“‘Two people doing art together? It’s very interesting but it will never last’. That’s what people said when we started out. So we had to prove them wrong. And even our biggest critics are dead now,” chuckles Gilbert Prousch, through a thick middle European accent. “We’ve always felt that our art didn’t fit in. We’ve always felt that we’ve had to prove all those dated ideas of art wrong. We’ve always wanted to say that we were the art.”
Indeed, he’s talking literally as much as figuratively. Prousch is one half of the British artist duo known as Gilbert & George. Now in their mid-70s, the iconoclasts got their big break by gatecrashing an exhibition they were not selected to show at and proceeding to stand on a podium together to sing the old London music hall song ‘Underneath the Arches’. They did this on a loop for eight hours. They were painted metallic. They called themselves ‘living sculptures’.
With the benefit of hindsight, the notion sounds a comical one and, despite the unsmiling faces the duo typically adopts for photos, Prousch and George Passmore laugh a lot. It was a notion, however, that cut completely against the received wisdom of what art was or should be at the time and it not long after won them their first gallery representation. This was the late 1960s. Passmore recalls a show they put on at college.
“The head of sculpture came in, took one look and then stamped out in rage,” he says. “And at that moment we realised that something important had happened. After that, we never looked back. But [our career together] wasn’t something we planned. It just came over us like a mood or a change in the weather. That said, certainly, we weren’t like other students at college—most were middle class with that family safety net. We both came from lower-class backgrounds so we didn’t have that and that made us more keen, more able to think in a clear way about how to become an artist. It wasn’t easy. But we’ve always believed that all the criticism has been character building.”
hey’ve come a long way since, winning international recognition most of all for the large scale, multi-panelled, stained glass-like pieces for which they’re best known, based on heavily manipulated negatives of photos they take on their walks around their east London neighbourhood of Spitalfields, and typically including self-portraits. Pieces have at times included depictions of sexual acts and various bodily fluids, with titles the likes of ‘Naked Shit Pictures’. They’ve not been shy of addressing grand, topical and touchy issues the likes of patriotism, religion and racism, often well before the same debates become mainstream. Passmore—the chattier, more avuncular of the two—calls their subject matter “the life force”.
“Content and meaning and sentiment in art still seem to be taboo. We were brought up in art schools to believe that,” adds Passmore. “You can’t look at a Degas and just see a painting of a ballet dancer these days. No, no, no, it’s the shapes in their legs and the background versus the foreground—such nonsense! It’s just eliminating content. We want our art to be visually powerful but also part of the world. We’re optimistic about the Western world, whereas a lot of artists just moan about it all the time. We always wanted to do an art that went beyond the very tight confines of the art world and it was very small then [when we started out]. We felt we had something new to say and had a new way of saying it. But we still wanted pictures on a wall. Every master in every national gallery has pictures on the walls.”
Early this year they had an exhibition at London’s esteemed White Cube gallery, then a vast retrospective at Luma Arles and another at the Helsinki Art Museum, before being selected as 2019’s guest artists at the influential BRAFA art and antiques fair in Brussels. This year they’re opening their own foundation, also in east London, to mark 50 years of working and living together since meeting on the sculpture course at London’s Central St Martin’s art college. This is, they say, a necessary step to having been overlooked by major art institutions, though one would hardly conclude that looking at their resume or their current standing.
“[They] represent much more than an icon of contemporary art,” as Harold T’Kint De Roodenbeke, the chairman of BRAFA puts it. “For every art lover they’re a part of everyday life [because] out of their apparent simplicity, this complexity emerges. Through their art our own life starts to make sense through the depiction of humanity in their work, for their vision of a borderless world. They’re not just part of the history of art but of history itself.”
Certainly Gilbert & George’s alleged provocativeness hasn’t stopped them selling either, although “the number of our collectors is limited, which of course is to be expected when we do what we do”, smiles Passmore. “Collectors [tend to] like [our] art, but they don’t want it on their walls. But if they gave their cheque books to their children, well, they’d buy us.” They sell some 20 percent of the pieces they make—and they make every day—at prices often in excess of SGD900,000; “prices sufficient that we can continue doing what we do,” says Passmore, “which is what’s important”.
Indeed, making art is all they do. They live an almost monastic existence in their giant Georgian terrace house and studio, which they bought when the area was far from aspirational. They rise at the same time every day, eat the same marmalade and toast at the same cafe, returning to their studio to work—in silence, almost telepathically—stopping work at the same time to then walk to the same Turkish restaurant, “though we take a taxi now the legs are giving up”, says Prousch. They never go to the cinema, only occasionally to the theatre. They avoid dinner dos. They don’t hobnob with other artists. Their world is essentially that of the few blocks around their home, one they claim to be home to all human life, where immigration meets the power of the capital’s financial district.
“So much of the art world exists in a bubble, never confronting actual life. But we never really liked all those dinner parties. It’s all gossip. Even now we feel uneasy if we have to attend one. All that having to talk nicely, being polite,” says Prousch. “We’ve always kept to ourselves and I think our art is more modern for that. We see life in a different way because we don’t have friends, because we don’t go out, because we’re alone, alone together. We don’t spend our time discussing life but feeling it.”
“We always wanted to do an art that went beyond the very tight confines of the art world and it was very small then.”
Indeed, they say that the less they have to think about the mundanities of everyday life, the more they’re left “totally empty-headed”, adds Passmore, the freer they are to think about their art round-the-clock. This explains the fact that, almost as famously as their art, they even dress almost identically, in tweedy three-button suits. “And we’re incredibly privileged in being able to do that, to just make art. It’s incredible freedom,” he adds. “We don’t have to answer to anybody or any organisation. We can take our pictures out into the world, unchecked. [Besides] the world just seems to be one big horrible battle now. Who wants to be part of that? But then we’ve always wanted to keep separate from that big battle: the artists fighting, the galleries fighting, the party political conflict. Everyone, it seems, is fighting now.”
Perhaps it’s been their refusal to play the art world game, perhaps their reclusiveness, perhaps simply because their art has always kicked against trends—they’ve never experimented with abstraction or minimalism, for example—perhaps because their politics have always been right-leaning (“we’re ordinary conservatives,” says Passmore) when artists have typically proclaimed for lefty causes, but it’s little surprise that Gilbert & George’s work has never been a big hit with the critics.
Conversely, it has tended to be a big hit with the public, measured by attendance at their shows, and, more anecdotally, by comment on the streets. Ask a cabbie to name a living artist, as the duo have—and, they note, it wasn’t that long ago when said cabbie wouldn’t have been able to, such has been the relatively recent turnaround of the place of contemporary art in mainstream culture—and it’s a good bet that Gilbert & George will be high on the list.
“Most people who stop us in the street—and this happens all the time—have never been to an art gallery,” says Passmore. “But the art speaks to them because it’s about life. We get these half-dead teenage drug addicts coming up to us to tell us that their mums like our art. It’s very moving really. We’re art for the disenfranchised. There’s a nice story about three collectors who came to London to see an exhibition of ours. They were in a taxi and discussing which pictures of ours they owned, which they would have liked to have bought and which they missed out on buying. One said I bought ‘Blood on Shit’ but I really wanted ‘Spunk on Tears’. And one of the others said ‘oh I really wanted ‘Spunk on Shit’.’ Then they suddenly realised the nice taxi driver was listening to their conversation so one of them leaned in and said ‘excuse me driver, I hope you don’t think we’re being vulgar people, swearing like that. We’re discussing contemporary art’. And the driver said ‘ooh, must be Gilbert and George I suppose’.”
“But the idea that our art is provocative is just a media invention,” adds Passmore. “No member of the public has ever come up to us and said ‘excuse me, aren’t you the provocative artists?’ We just don’t believe you have to exclude most of the population [from appreciation of the art]. The public wants to be challenged. But art has in some way become separated from the real world. There’s always been this huge gulf between critics and the public. There still is, not just in art, but also in music, in the movies, in the theatre. The art world is generally hostile to anyone doing anything different. It’s still the big museums and institutions that decide what the trends are and it’s trendiness that sees so many artists overlooked.”
Prousch notes how they chose to work together in part because what they were doing at the time received such criticism as to make it too much a trial for either one of them alone. Now up-and-coming artists are feted; art has entered the mainstream.
“But [although the wider] world is just an incredibly different place to what it was in 1967, I feel we’re still part of it,” says Passmore. “We’re still dealing with disconcerting truths, but ones that are inside all of us. Of course we’re also different people today to what we were in, say, 1991. So we explore how we are today. Do we think more about our mortality now? Well, not as much as we think about the opposite. And I think you know what I mean…”
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