't want anything.
It's very simple. We bought a house in 1973
that we did up ourselves, day and night, for five or six years.
We restored it. We were the first ones to restore one of those houses in the East End of London.
Normally, they were used as factories for Jewish immigrants, at that time.
They were making buttons, making fur coats and they were tailors.
We were the first ones to take it back to a private house, in some way.
We never wanted other properties, or holiday homes, cars or yachts.
We live very, very simply, extremely simple.
What we like most is our 45 minutes - or George, two hours - walk in the evening.
I'd never want to go and see another city.
Everything is in the brain.
We don't need to see beautiful mountains, beautiful villages,
we don't have to be inspired by the pyramids of Egypt.
Because, for us, it's all in the brain, inside.
# Bend it, bend it, just a little bit
# And take it easy, show you're liking it
# And lover, you know that we're gonna hit
# The heights, cos I'm sure that we're made to fit
# Together, just like pieces of a
# Jigsaw puzzle, what's the hustle... #
When we look back at your art now, it's clear in retrospect,
at least to me, you were constantly questioning what could be called sculptures.
So you bring in performance art, in some of those early works,
you're using charcoal... other people would say were drawings, later on, paint comes in.
Was that a conscious...?
It's one of the things that annoyed the head of sculpture. Was that a
conscious decision you were going to question what sculpture was?
We called everything sculpture in the beginning just because we had been sculpture students.
We abandoned that when we realised it wasn't so democratic, it was a
little confusing for the vast general public.
The art world liked that.
We said charcoal on paper sculptures rather than drawings.
All the paintings was a sculpture not six triptychs.
But I think we were trying to find our form and
we realised the negative image when you press the button on a camera is the most important thing.
Because if a person goes to a museum
and sees a marble naked figure and a bronze naked figure,
and then an oil painting naked figure, they won't bat an eyelid.
The tribal African naked sculptures, all fine until you see a full-sized
naked figure taken with the camera and then you are in trouble.
Because it means more, it's more truthful, more honest.
So we were always working towards that, and all of the charcoal on
paper sculpture done with a photograph and then copied, as other paintings.
But we didn't know how technically to make a large, what became a photo piece,
and now we call them pictures.
We found a way with the negative
I think that for us was more powerful than the photo piece.
For us it became the best language to speak.
Drawings means immediately art.
Painting means old fashioned art.
Even today, art still means oil painting and we tried to get away in speaking in
the modern way. We are very proud we found our own way of speaking.
There's a big exhibition at the moment in London at the Royal Academy of British sculpture.
It struck me ideally you two should be standing in there singing.
We thought they should give us at least the possibility to refuse.
I'm interested in that. Did you feel you perhaps ought to have been in that exhibition?
-I think they should have asked us.
-They should have asked, yes.
Because we broke the idea of the sculpture as an object in that way
-that it could be anything.
-Anything. It could be sound.
We're very pleased we are not in because it's quite an
horrific mess the exhibition, it seems.
It would also be quite demanding for you to spend four months standing there?
We would show a film of the singing sculpture or postal sculptures, or charcoal on paper sculptures.
Even right up until the Dirty Words pictures there's still sculpture in the wording as it says on the piece.
Even the paintings, with us in nature.
-They are a massive amount - six big triptychs.
A sculpture. They are six metres each. We just sold it this year to a museum
-that only shows sculpture - The Kroller-Muller.
-It still works.
People inevitably look for a division in the work which is how we think, of who did that and who did that?
You most remind me of the Coen brothers, the film directors.
They take the shared credit "produced and directed by Joel and Ethan".
And when they're asked who made that shot and who did that and who produces and who directs,
they say it is a pointless question.
We don't even know.
-How would you know?
-For us it is very simple, because we take images.
We both have cameras, nobody knows who took what.
I tell Gilbert what I think and feel and Gilbert tells me what he thinks and feels, so it's one big...
I mentioned the charcoal sculptures and in
about the mid-70s there was a great explosion of colour, particularly red which in fact goes right
-through your career. Again, was that a conscious decision?
It was an amazing discovery because we always say that unlike children or artists or amateur painters, we
did not start with a box of colours or a box of crayons or coloured pencils.
-We didn't have any colour, we had black and white.
-Black and white.
It took us four years to find red.
Because it felt it was connected with anger, to do with love,
to do with blood, to do with danger, to do with Communism, to do with fear, to do with sunset.
And we felt we could use red in different ways to add to the black and white.
And how long before we found yellow?
I think in 1980 we had these are four or five different colours, blue, yellow and green.
So very, very slow
to find colour.
In fact, because we always said our colours are based on meanings.
Meanings for colour, like we always used to say the yellow had a sophistication and
red is anger and blue is more, I don't know eternity.
One can make difference moods with colours.
Combined with the subject.
Another element that is there from early on is the use of words,
almost a graffiti-like element often the words used in graffiti like the words "fuck" or "cunt" in some cases.
This is what led to the suggestion from some people that you work is shocking.
You must have, you were aware those words were explosive?
They are mostly ones which also appear in the Bible and the Oxford Dictionary by the way.
I think we started with the magazine sculpture
The Shit and The Cunt
as a sort of pre-emptive strike.
It didn't matter what they called
us after that, we'd done it first.
Then we wanted to use the... We felt that the
city we were trying to show was a sort of rude word and an angry shout and things.
So we went around and took "fuck", "shit", "lick", "dick".
We thought it was an extraordinary discovery.
They're still are amazing these pictures. Communism, Smash The Reds.
It was a kind of abusiveness that we found on the walls that we felt was more real than a
nice piece of writing.
It became this more aggressive, more real and told an extraordinary story
of 1977, 78 when we started to do the first graffiti one.
It was real at that time, probably more real than all the newspapers.
Simple version of aggression.
And we always liked that, we always liked the writing behind the door.
We are still keeping that up in some way.
We always felt it must be very close to the active creativity, what
drives a person to go out and write "fuck" on the wall?
Not everyone does - very, very few people.
The driving force that makes a person do that is very close to the
force that would make somebody write a poem or paint a picture.
We don't swear ourselves.
Although one is seen as destructive and one as seen as creative generally?
Yes, but we realised at that time that that was coming to an end, that kind of anger.
And it did come to an end.
No one writes that on the walls any more.
Writing on walls or saying something on walls is a sophisticated, elaborate thing.
Although there is a lot of anger still?
Not in that way. Nobody writes "prick", "arse"
on the wall anymore. It's all gone.
You said you don't swear yourselves?
-Of course not. We're very normal.
We mentioned several times the reaction, the shocked reaction of some newspapers and some people.
Have you ever felt in retrospect you went too far?
-Is there anything you ever regretted?
-Not one second.
We know the line we want to go up to, whether we are showing in China or London or New York.
We know exactly that line.
We don't want to offend any single person in that way.
We don't want to aggress the viewer.
We don't want to say, "Look at this, you do agree with it, if not you're stupid".
A lot of artists do that. We don't do that.
Art has to be visually different. If not it's like everything else.
-It has to be different.
-We want to grab the person.
We grab the attention of the person in front of it.
Our motto is, when they see a show of ours, they have to be able to remember that show for ever
or that picture for ever.
That is why we simplify it...
..like a stencil that speaks.
When the word "Paki" appeared in one of the paintings,
to me you weren't endorsing that word,
it is a word that is used offensively and you were reflecting that.
But that did concern some viewers of it?
Yes, it's the same educated group who
would be against us using the Union Jack or using an image of a soldier.
There is nothing wrong with the word "Paki", it is the same as "Aussie" or "Brit".
There is, if it's used derogatively.
If you say "Paki bastard", yes then it's offensive. But if you say "Paki", it's not.
But it's used to denigrate a particular...
We don't agree it should be offensive. It is an abbreviation of a word isn't it?
It came from Scotland.
But it is a term with a negative racial history.
-It became negative.
-We think that's sad and we should like to rob that back, steal it back.
You were reclaiming it?
Absolutely, rather like when we did the picture Queer.
A lot of gay people
were up in arms about that.
Two years later they were having "Queer" and "Fuck" on their T-shirts
and dancing the night away.
The word "queer" was then reclaimed I think.
Yeah. There's nothing wrong inherently with the word "Paki".
-It is not dero...
It's just an abbreviation of a word.
They made it into something that it actually was not.
There were six Indo-Pak clubs for single men in our district at that time.
They've gone now because their families came over.
-I think it can be an endowment as well.
But by using that term in a painting,
a picture, to some people it is endorsing it, saying this word is...
For some people, yes. I agree with that.
If it makes people think about racism, which it did, it's very good, I think.
It brings things out from inside of people that they otherwise wouldn't think.
They won't talk about racism or Pakistani people going to see
all these silly abstract art exhibitions, will they?
It's rather good.
No, but some of your critics were accusing you of being racist.
Yeah, but we don't believe in the critics.
Did that make you uncomfortable?
Yes, it did but we don't
believe that we did something wrong.
-Subsequently you never thought, "We need to be more careful"?
I wouldn't think that.
I think we naturally have an idea of the line up to which we want to go.
One of those lines for some people was the use of bodily substances of various kinds.
Semen, blood, faeces,
some more controversial than others.
Were you aware of taking on a taboo when you did that?
Yes, we were aware. It was even difficult for us.
But at the same time, you can go into a library and find all this stuff in many, many books.
I think we did an extraordinary experiment
with that. We found out about even DNA before people commonly thought about that.
They can take one little bit of fingernail and tell all about you and your family forever.
I think the Shit, Blood, Piss and the Tears has something of that in it as well.
Indeed all the substances you use have been used in forensic science.
-In order to identify people.
Sometimes we feel we're scraping the streets of London with our fingernails, then seeing what's
inside them in the studio, underneath.
But we like very much that visual effect because they create an amazing visual effect.
There were flowers in piss,
there are daggers in sweat,
we think it's very exciting.
There's a quote from 1997 which touches on this I think. "We wanted to do art to
"be embarrassed, art that embarrasses ourselves, I think we still do that.
"We are very embarrassed sometimes of what we're doing,
"and that's a good feeling. When it hurts, then it's true for us".
We believe in that, yes.
We still... Every show is that.
As we make the pictures we always know we have a feeling of...
That's what we call creativity, really.
The only thing we can compare it with is when one's deeply attracted
to a new person, that everything else is different, not just that person.
The house and the garden, the air, the atmosphere, everything is exalted because of that feeling.
When we're in the studio creating, it's like that. We're on another plane really.
It is embarrassing. It is difficult. You would like to run away from it.
-And it's exciting.
-And it's exciting because it is that edge.
It must be like being on the front.
It is all exciting and nervous-making and at the same time...
-It's a thrill.
-..That's the best thing you can do in art.
If not, you just do boring art. It doesn't mean anything.
We know about that.
We have been anti-elitist from the day we left St Martin's.
Whilst we were at St Martin's, we were already...
We never wanted to do art for the few.
We knew that if you took the sculptures that people were making at St Martin's outside
onto the Charing Cross Road, they would lose all value immediately, no-one would notice them.
We wanted to make an art that meant something to every single person, wherever they lived in the world.
They'd look at that picture and it would speak to them in some way.
Not just London, Paris, New York, three over-educated arty twits.
Art for all. We always said art for all.
But that question of being embarrassed, so in the
pictures, for example, where you're
both standing naked in various poses,
did you ever formally discuss that?
"We are going to use ourselves in this way."
Yes, it came from using other people, probably.
We had other people naked in the pictures and then the next stage is us.
Was it, as they say in movies, a closed set?
You were just naked with each other?
Yeah, we take photographs of each other and together with a cable as well.
A timing device.
The only interesting thing is that it is known naked.
Anonymous naked means nothing.
All the magazines are full of that.
It's only if they have a photograph of the Queen
and the Duke of Edinburgh naked will the world beat a path to it.
If not, it doesn't mean anything. They all run naked through the woods.
Known naked is the key.
All these artists who have thousands of people naked, means nothing.
Do you ever think, what will people make of this lot?
-We want to be loved, that's very important.
-We all want to be loved!
-That's very important.
That's why we always have to do the next pictures. Maybe the next time they will love us, that's it.
We know we have fans out there who will love the pictures,
and we know that two or three people will be against them.
It has to be pulled against but in general, we have to be
able to do what we want and continue doing what we want
because time changes everything that we realise.
Time changes the artwork.
The best example is the Dirty Words Pictures which we created in 1977.
Most of our friends and supporters at that time thought that we'd gone over the top.
Getting a bit silly, you know? You don't need to make pictures with "prick", "arse", "cunt", "dick" in.
A bit too much, they felt.
27 years later, we showed them all together for the first time in the
Serpentine Gallery and some of those
same people were around
and came to the opening,
admiring the pictures.
We said, "Don't you remember in 1977 you said...?"
"Oh, no, we've always loved them."
The pictures had stayed the same, but the world had changed.
The world accommodated the dirty words.
The world is changing, very, very slow.
We don't even realise how slow it changes. But it is changing.
And we're all part of that. You're part of it as well.
You talked about being on the outside of the art world
but also politically, that's the case because you have spoken in the past
of being, if not Thatcherite,
then at least admirers of Margaret Thatcher, which was unusual.
-We still are.
-Of course. What do you think we are, weird?
It was seen as weird in the liberal arts world.
It's the most normal thing to vote, conservatism.
More people voted Conservative than anybody else.
I think more people voted Conservative in England than Labour.
And it's very simple because...
What do you call? Labour is part of collectivism.
We are for the freedom of the individual.
That everybody is different.
That's what we believe.
We are not all the same. That's it.
-You were Thatcherite, are you Cameroons now?
But less and less. We actually don't need politics ourselves.
I never voted in my entire life.
-You've never voted?
-Never voted, ever.
You sound surprised!
We don't need anything. It's extraordinary.
We always think that art and culture is in advance of politics.
Because people vote culturally.
You will probably vote depending on what books your parents
did or did not read, what music your mother did or did not listen to.
So in fact we're there to lead the way, to form the kind of people that will make the right kind of vote.
I think more and more we believe anyway the whole country
should just be organised by a very good company, to sort it all out.
Privatise Westminster. We always voted for that suggestion.
To make it everybody without, what do you call...
After all, it's only to sort out a way of living, you know?
That everybody has a certain... That everybody can survive in some way.
It's based on surviving, in some way.
Do you vote, George?
-And always Tory?
Yes, I'm loyal.
Loyal, loyal to the party.
We're just champagne Conservatives.
MARK LAWSON LAUGHS
Although there is a paradox, which you must have reflected on clearly, which is that many of the people who
have opposed your art have been Conservatives?
-Generally speaking, they're left wing.
The enemy, generally speaking.
The most hostility came from the left, yeah.
-Ordinary conservative people are not against artists or anything like that.
Because they don't know about art.
Very few know about art.
But if I organised a coach trip from the Tunbridge Wells Conservative
Party Society to many of your shows over the years...
-Fine group of people!
-Yes, but there would be a substantial degree of shock from a number of those.
-I don't care about that.
-The Dirty Words Pictures, there would be...
There is a moralistic side, you're quite right that it's on
-the left, there is a moralistic streak on the right.
I mean, we don't ask exactly what everybody thinks.
Why should we do that? That's like every writer now.
You have to be true to yourself and do whatever you think is right for you.
It was our late friend Daniel Farson, who tackled
Mrs Thatcher, saying is it true that she had a strong dislike of contemporary art?
She poked him in the chest and said, "With modern art, you have to look, look and look again."
-That's not bad, is it?
-Not bad at all.
Have you been invited to Chequers by any of these Conservative prime ministers?
-We've never been. We have been invited once.
-By Edward Heath.
-With Lord Salisbury.
For lunch. We met him in China when we had a big show, in 93.
That was very good. We said we wanted to...
We wanted to penetrate the viewer.
He said, "I've been trying to penetrate the British public for years!"
He was familiar with your art?
-I don't know about that, but he wanted to be supportive.
We don't ask so many questions ourselves.
-We are outsiders.
-Do you still see yourselves as outsiders?
You have had a huge retrospective at the Tate, bigger than any other living artist.
You can't still be outsiders?
We were only insiders for three months.
They never hanged a picture since.
-Do they had anything in the permanent collection?
-Not that we know of.
They have a very big collection of our art, 20 or 30 pieces.
But not on display?
No. We don't fit in.
-Does that irritate you?
-It surprises visitors.
People stop us on the street from France or Japan,
they say they've just come from the Tate Modern and there's not a picture of yours there.
Extraordinary. They expect to see one or more. We think it's wrong.
-Have you objected to them, have you written?
-We never write.
-They know that they should do that.
-They know our views.
You don't take much interest in the modern art world?
Damien, Tracey, all of these people?
We know them, they are around us.
They are on our street.
But we don't want to,
what you call, pollute our brains with other people's art.
But you know what Tracey Emin does, for example?
We know what everybody does because of the post you get - 50 invitation cards with 50 images every day.
-But we have a very good shredder!
Do you take a close interest in how much the work sells for and who owns it?
We always were the artists who didn't concentrate on upping the price all the time.
We can't have silly prices.
We try to keep it down in a way, wouldn't you say?
Yes, but we have never been involved in...
We never ask who bought it because many times it is very embarrassing
and very disappointing, so we don't want to know.
Because after all, modern art is for the rich.
And museums, but they have to borrow the money or be given the money to buy them.
Seeing an artwork of us is very difficult.
Because a lot of museums think it is too extreme, a lot of private collectors...
We always feel that 70, 85% of collectors
would not touch us because they are disturbed, they say, by our art.
It's a very limited amount of people who actually are our collectors.
That's why we are fascinated by books - that we can
subsidise and create books and everybody can buy books in a cheap way.
A lot of people who stop us on the street love our art and we say, where did you see it?
They say, in a catalogue in a friend's house.
The most ordinary place. You can buy a catalogue, you can steal it, you can lend it, you can give it.
24 hours, every day of the year.
Extraordinary form, books and catalogues.
Although art is very expensive and for the rich, the fact remains that there
are tens of millions of postcards of art works by Van Gogh and so on.
Exhibitions are largely free or inexpensive.
We would never want to know what
the price of our art is.
We make our price of the new works.
The rest we don't know. We don't care too much.
-Because you can't control it later on?
-No you cannot.
-They are sold on?
The secondary market is the secondary market.
In the last 20 years or so, on that secondary market,
-eye-watering sums, as you know, modern art has been going for.
Don't like it. I think it is much too much.
It is cheaper to buy something from 1650, it seems.
That is why we prefer big shows, instead of that.
Have you ever considered the possibility of retirement, or will you simply carry on?
Artists never retire.
It's very good because we have made ourselves more active now, with new technology.
Normally, we had to go up ladders, in the studio.
We don't even have to do that now.
In front of you, on the television,
the screen, the computer, it is like an extension of our brain.
You can do it directly into it.
For us, it is a fantastic technology.
You must have thought about this over the years.
If one of you became incapacitated, or were unavailable...
We are both incapacitated!
If one of you was not able to keep going?
We had that usual joke. Remember, George.
-Oh, that was just if you were no longer here.
This is just if you become ill or something.
We can do the one if one of you is no longer here.
You must have talked about that as well. Would the other carry on?
We can find a replacement.
-We already have one.
Our assistant, he dresses up like us already.
They always ask this question in Germany.
It's a German question. What happens when one of you dies?
And what do you say in Germany?
We always say, "Do you mean if one of us falls under a bus?
"Fear not, we always cross the road together!"
Imagine 100 years on, a book called British Art Of The 20th And 21st Centuries.
We turn to the entry on Gilbert and George. What would you like it to say?
First, we would be on the cover.
We are setting up our own foundation.
All of what we have is going to be there, like a little nest left over
with all our collections, all our books, we have thousands of books, all our designs and pictures.
All our negatives.
And a lot of pictures as well. Everything is going to be there for a while.
At the moment we are trying to raise money to...
Nothing happens until we are not here.
But our legacy will be intact.
Not in a big way. In a small way, in our houses, in Spitalfields.
It would become a museum, you hope?
-A Gilbert and George centre, it's called.
A little bit like the Soane's Museum or something.
Do you care about what people think when you are gone?
We are not in charge of that.
We try not to have opinions about things we cannot affect.
It is one of our main rules.
Because in some way, we are control freaks.
If not invitation cards, the publicity, the design of the exhibition,
is all done by us in advance.
But all art is an attempt at some kind of immortality, isn't it?
-We believe in that.
We think it's extraordinary that you just say "Charles Dickens" -
whether you have read a book or not, something fills your head.
That is the man speaking from the grave.
Another mood comes in.
That's the power of culture.
That is why people in cultivated countries tend not to kill each other.
It's a civilised way of being.
If you go to way country where there is no modern art gallery, no concert hall, no public library,
you will almost certainly need to hire a bodyguard.
You will see dead bodies on the way from the airport to the city.
I think that was the last word.
Gilbert and George, thank you very much.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Mark Lawson talks to the controversial artists and 'living sculptures' Gilbert and George about their lives and careers. Since meeting as students at St Martins School of Art in 1967, Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore have forged an extraordinary artistic partnership ranging from photo-pieces and dirty word pictures to their latest postcard exhibition. Their vivid, graphic work set out to challenge the elitist art world through universal themes of identity, sex, class and nationality.