“Art looks pretty much the same in any city you go to,” the Californian artist John Baldessari said recently. But if art has indeed been stripped of its localism, then no one told Gilbert & George. Their most recent work, collected together in London Pictures – the show that sprawls across White Cube galleries globally this year – couldn’t be more local to them. Made up from boards scrawled with Evening Standard headlines that feature the most common words – BOMB, MURDER, STABBING, BURGLAR, CRACK – the work gives a public face to a very real discussion in Britain: a fallen empire at war with itself.
They seek to distill London’s shrieking. “For us, it’s interesting because posters only live for one day but we are able to freeze them in some extraordinary way. They are talking about amazing subjects like suicide, rape, OAPs, attack. It becomes like a townscape. It’s brutal, but so is the news on television.” The pair spent six years collecting 3,712 posters, stealing them when nobody was looking – the danger of theft was indeed part of the art. “When we were in the process of creating the designs for London Pictures, they went right through us. It was an extraordinary feeling, as though they were coming through our bodies, through our toes and out through our hands. Sexually, emotionally, intellectually, fearing the pictures, loving the subjects – being scared of this vile world we live in and wondering how complicit we all are. The world that is represented in these pictures is to do with all of us, not just one person who arranged that world. Every single one of us here today had a part in arranging events like that.”
On the evening they finished designing the 292 pictures, they headed to their favourite restaurant, Mangal in Dalston. “We were so excited that we thought we would celebrate, go somewhere special and have a fantastic dinner. We were exhausted and emotional so we went to our usual restaurant where we always go when we’re alone. As we were finishing our meal, our favourite waiter came up and said, ‘Please gentlemen, can you just go, go, leave.’ I said, ‘I beg your pardon, we haven’t even had coffee yet.’ He said, ‘Look! Look!’ We looked out the window and there were 500 young people running down the middle of the street with a police van behind them, and then suddenly there was a bus on fire around the corner – it was the night of the riots.
Throughout the interview, Gilbert & George sit upright in the way you imagine they must do every day over breakfast, dinner, in the back of a cab; George’s polite vicar-like smile, Gilbert’s sweet eyes, and their unflappable dapperness. Their demeanor certainly does not allude to their reputation for making art out of their own blood, semen and faeces, about subjects like far right extremism and gay sex. But such has been the wonderful balance of the pair since George Passmore from Plymouth and Gilbert Proesch from northeast Italy first emerged as Gilbert & George. The “Singing Sculpture” in 1970 was their first major work after uniting through a strained relationship with their shared place of study, St Martins School of Art, in which they sang along to a recording of Flanegan and Allen’s song, “Underneath the Arches”. “‘The ‘Singing Sculpture’ was a pure creative act,” says George. “There was no reason behind it. It elevated our feelings, rather like when somebody is sexually attracted to, or feels romantically involved with another person. Everything else is different: food tastes different, the light looks different, colours look different and creating art, being on a level – a higher level – is an extraordinary feeling. It’s like we’re floating and that does depend, as far as we know, on being normal and weird at the same time. Neither one of those alone works, but being weird and normal together gives you an amazing ability and an amazing power.”
Read more of our exclusive interview and Art in the East End feature in Issue Two of The Hunger, on sale now.
Look out for more of our Art in the East End interviews, coming soon to hungertv.com
See more of Gilbert & George’s work on the White Cube website.