Gil­bert & Ge­orge

A mad, won­der­ful world

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDSBYÉAMONSWEENEY

The White Cube Gallery in south­east Lon­don has hosted plenty of open­ings in its time, but they wouldn’t usu­ally be filmed for Sky News. Such hec­tic scenes at a morn­ing pho­to­call in Ber­mond­sey re­sem­ble an ap­pear­ance by The Rolling Stones rather than a vis­ual artist. But this isn’t any vis­ual artist. This is Gil­bert & Ge­orge; two peo­ple, one artist. Like The Rolling Stones, they’ve been ac­tive for more than half a cen­tury.

On Septem­ber 25th, 1967, Ge­orge Pass­more met Gil­bert Proesch at Saint Martin’s School of Art on Char­ing Cross Road. In 1968, they moved into Fournier Street in Spi­tal­fields, a gor­geous row of old Huguenot houses, where their neigh­bours in­clude Tracey Emin and Ja­son Pierce of Spir­i­tu­al­ized.

To­day’s me­dia launch of The Beard Pic­tures is part a flurry of ac­tiv­ity to com­mem­o­rate the duo’s 50th an­niver­sary. This month, their

Scape­goat­ing Pic­tures will open at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Art Cen­tre (MAC) in Belfast, an ex­hi­bi­tion that de­buted in Lon­don in 2014 and be­gins with a bold state­ment of in­tent: “We want our Art to bring out the Bigot from in­side the Lib­eral and con­versely to bring out the Lib­eral from in­side the Bigot.”

When Gil­bert & Ge­orge last ex­hib­ited in Belfast, mem­bers of the Free Pres­by­te­rian Church pick­eted the Ormeau Baths Gallery. Aside from this protest, which was widely

re­ported at the time, they have very fond mem­o­ries of their Belfast ex­hi­bi­tion, which was opened by then sec­re­tary of state for North­ern Ire­land – and ar­chi­tect of New Labour – Peter Man­del­son.

As Gil­bert & Ge­orge walk the me­dia around the ex­hi­bi­tion, Ge­orge re­veals the in­spi­ra­tion be­hind four gi­gan­tic pic­tures en­ti­tled Sex, Money, Race and Re­li­gion.

“These are based on a real tragedy,” he adds gravely. “We al­ways walk the length of the Kings­land Road on the way to din­ner. We used to stop at a small shop to buy an al­copop to cheer us up on our way, where we were al­ways served by the same very nice young man. One evening, he wasn’t there, which was strange be­cause he was there ev­ery sin­gle night. We asked his fa­ther, ‘Where is the young man?’ He told us, “He hung him­self last night.’ We asked, ‘Do you know why?’ He an­swered, ‘We don’t know.’

“We walked to din­ner full of a great sense of doom and un­hap­pi­ness, think­ing why, why, why? We thought it was most likely to do with ei­ther sex, money, race or re­li­gion” – they cho­rus these four words to­gether – “or a com­bi­na­tion of these things, so we did those pic­tures for him.”

Later on, in the gallery’s meet­ing-room, we dis­cuss the Belfast brouhaha of 2000 at length. In­ter­view­ing Gil­bert & Ge­orge is a sur­real and en­ter­tain­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, as their man­ner owes much to clas­sic comic duos such as Lau­rel & Hardy or More­cambe & Wise.

“We re­mem­ber be­ing greeted with a fa­mous Ir­ish greet­ing, ‘Sodom and Go­mor­rah’,” Ge­orge re­calls. “I thought they were say­ing, ‘Good morn­ing’, or ‘top of the day to you!’ The Very Rev­erend Hous­ton McKelvey camped out­side with this home­made tin mega­phone. It re­ally was quite back­ward. We sub­se­quently went on BBC North­ern Ire­land. Some­one called Rev­erend Wilkins was in the stu­dio in Belfast, while we were in Lon­don. We asked him what he thought his men meant when they shouted ‘Sodom and Go­mor­rah’ at us, and he an­swered that he didn’t know and couldn’t get in­side some­one else’s mind.

“We said, ‘We’re not ask­ing you that. What do

We re­mem­ber be­ing greeted with a fa­mous Ir­ish greet­ing, ‘Sodom and Go­mor­rah’. I thought they were say­ing, ‘Good morn­ing’, or ‘top of the day to you!’

you think they meant? He wouldn’t say and com­pletely evaded the ques­tion. Of course we know what they meant, but he just couldn’t ad­mit it. We had a sud­den brain­wave to pol­ish him off. We said, ‘Great that your re­li­gious tra­di­tion is, ours is an older one. Yours is 2,000 years old, but art and draw­ing goes back to fig­u­ra­tion in caves.”

Gil­bert & Ge­orge have never been pick­eted any­where else in the world, al­though they are no strangers to con­tro­versy. They give their ex­hi­bi­tions ti­tles such as The Naked Shit

Pic­tures and use ex­cre­ment, urine, blood and se­men as sub­ject mat­ter. In Mi­ami, chil­dren were pro­hib­ited from see­ing their show.

“Par­ents wanted to cam­paign against us and there was a big meet­ing,” Ge­orge re­mem­bers. “The di­rec­tor said, ‘Good morn­ing. We’ve come to dis­cuss this. Be­fore we go on, I’ll just like to show you the at­ten­dance fig­ures for the last month.’ All the trus­tees were there, and of course, our show had seen a mas­sive in­crease in vis­i­tor num­bers. ‘Thank you, gen­tle­men. Any­thing else to dis­cuss?’”

Vul­gar Amer­i­cans

Ge­orge hi­lar­i­ously il­lus­trates their no­to­ri­ety. “A bunch of art col­lec­tors were in the taxi go­ing to the White Cube,” he says. “They were dis­cussing what works they owned, which works they missed, and what ones they were hop­ing to buy. ‘I bought Shit on Piss, but I re­ally wanted to buy

Spunk on Blood.’ A Lon­don cab­bie was lis­ten­ing in to all this, so one of the ladies said, ‘Ex­cuse me, cab­bie. I hope you don’t think we’re vul­gar Amer­i­cans, or speak­ing in a very coarse man­ner. We’re ac­tu­ally dis­cussing con­tem­po­rary art.’ The driver said, ‘Oh, must be that Gil­bert & Ge­orge so.’”

An­other clas­sic G&G yarn goes: “A large truck slowed down on Com­mer­cial Street and a big, shaven-headed, mid­dle-aged driver leaned out and shouted, ‘Gil­bert & Ge­orge! My life is a fuck­ing mo­ment. Yours is an eter­nity!’”

In Eng­land, they’re af­fec­tion­ately known as ec­cen­tric na­tional trea­sures, but their au­di­ence is global. “It doesn’t mat­ter where we are – Paris or New York,” Ge­orge says. “Any artist who says they don’t like pub­lic­ity is just say­ing that be­cause they’re not get­ting any.”

As we wind down the con­ver­sa­tion, they lob in an­other stun­ning anec­dote.

“We were once con­tacted by an in­cred­i­bly fa­mous lady pop star, who will re­main name­less,” Ge­orge says. “She was very in­ter­ested in our art and wanted to meet us, so she ar­ranged a restau­rant for din­ner. The restau­rant con­tacted us with a list of rules: not to have more than one waiter serv­ing, no pho­to­graphs or au­to­graphs, it was a huge list. So we ar­rived at the restau­rant and she was with a fake part­ner, who was her se­cu­rity boy. The four of us sat down. In the mid­dle of din­ner, a lady got up from a neigh­bour­ing table. She ad­vanced to­wards us with a sheet of pa­per and a pen. The se­cu­rity man bris­tled and all the staff froze. The lady reached our table and said, ‘I’m so sorry to bother you, gen­tle­men, but I’m an enor­mous fan of your art. Can I trou­ble you for your au­to­graph, please?’ The pop star was fu­ri­ous.”

Ev­ery sin­gle evening, Ge­orge walks for 1½ hours to the same Turk­ish bar­be­cue in Dal­ston to join Ge­orge for din­ner, while Ge­orge takes a bus and walks for 45 min­utes. They meet at ex­actly eight o’clock, but if one of them arrives a minute early, the staff get con­cerned that some­thing may have hap­pened.

Jok­ing aside, what is go­ing to hap­pen when one of them dies? “Aha, we call this the great Ger­man ques­tion,” Ge­orge replies. “It’s the first ques­tion of any Ger­man press con­fer­ence. ‘Vot hap­pens if vone of you dies?’

“We say, ‘Well, we don’t carry cyanide tablets, but we will now.’ Or some­times, we an­swer, ‘Do you mean if one of us gets knocked down by a bus? Fear not, for we al­ways cross the road to­gether.’” ■ Scape­goat­ing Pic­tures isattheMAC,Belfast from January 26th to April 22nd. The Beard Pic­ture­sandTheirFuck­os­o­phy runs un­til January 28th at the White Cube, Ber­mond­sey, Lon­don

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