Selected Interview: Gilbert & George
Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Gilbert and George
Two people, one artist, how have you managed it for 34 years?
Gilbert: Because we never ask that question ourselves.
George: And we never argue. We don’t believe in discussing or planning or in ideas. How we are as people when we go to the studio is how the pictures will be. They’re never based on ideas from the head.
Gilbert: And we had this amazing determination when we start in 69 that we wanted to be artists. And I was from what they call the Dolomites, I couldn’t speak English very well, and George was from Devon, and he showed me London and we wanted to be artists together, and it was an amazing vision for us. And we never lost that vision, we still have that every single day. Nothing has changed in that way, the ambition that we want to be artists.
George: And we do believe that being war babies was an enormous thing for us because I remember as a child that everything was broken, families were broken, people were injured, many people were dead. Houses were filled with furniture which was damaged. And you knew one thing and one thing only, that things would get better. And our generation really believed in that, that you had to get up and sort everything out and go forward and do it.
Gilbert: And maybe because when we start in 68, 67/68, we tried to do something different. And we always believe in accidents, we never believe in what they call searching, we always believe in a dream or something that we fell into it. And so we one day decided that we should become a sculpture that feels the pain, not only the surface that we were able to speak, we were able to express ourself [sic]. And that was totally different than the other sculptors because they only had a surface.
You must have known one another for a certain amount of time before you came together, how long was that period and when did each of you begin to realise that what you wanted to do was to work together absolutely?
George: We weren’t conscious of that, we never believed that we decided on it or thought it out or discussed that. We feel more that it was something that came over us, like a cloud that came over us, as though somebody else did it to us.
Did your colleagues think that you were serious?
George: Oh at St Martins we were taken very seriously, almost as a threat really because the style of art that was current then was formalistic art, it was to do with colour, shape, form, weight, and you discussed art in those terms, you never discussed feeling, meanings, sex, race, religion, money, none of those things came into the discussion about art. It was just another language, the language of sculpture. And we thought that was wrong, because if you took those sculptures out of the building of St Martin’s School of Art into the street they wouldn’t address the issues that were inside of all the people on the street, they wouldn’t even identify them as art.
And those issues you saw as what?
George: We felt that everyone was very… we still believe that people are very, very complex. If we speak to young people in our neighbourhood they talk about employment, sex, race, religion, all these things are enormously important, and drugs, there’s an enormous problem now with young people in the East End of London.
Gilbert: Yes we do believe that in 69, through the idea of making a more emotional art we managed to finish off St Martin’s School of Art for 30 years.
Because they couldn’t resolve the tension between the formalism of the teaching and the emotion that was bubbling up inside not just you…
Gilbert: Not only us, a lot of other artists, and we do believe that after the St Martin , the sculpture department fell apart for many, many, many years and moved over to another kind of school.
Were there any other students who you got on with, or did you feel yourselves very isolated. You say you were taken seriously but you were also seen as a threat?
George: We were part of a very elite group of students on the top floor of the school, it was an unofficial course. County Hall, which controlled all these art schools didn’t even know that course existed.
County Hall, that was the local authority I should just explain, yes.
George: Exactly. And Frank Martin who ran that course ran it as a sort of personal hobby and it was very, very overstaffed with tutors and people could come from anywhere in the world and just join the course without filling in forms or showing their work or anything. And we did feel very, very special about it…
Gilbert: Superior .
George: We never… we never even visited the painting department, for instance, we didn’t even know where it was. Long after we left St Martin’s people said, what sort of painting was going on at St Martin ‘s when you were there, we said, ‘no idea, never even went there.’
Gilbert: I mean there were a group of artists like Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, Barry Flanagan, Bruce McLean, many, many like that, and we did feel superior, we felt we were able to understand a new vision for art and it did change, art did change.
George: And we felt very much that the work that was going on at St Martins by the tutors would never become interesting or more interesting for people. You could have shows of it all over the world, it would never grow, it could never become something. It was limited by its formality.
It’s very interesting what you say about emotion, because there are three very different people, artists of different kinds who I’ve met in the last six weeks, John Adams the composer, Bill Viola the video artist, and now you, all of whom are saying, the important thing about art is not the form and the structure it is emotion, and that what I am doing is to release emotion.
George: And meaning, yes. That was extraordinary for us because when we left St Martin ‘s there were 4 or 5 art galleries in the world, modern ones. There was one in Amsterdam , one in Dusseldorf , one in London , one in New York , one in Italy , one in Belgium , where we could exhibit our works, there wasn’t a great choice of galleries as you have now. And all of those galleries specialised in minimal abstract art and concept. So everything had to be either on a sheet of paper or it had to be wood or coal or lead, and it had to be true to materials. And the bad things in art then were emotion, colour, sentiment, feeling, sexuality, all those were taboo.
Gilbert: And we felt we were always on the outside in those galleries, we felt we were never in the centre, but the centre was a blank canvas, or a circle or line, that was the centre, and we were the… the what they call, the randy outside. And I remember so well Konrad Fischer this quite famous art dealer in Dusseldorf , he used to say, oh I love you, and we’d go out and drink the whole night away, but you are something different. We were something different. But the art world changed. We are in the centre now.
George: We stayed still and the art world moved in a way that we became more central.
They’ve been desperately trying to co-opt you haven’t they, I mean over the 34 years people have been trying to include you in and say you’re part of this school or part of that school.
George: Of many, many movements, yes.
George: Movements long forgotten.
George: But you, you can imagine in those galleries at that time that any art that addressed the vast general public was regarded as an embarrassment almost, it had to be just for the elite international few. And we always remember when we had out first show in Dusseldorf and we had an extremely successful opening and private view and lots of drinks and things, a big night of partying. And then we went into the gallery in the morning and the lady was just finishing cleaning away the bottles and corks and things, and the director of the gallery was sitting there looking very, very grumpy and depressed. And we said, hangover? No, no, no, he didn’t have a hangover. We said, what’s the matter? And he said, ‘oh, the cleaning lady, she likes your exhibition’. [laughs], it’s a very, very 70’s story.
Yes, yes, that’s a giveaway. Now you have lived in Fournier Street in Spitalfields, the Bangladeshi immigrant area, I mean George moved there first, it’s now your home, it’s been your home ever since, what did you like it about it, what do you like about it?
George: At the time we moved in of course it wasn’t the Bangladeshi street it was the Jewish quarter. All the shops, our newsagent, the tobacconist, the restaurants, the cafes, were all Jewish. And then it became Somali for a while, for a year and a half a lot of Somali people moved in with beautiful filed teeth. And then it became Maltese, very briefly. Directly opposite our house now on Fournier Street there was a Maltese café where we had beautiful food I remember, extraordinary.
But what did you like about this?
Gilbert: Well George moved there in 1974 because it was… 64 because it was very cheap and we were able to have half studio and half living, and it was quite unusual that we were able because they were… it was like a ghetto district and very romantic in some funny way. The first time I went to the East End of London and I thought it was just extraordinary, it felt to me like moving into a book, in a 19th Century book, all these yellow lights, all these old fashioned houses, 18th Century houses, it was a magic, like magic.
Gilbert: We still love it. I mean we don’t want to know exactly what is going on because we know that we cannot change anything, so we love it. I mean there are a lot of people say oh my god all these trendy people are moving in, but I don’t care about that, living is living.
George: It’s very interesting, for 15 years all the journalists used to say, now that you’re successful artists why don’t you move to a nicer part of London, and for the last 15 years they’ve said, oh it’s become so trendy isn’t it time you moved on. So they always wanted us to leave. I mean we always felt that it was dangerous, it was rough, it was romantic, and London was at that time, much more dangerous than it is now in many ways, we feel that. But we felt that we were at the centre of the universe. We had the most marvellous night life in those days, all the European and American people who came to London felt that London and Britain was falling to pieces, that it was all very wretched and collapsing into anarchy. And we saw that, but at the same time we thought it was the most actual place in the world, it was more modern than anywhere else.
Now from that environment, or from that time, the Singing Sculpture evolved. How did it evolve?
Gilbert: It evolved because we were absolutely alone with nothing to do, and we wanted to be artists, but we’d just left St Martin’s School of Art and nobody would touch us in a million years.
George: We went to every single gallery in London , even the ones we’d never heard of just to say that we’d been to every gallery. We just got the list, so even galleries near Sloane Street or galleries that didn’t even show modern art, we went to, we presented an idea of our intentions for the future as artists, and said, you know, we’d like to offer an exhibition and they all said, no, and we felt enormously proud. We thought we really are doing something amazing …we’re doing the right thing…. everybody says no.
What… what were you offering them, I mean you weren’t offering them the singing sculpture?
Gilbert: Oh yes, even that.
You were, I see?
Gilbert: Oh yes, we were offering them full of different ideas.
George: We went to the Tate and we said we would like to present a living sculpture called A Christmas Piece, where we’d already organised with the RSPCA to borrow animals and we would recreate the birth of Jesus in the entrance to the Tate. And we would stand there as two living figures. It didn’t occur to us that… that maybe wasn’t very right, we would be Mary and Joseph in a way, and there wouldn’t have been a baby but there would be the animals. And of course again they turned it down. But then we had two enormous pieces of luck, I must say, because there was an exhibition travelling around the world called, When Attitude Becomes Form, and every city it arrived in the local curator was invited to add artists to that exhibition. And it was coming to the ICA in London and we were so excited we were going to be in this group show, and then much to our amazement the selector, who we knew, didn’t select us and we were horrified and we felt completely miserable about it, and we felt the only thing we could do was to be a living sculpture at the opening. So we went to the opening and stood there with these multicoloured bronze heads and hands…
Gilbert: In the middle of the room…
George: In the middle of the exhibition, completely still for the whole evening, and it stole the show entirely.
Did it take a lot of guts?
George: Did it take a lot of guts? No, I don’t… I think we just felt it was the only possibility and we had to seize that moment, if not it would be lost. And then during that evening a young man came up to us and said, I am Konrad Fischer, you do something with me in Dusseldorf , uh? And that was the most famous art dealer in the world at that time. Every artist would cut their legs off to join that gallery, and he was asking us to do it.
Gilbert: But we were trying to go towards the music world as well, the pop world.
Hence the Singing Sculpture?
Gilbert: Yes. And we went to the Marquee and we did one evening there and we did full of other stuff. We were not sure if we were going towards music or art.
And it could have gone either way?
Gilbert: Yes, it could have gone either way.
And then the Red Sculpture, that was a bit further on, that was 1976… your hands, and faces painted red, and a very elaborate 90 minute choreographic movement imitating marionettes?
George: Very severe… very severe work that one.
Gilbert: It was very interesting, like the singing sculpture, all the sculptures now, like we were they… doing this 8 hours non-stop. We went on the table and did it for 8 hours and everybody told us, how could you do that, how can you do that without, what they call, having lunch or having tea or going to the toilet. But they didn’t realise that they were staying there in front of us for 8 hour non-…. many, just the same, even more emotional crying in front of it, they felt all their life was… was coming down in front of them. There were many people that were totally emotionally crying. But that’s what the idea to make a living art that was not only on the surface, that it was speaking, that was the idea.
But the Red, the Red Sculpture, what sort of evolution from the singing sculpture was that?
George: It’s much more internal and much more complex in terms of content. The singing sculpture was more of… like a waterfall that you watched and watched and watched.
Gilbert: And that all had more like bloody life in dusty corners, no. They were all symbols that we had…repeated phrases….like ‘bloody life’ and ‘dusty corners’, again and again. It was for an hour and a half long the whole piece, and all these slogans that we try to make them think about life.
George: But you have that same effect strangely… like now we just came back from Lisbon and you just see these rooms full of young people completely eating the pictures off the wall, just talking together in huge groups.
What do you think they see in them. I mean do you talk to them at an exhibition like that?
George : Sometimes when we have an opening we have a little contact with the vast general public and then we leave of course and come back to the studio
But what do you think that they said that they see in them because…
Gilbert: They see freedom, I really believe that. It’s very funny because we met… 2-3 days ago a girl knocked on our door and she was from Lisbon but she’s studying here and she wanted to come and work for us, because she saw the show and she was so in love with all this expression, but they’re expression that free them, because they want to run away from their father, the city, they want to liberate them, and in our work they see a certain liberation. Sexual liberation, full of other liberations.
Well I suppose, you know, Paula Rego’s work about abortion in Portugal, now that is very issue-based and that is very, very focused, but the sense of liberating her people from political and legislative oppression, and clearly she gets a tremendous response when she isn’t banned.
George: Of course, I mean we realise that because we had an exhibition in Athens which preceded the one in Portugal and both of those museums were very interesting, they didn’t discuss any picture not being in the show. You had total freedom that you cannot have in London , Paris and New York , in Athens and in Lisbon . And that is because for those people to say, maybe we shouldn’t have this picture, or, it’s a little excessive or something, would be like going back to the old days of the regime, yes. So they’re bending over backwards to be more modern than anywhere else. It’s quite refreshing.
Are you saying that there are works in London … I mean your Hayward Show was a big one, works which either the curators excluded or you yourselves excluded because you thought that they would not be acceptable to the London audience, even the sophisticated London audience?
Gilbert: Oh yes. I mean even in Paris …
George: We had enormous trouble in the Serpentine, there was a group show in the Serpentine and we wanted to put one or two of the Naked Shit pictures in, and there was an enormous row, they absolutely refused to show one of them. And we’ve shown that picture in many, many countries.
Gilbert: But 5 months later we showed them all at South London Gallery, but the South London Gallery is a gallery that was totally unfamous, but it became totally famous with that show.
But you are going to show all your… I think works with all the ‘objectionable four-letter words’ in them, at the Serpentine in a few months time.
George: That’s very exciting in June of this year we will be showing for the first time ever the whole 26 Dirty Words pictures. They were never shown together. We created them, we showed some in Holland , some in Germany and some in New York , and in June they will be together for the first time, and that’s quite exciting I must say. They’re 25 years old, it’s Her Majesty’s Golden Jubilee, it’s the Dirty Words Silver Jubilee.
But do you really think that people need to be liberated from our fears about four-letter words?
George: We do… we do…
You think you need to feel liberated or the audience do?
Gilbert: Oh yes.
George: We don’t think that we’re free and we’re helping the audience, we feel that together with the viewer we’re doing it, we’re walking down life’s road hand in hand with the viewer. We don’t know exactly what we do when we make a picture, it’s only when it’s finished and it starts to be exhibited that we begin to feel what we were actually trying to say in that picture. We’re not that conscious.
Gilbert: We’re not so conscious… even when we do this kind of show we are not doing them totally deliberate because I think it’s so like we are like schizophrenic, like we don’t know exactly what’s going on, that we are pro and against it the whole time. And even like the Dirty Words, if you look back they create this extraordinary feeling of the anarchy that was going on in England and this aggression that was inside a lot of people. And we didn’t write those words on the walls, we don’t swear. And so we were able to create this subconscious landscape that is very, very, very powerful and is of that time.
Where do you pick up your references, I mean you imply – after all you live in the world like the rest of us – that you are absorbing what’s going on in the world. Where do you get your raw material from?
George: We don’t… we don’t feel that way that we’re showing life or reflecting life in that way, we like to think that we’re forming our tomorrows, that we’re making pictures that don’t exist in reality, that maybe tomorrow will be a little bit more like our pictures than it would otherwise.
Gilbert: And we feel we’re getting them all around us. We always say, our subjects you can get 100 metres away from our house, and even like all these religious feelings that we feel that we have to liberate ourselves. Personally I’ve felt I always had to liberate myself of being a Catholic man …And because up and down Brick Lane you see this amazing confrontation between East and West, the Muslims and the Christians, on every lamp post, stickers day and night, it’s extraordinary. This battle of religions… religious feelings. For us it’s very exciting.
George: Sometimes you have the call to prayer at the same time as bell practice at the other end of the street, that’s extraordinary.
But that’s wonderful…
George: Beautiful…..We love that, we love that.
I mean that’s not antithetical, it is… it’s about prayer isn’t it?
George: And we think that’s a very world thing, that we can see stickers on the way to breakfast on the lamp posts which say, Jews and Christians, why don’t you just give it up, do not die in ignorance, give it up, don’t be silly. We think that’s extraordinary. And we think it’s amazing that nobody actually bothers with those stickers. Until September 11th there were thousands of stickers all the way along Brick Lane , they were all removed overnight after that.
Gilbert: And sexual frustration.
George: Which is also on the street, all the time.
Gilbert: I think that’s an amazing subject.
Oh you mean all the cards for prostitutes in telephone boxes…
Gilbert: No, no, no, hidden… hidden sexuality.
How does that show itself?
Gilbert: Hidden sexuality like what do you call, if somebody feels he is gay or he is that and that and that, they’re all writing it on the wall because he’s terrified that if mother knows it or father knows it, or the vicar is sending to the dungeon… all that stuff.
George: Especially with written text. What makes a person write these things on the wall is extraordinary, all the incestuous ones around us because it’s a Muslim community, sex your mum, sex my dad, sex your sister, extraordinary. There’s very few people who actually go out and write sexual things on the wall, but it must be an amazing driving force. Or people write on the back of a white van in the dust, this van is nearly as dirty as my wife last night, she, da, da, da, da, da. It’s extraordinary the power inside a person to make them do that.
Yes, if you think this van is dirty you should spend a night with the driver.
George: Very good, that’s a good one, that’s a good one.
Oh that’s real, that’s real, that’s free. Let’s just roll back a little bit to the philosophy which underlines this. Art for all is the flag that you have flown under, but, you know, you show in galleries, fine, most people don’t go to galleries. Most of the ways in which you can show your art are not available to all. So how do you square the desire to do art for all with the available places where you could express it?
George: Well first of all we must say that more people go to more exhibitions now than ever before in the whole history of mankind, it’s quite extraordinary the world over. Modern art has never been more famous than now. In the 70’s we always used to say that you could walk from our house in Fournier Street to Marble Arch and ask every person you passed, to name a living artist and they wouldn’t be able to. They would be able to name a living killer, a living politician, a living musician, a living sports person, but not a living artist. And that has changed, everybody in London knows the name of 2, 3, 4, 5, living artists, it’s quite an improvement.
Gilbert: I mean we always try to make an art that is confrontational, that is visual confrontational, it had to be visual, that everybody is able to read it. I think that’s what we would call art for all, that it’s not elitist, that you, what you call, like you will read a letter, you read it you understand, you like it or not, that is up to them. That’s how we always did that, we always try to promote our art, we used to leaflet in Liverpool Street station in 69, we used to give away cigarettes to make them come, and we were always very concentrated on making cheap publications that people could read and even to make an appearance always, all the news we were doing, all the interviews, that you are able to create an atmosphere that they don’t have to be in the gallery, they just have to hear the words, and that’s how we did it.
George: And we still have to do that when we have exhibitions in Athens recently, or in Lisbon now, we still have to persuade the directors of the museums and the press department to do it in our way, in a more democratic way. We feel we have a more general understanding of how the public can come to see an exhibition who normally wouldn’t. In Lisbon , I mean we had the front pages of the two national papers in Portugal , that’s extraordinary. The Euro was pushed to one side and the Taliban the other side, and a huge image of ourselves saying, come to see this exhibition.
Gilbert: And there has to be a certain provocation, you have to be questioning what is there as art, then you are able even to stimulate the viewer. You have to question what is in front of you, all the time.
Is one of the things though that you’re saying that you don’t go in for obscure symbols. I mean by and large you use the human being, yourselves or other people, in an absolutely recognisable form, not distorted, not in any way transformed, vegetable life, even the countryside from time to time, the cityscape. So from that point of view every single image that you use, sexual organs, anything like that, are completely readable, familiar, and available to everybody.
George: And then we can be more complex by that use, then it becomes more elaborate. No we never like the idea of the artist using a language which excludes 99% of the world’s population, we don’t think it’s necessary. That it’s only white people in London, Paris and New York in certain boroughs who would even understand the work, we think that’s so elitist and cruel to the vast general public.
How did you come to the idea of a form in which your photo pieces and your fixed wall pieces, you’ve been working on them for over 20 years now I think, what made you think that this use of an overtly, very rigid fixed grid was going to be something which was going to enable you to develop and then to become very free with your forms later?
George: I think the language changed, the visual language changed as we went along, unlike children or artists or amateur artists, we didn’t start off with the canvas and the box of colours, we came from sculpture, so we had to find a way of making the art work. We didn’t have a form ready made from college.
Gilbert: Because we tried out at the beginning to do drawings, and everybody loved those drawing so much we thought oh my god there must be something wrong with that now, because they only like our aesthetics of the hand, and we think, why should the hand be important in art, the vision has to be important. So that’s why we changed very, very slowly into a new way of making art through the lens, but at the beginning 30 years ago we didn’t know how to create a big image out of negatives, nobody did that before.
Did you in fact enjoy using charcoal and the drawing,
because those country pieces, I mean they are beautiful, they are lyrical, but I can quite see that you’d regard them as being well within a very orthodox aesthetic.
George: Yes, even those were based on the negative image because we took a photograph and then copied the photograph with the charcoal.
Gilbert: And not only that, we made them old, we made them specially old that it looked like maybe we found them in a, a 14th century house, and oh my god G & G are already there. And that’s how we did them [over-talking]
George: We wanted to be established.
Gilbert: …established, that… again we tried to make them that we didn’t do them, they existed. But then we created… started to create this new idea with photo pieces and we pushed them together and we’d scatter further… all scattered round the wall to create a bigger piece, and then we are trying to push them together and make them into a shape, into a square or rectangle. And then we realised that the grid was very good in making compositions, because you are restricted, and that’s very good, you are not totally free, and we believe that’s very good that you are not totally free. So we were able to make amazing compositions and we always say our art is campaigning art, we are not trying to make a beautiful picture we are trying to… to provoke, campaigning, have ideas and that’s it.
But of course there’s been a big evolution from your earliest grid pictures where on the whole one square or rectangle has one image in it and it is arranged in a very ordered way. And then you suddenly discovered that you could spread the image across different boxes, so it’s a big step isn’t it?
George: I think there are two… I think there are two developments, one is the visual language that we were able to be more complex technically, and as we grew up, as we felt different, thought different, behaved different, we went through many different emotions and feelings ourselves.
How complicated are they to make. Each one of your wall pieces, photo images, they are one single piece, they’re not…
George: They never… they never start off as one single piece, they’re all done subject by subject. So each subject is another negative and that’s superimposed into the picture. And it’s very, very laborious.
Gilbert: All the subjects are taken against black, and every subject has a negative, and every subject is being cut in on the same, we are shooting on top of the same paper many, many different images, so we have to cover some parts, all done in the dark room. It’s extraordinarily laborious. And then we colour it by hand, that’s why we only make one each.
You must have technical assistants?
George: We have a few assistants at the last stage of making the pictures when we colour them, in order that we can both do colouring. So it speeds up the job a little, so they carry them around and help with the donkey work of it. But when we are making the pictures in the studio then we’re totally alone.
What did you have to learn to become this good at what is, I suppose, a fairly sophisticated technology?
George: Well we just trained ourselves as we went along, just experimented.
Gilbert: Driven to making more and more powerful images, but now we want to change maybe, because we realise that they were done with enlargers, and now we are trying to arrange them with scanners, but the scanners are just now good enough, they didn’t used to be as good as an enlarger, but now maybe they are going to be as good as enlargers, so we would be able to scan them and do them on the computer, the cutting in and that…
George: We wouldn’t even need to have a photographic process anymore, you could actually take the image digitally… or we can take it even photographically and scan that image as well. And we could have a printout machine so you wouldn’t have to do all this dipping into the chemicals.
Gilbert: And all the colours we can combine…
George: Colours we wouldn’t have to do by hand…
Gilbert: We could combine black and white and full colour totally, it could be a revolution for us.
But there’s no room in the processes you now have for second thoughts, you can’t go back and say, I don’t like that…
George: No, absolutely not. Once the original drawing is done you are fixed forever, you cannot control it because the paper is blank until the picture is finished. We can’t dip the picture until all the subjects are in.
So if you get something wrong…back to square one.
George: We’d be absolutely wrecked, yes. But we’ve never got anything wrong so far.
Gilbert: It’s all based on numbers on the back. We always have, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 , 10, .
But… did I hear you rightly, that you hardly ever have to throw a work away because you’ve got something wrong?
George: We never did that, never that, never one.
No second thoughts?
George: No, never, not one. We say that how we are that day made us do that picture and we have to respect that. If you have another thought that’s another picture then, it would be another one.
Gilbert: What we are, that’s what we are and that’s it, we accept it totally. We never change our mind about that.
What’s your working day?
George: When we’re actually creating the pictures it’s a very, very heavy day. We get up at 6, the cafes near us open at 6. Have a quick breakfast and we start and we work normally around the clock or a little bit more, but never less.
Gilbert: But it depends what we are doing. If we are taking images, we have to be creative, so we have to be loose, we have to dream more. And we… it cannot be rigid, no, because we have to feel the world. And then even when we do the design we have to be totally free, we always jump in and out of the studio, back in the street, walk up and down, come back in again, do another drawing, run out again… that’s how we do it, like we always say we are doing it like being in a black bag. We don’t want to know, that’s our motto always, don’t know, we’re just feeling it. But then once the designs are done, the initial design, then we never change, and after that it’s only making it, and making it we are doing it many, many hours, we do 8 hours, 9 hours a day.
George: But that’s just work really…
Do you only work on one photo, be it your wall piece at a time, or do you have a number on the go at the same time?
George: We will work on the whole exhibition, and when one picture is finished they will all be finished. So we do the first thing to each of those pictures, the second thing to all of those pictures, third thing, and then in one magic day they are all finished at the same time.
How large is your dark room, your studio?
George: Oh we have an enormous studio, we have three studios in fact. We have a studio behind our house, a studio behind the house next door and a studio behind the house next door to the one next door.
So it’s not that you think of one wall piece at a time, you are thinking of an entire show?
Gilbert: Oh yes.
George: Absolutely, yes. And we never work on the whole picture, we only work on a panel at a time, yes, each panel is separate.
Can you see yourselves changing from the form of expression of the grid-like boxes?
Gilbert: I mean through these new idea with scanners and computers I think we could go much farther. But I mean we like our expression, we like the imagery, we like what you call visual language. We want to keep to that, very much so.
George: We like the rectangular classical picture on the wall, we think that’s a very, very democratic, normal, fantastic thing, and within that we can be very complex and very anarchic or aggressive. But we like the respectable form. We don’t like for ourselves to have an eccentric form that will alienate a lot of people.
And what happens when you are not working and you are not collecting images, what do you do, what sort of state are you in? I mean presumably you’re constantly receptive to the world around you and what’s going on?
Gilbert: Oh we are designing shows, like at the moment. We are designing shows, we’re giving interviews, we are designing books, and that’s an amazing activity.
And of course you’ve got a huge archive haven’t you, I mean you’ve…
George: We were going into the archive this morning with the people from the Serpentine because they’re trying to research how the Dirty Words pictures were seen at the time they were created and how they’re seen now. Because we remember that when we did those pictures many friends in the art world around us thought that we’d gone completely crazy, that this was a little excessive just to take these very rough words from the streets. And many, they really didn’t like those pictures, but those same people today say that they love the Dirty Words pictures. And when you say hey, hang on, I remember you saying… ‘oh no, no, no, I always loved them.’ I’m sure they genuinely believe…
And do the people who say that they love them, are they the ones who you think might buy them or did they ever buy them, or is it a question of, I love Gilbert and George’s Dirty Pictures, they are so dirty, but in fact they wouldn’t dare have them on their own walls?
George: Well I think we did sell them quite well when we made them, they were very inexpensive at that time as well of course.
Gilbert: I mean it’s more like what they call the Naked Shit pictures, that’s more because they are more expensive, everybody likes them but no collectors actually want them on the walls, it’s quite difficult to live with one of those pictures. But we don’t do them for that, we always want enough money to do what we want, and nothing else.
In fact, are you rich, you must be…
George: Not by normal artistic standards I’m sure, no.
Are there some of your canvases…not canvases, images, which have never sold?
Gilbert: Oh yes, many, many.
George: There are difficult pictures…
Gilbert: A lot of difficult pictures.
George: I mean if you think it took the Serpentine 25 years to show the Dirty Words pictures that’s quite extraordinary, a quarter of a century before they could be accepted.
You represent your own selves, your own bodies a great deal in your work, but you’ve also talked about humiliating yourselves. Now what do you mean by that and why is it necessary?
Gilbert: I think we started that a long time ago because…in 69 when we did Gilbert the Shit and George the Cunt, it was the first time that we confronted our public and humiliated ourselves. And we realised that is enormous freedom in that, we are able to free ourselves and nobody is able to… not able to attack you after that.
And did you find that humiliating yourselves in that way, that that gave you a subsequent strength.
George: A strength and I think it gives us an amazing contact with the general public, because the general public knows that many artists are very superior towards the viewer, even when we, in the early days when we were more socially involved in the other artists, they always had a very low opinion of the general public, they thought they did very superior modern art and they had one or two collectors at some galleries. But of course those people out there would take years to be able to understand it. And that’s not true, everyone is very complicated and able to understand things. But I think we did an art that the viewer felt they could trust us, that we weren’t looking down at the viewer that it was an experience together.
Gilbert: Not only that, then we started to do these drinking pieces. We always used to go out drinking with a lot of other artists, and every other artist used to go back in the studio and do some nice clean canvas, and it was, well what the hell is that? We thought, might we do the drinking pieces now, we are drunk we do the drinking piece. And so that became, what you call, amazing freedom for us.
Was it in a way defensive though in the sense that nobody could say anything worse about yourselves that you’d been prepared to say about yourself.
George: Oh yes, we pre-empted absolutely…..
Gilbert: We always do that, always did that.
George : But we always said that would… we don’t trust the idea of a happy artist, nobody would really trust the idea that I was an artist and likes life and likes art and likes everything artistic and has artistic friends and ……
But you don’t hate life, everything you said makes that clear.
George: We celebrate life but we like to be able to realise that there’s nothing in the world that is not also inside of you or us or anybody. Anything, any horror in the world, we’re also capable of…
Gilbert: But I do believe that we went through unbelievable difficult pain, and I believe that that’s why we are not able to remember anything, we are able to remember very, very little because it feels like a… an enormous mad cloud of… full of dark and oh crazy stuff. We don’t know anything what we did. It feels we are not aware of this mad schizophrenia that went on for 40 years now. It’s extraordinary, I really believe we were never conscious, we never wanted to be conscious, never looked back always next day maybe it’s going to be a better day. That’s was always our motto, it’s always next day.
Now these days, the artist as personality is probably more of a personality, it’s easier to be a personality. Do you think that you fall into the trap of personality by having made yourselves the subject of your art?
George: We think that most people think of our pictures in terms of their own life and their own experience, and they think that we’re in the picture as the people speaking to them, like every letter they receive will be signed by the person who wrote that letter. I think that’s how people see it.
Gilbert: I don’t think we are personalities.
Oh come on…
Gilbert: No, I don’t think so I think we are, what you call, like some crazy living sculptures, no. They know Gilbert and George a name, but they are… we became some untouchable in some way…
Isn’t that dangerous, to be untouchable if by untouchable you mean, you have such a position that people daren’t criticise you… well of course they do criticise…
Gilbert: Oh they do criticise, oh yes oh yes, more than ever before
but in what sense do you…
Gilbert: I mean untouchable that we are able to take a bus, every night to a Turkish restaurant and everybody knows us, but we are still able to do whatever we want. There is that barrier that we have been able to create that…
George: Nobody would bother you as an artist. And art is still very unfamous compared with other forms really, compared with people on television or sports people or politicians…
Gilbert: Artists are nothing.
Do you have a thing against the critics… you just said that you’re criticised more and more. I think somebody once said, traditionally with modern art it’s the artist and critics against the public, with you it’s you and the public against the critics.
George:(Laughs) That’s a very good quote, yes. No we do believe in that.
But do you feel hard done by?
George: We have enormous support from the critics as well, yes it’s very strange.
Gilbert: No I think they did a very good job in some way. We wouldn’t like say that to them, because we created this, what you call, love and hate relationship, and that has been going on for 30 years non-stop. And then that is very good for an artist that you are always under pressure.
Ah, so you learn from the criticism do you. I mean have you take aboard…
Gilbert : No not learning, we don’t learn, we… we hate them but we wouldn’t tell them that. [laughs]
George: Not at all. And it’s also… it’s also very interesting that young people and young collectors love the art that the critic is against. They feel really in the centre of the advance of life.
Gilbert: What did you used to say about Brian Sewell ?
Brian Sewell of the Standard?
George: Oh yes we always say that we never met anyone who’s said to us, ‘I used to love modern art but since reading Sewell, mmm, I’m not so sure.’ So we know from that that he never converted anyone.
Yes, but of course David Sylvester, I think, regarded rightly as the greatest of the art critics, said… he once said – this was of the Naked Shit pictures – ‘most artists this century have tried to do naked, and have only succeeded in doing nude. Gilbert and George have done naked.’
George: Yes, that was very perceptive of David, because very few people realised that at first.
Gilbert: But he’s very good David Sylvester because he always used to say to us, art critics are only parasites. That’s what he’d call him.
George: It was very good because we said that you’re the greatest living writer in the English language, yes, and he said, no, no I’m just a parasite, just a parasite. So I said, well maybe you’re the greatest living parasite. [laughs]
In recent years you have often talked about the loss of your friends, through death I mean – a lot of them younger than yourselves; how has this concern with death shown in your work?
Gilbert: I mean the death we used to do… we did many pieces before that in fact to do with death, Death, Hope, Life, Fear, 1980… Death Faith and Bloody Life and Dead Heads, Dead Bored. We did that in 1975 to 1985, but after that when they started to die we stopped. We never mentioned that word again in fact.
George: I think it is very, very clear in our pictures without having to be spelt out as it used to be. We think even the New Horny Pictures we did are like huge Lutyens cemeteries on the Somme or something, all of those boys advertising in the magazines. Some are almost certainly dead already as the magazines were taken from 4-5 years ago. One day all of them will be dead and then it will be like a huge memorial to those people. They will never be immortalised by anybody else except in those 16 pictures.
Gilbert: And it’s very good, it is like tombstones. They describe themselves, their age, and a little story of what they did, it’s extraordinary.
George: That was the moment when we were able to make those pictures, the New Horny Pictures, was the moment we were looking at a previous catalogue of ours and found ourselves staring at a picture called Dead Head with an amazing multicoloured cemetery. And we thought why, why are we looking, why are we looking. We looked and we looked and we looked, for hours. Then suddenly we realised that those advertisements which were collecting, the sexual advertisements, and hadn’t been able to use in our pictures, were the same as tombstones. The age of the person, how many years they spent on earth, their name, and a sentence about their life. And in that moment we realised there was a moral dimension to the sexual advertisement and we were able to use them in pictures.
Will the art of Gilbert and George die when the first one of you dies?
George: No I think if we fell under a bus today the pictures will live on, I’m sure of that.
But will the artist Gilbert and George die when the first one of you dies?
George: We always cross the road together, so maybe we… [laughs] we have to be careful [laughs]
Gilbert and George, thank you very much.
Gilbert & George: Thank you.
Interview Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/johntusainterview/gilbertgeorge_transcript.shtml