London Pictures by Gilbert & George

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen


Mart Engelen: What was the main inspiration behind the exhibition we see here today in Paris?
Gilbert & George: We wanted to find a new way to celebrate the lives and deaths of a lot of people. You can’t do that with your imagination. With this collection of posters which we stole over six years we can address those subjects. We did 292 pictures and this is our fifth show; we are going to do ten or twelve shows. But we really want to create a spirit that lives on, at least for a while.
ME: When I look at it, I see a very big collage of many frames with text but the basic image is of you both with text you have manipulated.
G&G: They are not manipulated. It is very simple because the grid system is based on what we always use. When we started out with our art in 1971, we did not know how to make big pictures with these negatives, so we had to find a structure that would work. At that time, nobody did a big artwork like a big picture with negatives and so we invented this new language: we were used to taking a lot of different images and started to put some of them together in a rectangle. The rectangle can protect the image; transport the image. We can build them up like a house. You can make one that is 20 or 30 meters long.
ME: How do you regard today’s phenomenon of social media in relation to art?
G&G: We think that these posters that we stole and use in the pictures exist on many levels. The first level is that they are there to sell newspapers. The second level is very interesting: the human disaster and drama when a member of your family is raped or murdered or killed in the underground and so on. It is a tragedy which is very extensive. It extends to all the other people in the flats where you live, somebody has to tell the school, maybe inform the relatives in Australia. So it is an enormous tragedy which will last for generations. But the
posters are only there for a day or a week. We like to think that we are fixing these emotions forever.
ME: Is this also a kind of protest for you?
G&G: No. We are only for things. We are never against things. We’ve never marched about anything. When people knock at the door and ask us to sign a petition against: we say no, no. If they come for: we sign. We don’t even look to see what it’s about (laughs). We must have signed some terrible things. About the posters, we like it very much. What it is, it is. They are real posters, they are not distorted. We managed to create this atmosphere behind it; it is like a dream-like, ghost-like London by night. The kind of journalistic images we took, we never wanted to do a good image; we call it like a spirit of London. There are many layers. All the big cities like London, New York, Paris, Moscow, Johannesburg have these disasters. Only God’s nature is clean. We say this world we show in these pictures is as far as we got in our civilisation. We are
all responsible in our own small way. Sex, religion, fate, unhappiness. Can we change it, can we make it better? Maybe. We’ve all made it better from when we are children. The western world was a very different place in 1970 to what it is now. We think that all the artists, writers, singers and pop stars have made that change. Not so much the police station, not so much the courts. In general, artists are freezing life. We hope that we are not only showing life, we hope we are forming our tomorrows. That the people who see these pictures will be a little bit different than the people who didn’t.
ME: I think you put it very well, it is not freezing, it is the more you go on, you…
G&G: We always call it MORAL DIMENSION. All our art has all to do with ‘What are we doing here? What is better today?’ What’s good and what’s bad is changing non-stop. We create our own morality. That has nothing to do with religion. Trying to be human together.
ME: Are you also aesthetically involved in the typography in these works?
G&G: No. They are all the original posters. We remove the white from the paper and put our pictures behind.
ME: So, no change to the typography?
G&G: No. That wouldn’t be Christian (laughs). But the titles like ‘Rape’ or ‘Murder’ are all in red and centred. It’s quite extraordinary because it becomes like a musical chord. Murder, murder, murder.
ME: And why do we see the queen on the right?
G&G: Oh, that is very important. We felt that we wanted something of authority to preside over them, beyond ourselves. Nation, you can say, the western world, modern democracy. The head of state that never goes to prison. That will always be there. The queen is fantastic because everybody in the world is a little bit with the queen, isn’t it? It also gives an edgy feeling that you have the queen and murder there in this artwork. We have always used the queen as a symbol of the establishment since we started our work in 1969. We are not anti-establishment. Most artists are anti-establishment. They have a problem with the army, they have a problem with America, Mr Bush. We don’t. We like to say: we accept things as they are and move forward. We don’t like to have an opinion about things we can’t affect.
ME: I read somewhere that you were proud of your working-class background. Can you fill me in on this?
G&G: Poor boys are doing good!!
ME: You both have a working-class background?
G&G: Yes. Of course. It’s very interesting for us because we’ve seen the generations that came after us and they are very different because they weren’t war babies. We were war babies. When we were seven or eight years old everything was damaged; there were people in my small home town with an eye missing, or a leg. Buildings, families were damaged. Extraordinary.
ME: How do you look at art in general these days?
G&G: For art in general, we put up what we call blinkers. We don’t want to know exactly. We don’t want to talk too much about other artists.
ME: Let’s not talk about other artists but much more about the business of art.
G&G: That’s very simple. When we were baby artists, a gallery meant a man, a desk and a telephone. That was it. But it’s an enormous world activity now. More people go to more exhibitions than ever before. And that’s fantastic. It’s a better diet for people. Everybody used to talk about murder, boxing or crime. But for us art means asking questions.
ME: Asking questions?
G&G: It was very sweet. During our last exhibition in London or Paris, a very elderly lady came to us and said, ‘Congratulations gentlemen, I want to thank you for asking all the right questions in our troubled times.’ Sweet, that eighty-year-old lady. We made a big decision at the beginning of 1969 to create art that is based on us and the living sculptures and we’re examining being alive today. We talk in our art about unhappiness, happiness, people, young people, nakedness, religion, sexuality, how to behave. We call it the love letters that we leave behind on the walls. Asking these questions. That is what art is about for us.
ME: What do you think about Amsterdam as a city of art?
G&G: Well. I think it has changed a lot. When we were baby artists in 1969, Amsterdam was the most famous place in the world. The Stedelijk Museum was more famous than the Tate. There was a small gallery called Art & Project but there was no Art & Project in London. The things they were showing were extraordinary. The terror of our youth was that they told us at the time that you couldn’t be an artist because art comes from wine-growing countries. Then later on they said art comes from rough parts of America, New York. So, how could we become artists? We said fuck you, no. We want to stay here and make ourselves artists. Many artists thought they should go to Paris or New York. They all disappeared. Now, of course, you can walk through the streets of London and stop any normal person and ask “Could you name a living artist please?” And it’s
no problem. Not in 1970; back then they only said Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci. Now they know living artists’ names.
ME: When you started out, which artists did you admire?
G&G: George became an artist because he found an old book called The Letters of Van Gogh. George: It was very strange, it was in a small town in the west of England, there were only two editions of The Letters of Van Gogh at that time in the fifties, and I got a second-hand copy. I read it all and learnt one thing: Van Gogh came from the wrong background and did everything wrong but he won and he is still winning! And I thought maybe I have a chance (laughs).
ME: One day, when it is over, how would you like to be remembered?
G&G: We always try to create art that is very human. The struggle of surviving, that’s what it’s about. We say in conversation, and this is very interesting, ‘my late aunt’ or ‘my late uncle’ or ‘when my mother was alive’. You never say that about Dickens or Van Gogh. You never say ‘the late Dickens’. Because in some way we think he is still alive and speaking. That’s why we have started to believe more and more in ghosts and spirits.
ME: Before our conversation today, I was reading reactions on the internet of people who saw your show in London. I was so surprised about the sometimes very hostile or negative reactions. Somebody left a message: ‘I left after five minutes and I was thinking how do they get away with this garbage?’ How do you deal with this and what is your reaction to it?
G&G: We think we are one of the few living artists of our age who can still attract different opinions. We have an amazing public, for and against. We always had hostility from the media and support from the general public. It is very simple because in the end what they say means nothing. On the other hand you have ‘closet homophobes’ among the art critics. They are hiding.
ME: Does this go for Britain or the whole world?
G&G: Even America. We have been working on that and other subjects for nearly fifty years. The world is different from 1970. We have always fought for and have recently simply been saying: ban religion and decriminalise sex. All over the world today people are being put into prison or even executed for this. Everyday we remind ourselves that we’re only here in this privileged western world with galleries and kind people because of the struggle of people who came before us. We are extremely privileged.
ME: What do you think about what’s going on in the Arab countries at the moment?
G&G: Horrific!! It looks like everything is going into reverse. We are all putting on burkas and cutting off clitorises. Religion is all about controlling what you have between your legs.
ME: Back to art now, what advice do you have for young artists?
G&G: We have three pieces of advice: Make us jealous, Tomorrow morning when you get out of bed, sit on the edge of the bed and think, ‘What do I want to say to the world today?’ You have to decide that. Fuck the teachers
ME: For my last question I would like to have instant direct reactions to some words and you can only use one word. LOVE
ME: Thank you gentlemen
G&G: Thank you