Gilbert and George: ‘Our Art does not reflect life at all. You can’t take one of these pictures out of this house and go and find the subject somewhere. We are reforming life, showing our tomorrows, we are not showing how life is.’ Some things suddenly clarify. Sitting in a bar and then later in a gallery listening in to a conversation with novelist and cultural critic Michael Bracewell the reach of the imagination and the warm seriousness of their project touches you. .
‘We were in a Soho graveyard looking at the tombstones and reading the inscriptions. This is what people have to remember them by. All these lovely people. Simple.’ And then in the new exhibition where three walls of the gallery are covered in red and yellow framed squares of rent boy adverts you see what they’re getting at. It isn’t at all kitsch, nor is it the ‘… harsh, cold parody of ad-mass appeal – the repetition of brand images such as Campbell’s soup or Brillo or Marilyn Monroe – a star being a human brand-image – to the point that a void is seen to yawn beneath the discourse of promotion.’ This famous attack by Robert Hughes on Andy Warhol is an attack critics like to throw at Gilbert and George too. But the critics miss the point and don’t go deep enough into themselves to hook up with this stuff. .
Because here we are asked to look again at the ads and recognise in them the qualities of tombstone memorials. And suddenly the whole project is one about death and memory, about recognising people for truths we walk past and don’t like to see, for catching the ‘loveliness’ of being alive in statements that are transformed from mere ads into acts of love and acts of respect. There is no irony anywhere. There is no joke in this. .
‘Well, there’s the artist who does it for himself and the artist who wants to make a happy life, do good pictures and become respected and have a nice holiday house, nice friends, nice meals. Unlike artists who work by ripping from inside themselves and chucking it on the wall and getting damaged in the process. To run the risk of damaging yourself as an artist is the way to get something so truthful that a lady stops you in the street and nearly sobs when she tells you about some piece you’ve actually forgotten,’ explains George. .
‘When we were doing the shit and sperm pieces we were being filmed for some Channel Four programme and the director, he kept saying as we were doing all this stuff with our turds and sperm ‘you must be having such a laugh and having so much fun with all this.’ And we kept saying to him that we weren’t and that actually it was all rather difficult and serious but we had to do it. And then one evening this director had to go to the hospital where his sister she was dying of leukaemia. And she was in a coma and the nurses said that they were going to have to clean her and asked him to leave but he said he would stay because it was his sister. And the next day he came back and was completely changed. Because he had seen into what we were doing and that this was serious and it was a serious subject.’ .
The failure of critics to get this is instructive of many things, both about the current art scene and the social/political scene too. When an esteemed critic such as Hilton Kramer can organise his response to Gilbert and George in terms of ‘…the works of Frederic Leighton, Adolphe William Bourguereau, Franz Xavier Winterhalter, and other academic horrors of the nineteenth century salon..’ the calculated insult, the depth-charged sneer disguised as hard-won lament, is both art and social snobbery. And though Gilbert and George are, in their own words, ‘ the weirdest people they’ve ever met,’ they are not snobs in either of those senses. .
They tell a story of some art gallery organiser in the 70’s holding his head in his hands. Our two heroes asked the poor fellow what the problem was and the guy looked at them and revealed that the cleaning woman had just told him that she liked the show. Here is the very opposite of their own views on art and the world. They want the cleaning lady to enjoy their work – they really couldn’t care a toss for the critics and the art world people at all. These are London workers – albeit multi-millionaires by now – still living in their house in Fournier Street, a place where they have lived for the last thirty or so years, making their strange, beautiful works for the rest of us to respond to. Like Blake, doing all the work themselves, like Blake working some craft, like Blake hiring no assistants, like Blake Londoners with a visionary understanding of the imagination, like Blake opposed to the art snobs and social snobs, riding on red buses and never eating in, doing art for the people on those bus and in those cafés. .
And they want a real response, they want people to see the sadness, to feel real feelings – they don’t want clever, up-its-own-arse art comments. They gave up drawing for that reason – they hated the way everyone would go on about the way the ‘ charcoal line mixes with the coarse texture of the paper…’ and so on – George explains -‘We had thought we were busy making pictures which were saying something to the viewer, not saying something about charcoal on paper.’
‘We want to be able to freeze thought in a way, to stop the watch, to make a frozen moment of feeling. If you walk across London bridge in a morning, you’ll probably pass a thousand people, but won’t be able to describe one single person. But if someone stops you and takes your arm, and says, ‘Excuse me, I want to say something to you,’ you will remember that for years, maybe for ever.’ .
They are alive to the place they’re in, to their times – sitting in the bar before the public talk their first comment is about the race riots in the North of England – they relate it to certain things that happened in the eighties in Fournier Street. Nazis, the Anti Nazi League – trouble. And they are a single artist – they insist that Gilbert and George is one artist, two people – it’s not a collaboration. During the discussion with Bracewell at the White Cube Gallery Tracy Emin asks about this.
‘Well, when a single person artist asks: ‘ should I do this? there’s no response but when we do it the other person will answer at once.’ It’s a reply to which the audience laughs but there’s again a touching seriousness about this complex, strange-as-hell relationship which you trust. .
Again, you return to the exhibition and read each ad, you read them one by one, carefully now. Because you realise that the phone numbers are real and that there is someone, a real person not a work of art, isolated at the end of the line. It’s a delicate relationship they’ve set up between the work of the imagination and the world, one deeply sympathetic to the resources of other people and other people’s imaginations, one in love with an art that seems a spooky continuation of Blake’s own, and one that helps us understand how death and sex and loneliness are part of everybody’s life. .
‘So why frame this stuff in red and yellow?’ asks someone from the audience. .
‘They seem the most unartistic colours we could use,’ replies George. So the only irony left is right here, in this exclusive art gathering where we find Gilbert and George very politely, very amusingly, very wittily asking everyone to stop being so precious. ‘Let out your imaginations and let everyone in,’ they seem to be saying, and in their work, saying it beautifully. .