Gilbert & George in conversation with Ron Brownson

Gilbert & George in Conversation with Senior Curator Ron Brownson

Gilbert & George in Conversation with Senior Curator Ron Brownson

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Over more than 50 years, Gilbert & George have declared an ‘ART FOR ALL’. Identifying themselves and their art as Living Sculpture, they reflect and respond to the world and their vision for its future.

Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki was thrilled to host Gilbert & George last week to celebrate and open their new exhibition, Gilbert & George: The Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland Exhibition 2022. The duo has commented that through their picture making they feel like they are walking the world and feeling their feet on the planet. The first time they have travelled to Aotearoa New Zealand, they are excited to share their pictures here. Developed, chosen and selected by Gilbert & George, the 61 pictures in The Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland Exhibition 2022 are not organised by chronology or theme. Instead, the exhibition speaks to the past, present and future, stimulating visual conversations in which recurring themes and motifs from Gilbert & George’s practice layer and intersect.

In the below conversation, first published in Art Toi in March this year, Senior Curator Ron Brownson chats with Gilbert & George about their 55-year long creative partnership and Gilbert & George: The Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland Exhibition 2022.

Ron Brownson: I’m talking to you here as the artist named Gilbert & George. Am I correct in doing so? I’m speaking in the singular: two people, one artist. Do people get that?

Gilbert & George: Most of the world is divided into twos; it’s the most commonplace arrangement. When we started out as Gilbert & George in 1969, we managed to create this idea that we were the artwork. We were the living sculpture, the artwork, that expresses different feelings about whatever you want: sexuality, nationalism, religion. We were encompassing everything that we could as human beings as art.

RB: Was it accepted? Did people understand your strategy?

G&G: The general public responded immediately. We had enormous success. We became very big headed and successful. It was a very exciting time. We got crazily successful right at the beginning. We just had exhibitions from the first moment onward, all over the world.

RB: Do you think that Gilbert & George is, in one sense, a unique British ‘brand’?

G&G: Everyone in England knows the name Gilbert & George. Gilbert & George vision is how we think of it. Every taxi driver knows it. We’ve been in the phone book since the first day. No one’s ever called us, of course. We’re waiting for the call.

RB: I think you are among some of the most widely exhibited British artists internationally?

G&G: Yes, you could say that. We have managed to do more than 100 museum shows so far, from China to Russia to all over Europe and America – but not Canada or South America. The most important thing is that we are the artist and the art itself. That for us became it – every word that comes from us is art, for us.

RB: So, Gilbert & George is a sculptor – is that right?

G&G: I think it’s even more simple. We left St Martin’s School of Art, all those years ago, and we were alone. All of the things available to the other students weren’t available to us. All our colleagues at St Martin’s got part-time teaching jobs, or grants from the Arts Council. But none of those things were available for two people. And so we were alone, and we wandered the streets of London, and we were amazed by the shops and the offices and the prisons and the palaces, the railway stations and the Tube stations and the night clubs. We wandered through north London and saw a very beautiful housing estate in the Utopian style, with gardens and retail units in front, and we marvelled at the cultural success. We went into a secondhand shop, bought a gramophone record, took it home and borrowed a machine to play it. We were living in the East End, where huge numbers of damaged men were living – damaged by the First World War, the Second World War; damaged by the sex laws of the pre-1967 time. The record was called ‘Underneath the Arches’. We put it on and we were amazed by the song’s lyrics, which were, of course:

(sings) ‘The Ritz we never sigh for. The Carlton they can keep. There’s only one place that I know. And that is where I sleep. Underneath the arches I dream my dreams away, Underneath the arches, on cobblestones I lay. Every night you’ll find me tired out and worn. Happy when the daylight comes creeping heralding the dawn. Sleeping when it’s raining and sleeping when it’s fine . . . The pavement is my pillow no matter where I stray. Underneath the arches I dream my dreams away.’

And there we had it. We had a truth and a purpose, and a sense, which we’ve never lost. All of those tramps are of course dead, but now they’ve been followed by another generation, which is young people who are drug addicts. That’s the new tribe that’s replaced the old one. We became the super tramps. And there still are the super tramps.

RB: I was going to ask you about ‘Underneath the Arches’. You have sung that song many times and I read somewhere that a number of your performances lasted an entire day?

G&G: Eight hours, yes, a day. For maybe one week or two weeks every single day. We did that all over Europe and in Australia.

RB: That’s an arduous performance, eight hours. It’s sort of like Marina Abramović before Marina Abramović – her Endurance performances. Did you at any time think that sculpture as performance would be too arduous?

G&G: We never called it ‘performance’ ourselves. We never thought of it as a performance, just as a living sculpture. Performance is an art activity that alienates uneducated people. Singing sculpture doesn’t alienate anyone.

RB: So, the artworks on the walls – the pictures – are living sculpture.

G&G: Journeys through life we would call it – our journeys through life. Looking up and looking down, and what we see, we are part of that. We are part of a global understanding, and we are walking through the streets. But by streets we don’t mean the streets of London, we mean the streets of the world. Forming our tomorrows. We believe in the force of culture, the greatest human force, because that’s the only force that keeps us safe and free. We are part of the Enlightenment – that’s what we want to be: safe and free.

RB: When you left art school, your teacher Anthony Caro said to you: ‘I hope very much that you won’t succeed, but I rather think you might.’ Did that comment act as motivation?

G&G: That’s exactly what he said. I think it’s very simple. We were part of St Martin’s School of Art, where sculpture was the activity: shape, form, colour, angle, corners – it had no human content. If you took the sculptures away from the college and put them down in Charing Cross Road, no one would notice them. They wouldn’t mean anything. We wanted to create artworks which had a human sense, that had a purpose. That can form life, form tomorrows, that can speak to sex, money, life, fear, crime, death. Not art about art, not formalistic art about shapes. We never wanted shapes, we only wanted humanity in front of us.

RB: Am I right in thinking that there is no biography about Gilbert & George?

G&G: No, not yet. But in fact all our life is our pictures – our pictures are our life. We have made 5000 pictures and we are telling the world what we feel, what we believe, what we see, what we regard as good, what we regard as bad. So, all this emotion, this morality is the art. And we are in the centre of it, we are the object, the living Buddhas or whatever you call it.

RB: Aren’t all the pictures in a unique edition?

G&G: Yes, one-offs, because it is very elaborate to make them. It’s not easy. The making of it is quite complicated.

RB: For a period you were using an analogue technique of image generation, which was in the old photographic terms, the thing of negatives, transparencies, prints, dark rooms et cetera. But from the 21st century everything has been digital, is that correct?

G&G: Yes, we changed over to digital about 20 years ago. For us it was fantastic, because although it took us a while to learn how to work digitally, everything is now open to us. It’s extraordinary. We can be octogenarian and still do it. We don’t miss the darkrooms – all those trays and the smelly things and the red bulbs. The only things we miss are the rubber gloves.

RB: Were they full-length rubber gloves, up to the upper arms?

G&G: Steady now.

RB: Chemicals can burn the skin. We know that here in New Zealand because we have so much farming. Farmers often wear gloves.

G&G: I thought one used gloves in sexual games.

RB: I don’t think that’s what’s happening down on the farms. I’m not exactly qualified to comment . . . You first met in 1967, is that right?

G&G: Yes, Swinging London, we thought we were at the centre of the universe. Free love. We both come from backgrounds where we were baby artists even before we met. We had an interest and experience in figuration and thought and feeling, of hope and dread, and then we came together and made a union.

RB: In 1970 you issued a message, all in capital letters: ‘WE ARE ONLY HUMAN SCULPTORS’. Is that 1970 manifesto still applicable?

G&G: Yes, we would say so. We are only human sculptors in that we get up every day and we put on the responsibility suits of our art. Thinking, feeling, hoping, wanting, fearing, dreading. We are very concentrated every day. We’ve never changed our vision, from that first day, from 1967 onwards – we never changed our vision of art. That’s quite exciting. And we found a very modern language to do it. We found a new, more up-to-date language to speak for ourselves. And we still believe in that, totally.

RB: It seems to me that there are parallels between the sculpture of Gilbert & George and William Hogarth’s work.

G&G: We would say that Hogarth was a very good artist who was showing life how it was. But we’re not showing life; we believe that we are forming life. We’re busy with the tomorrows, not today. We want the world to be different. We’re not celebrating how it is now. We want it different.

RB: What do you think when people use the terminology ‘photographs’ about your art?

G&G: We think of our art more and more as ‘pictures’. Modern pictures. Every person can understand what a picture is – you understand a picture on a matchbox, or on a tablemat, or in a museum. We don’t like the ‘p’ word – photograph. There are millions of photographers out there, but they never did what we did. So that’s a big difference.’

RB: Gilbert & George has always utilised collage in high contrast, right from the beginning.

G&G: Layers. You can have hundreds of layers. When you make a picture, inside there must be hundreds and hundreds of different layers, and that is becoming our vision.

RB: It seems to me that every one of the pictures always has this interlocking sequence of intersecting layers. It’s a very spatial dynamic. Is that something that has become easier to achieve now that you’re working digitally?

G&G: Maybe digitally is easier to do, but we don’t feel that anything has changed in moving from photography into digitalising. It is the same idea. We have the same layers, the same feeling, that we are able to enlarge or reduce, the same focus on the importance of the object, making it in some way artificial. Thinking about sex, money, race and religion doesn’t become easier because you have a computer.

RB: I perceive Gilbert & George as a highly intuitive artist. You don’t sit down with a piece of paper and plan a series. Is that the case?

G&G: We could describe in physical terms how we create a picture, but it wouldn’t be very revealing – like all the important things in the world, it’s very simple and very complicated at the same time. The most important thing, before starting a new group of pictures, is the images. We are taking images for maybe three months – what is speaking to us today. Tomorrow. Everything up and down, inside and outside. Visually outside and visually inside. And then when we have enough of a subject – maybe 10,000 images – then we start creating the designs, putting them together. The designs are 10 per cent of the big picture. The designs are very perfectly done, and then we make them one for one, and that could be four or five metres in length.

RB: So every picture starts with a huge amount of image gathering. And you are doing it fresh for each series? You’re not mining the past?

G&G: We start fresh every time. We’re not even sure. It’s more complicated than what we’re saying. It still is a mystery to us – how did we end up doing SHITTY NAKED HUMAN WORLD 1994? Why on earth would we do that? Why would we be creating the corpsing pictures? We don’t know exactly why. It’s still a mystery to us.

RB: So Gilbert & George continue to surprise Gilbert & George?

G&G: We’re always amazed when we go to the studio in the morning and look at the pictures that we designed the day before, because we can never completely reconstruct how we arrived at that picture. It’s always a mystery to us.

RB: We have enjoyed working with you on the exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Each of the gallery spaces has its own personality. The show you have designed is looking unbelievably powerful.

G&G: The rooms are very powerful. They’re all a little different – some higher, some lower.

RB: I was thinking that another way to describe it is the way in which your pictures have the potential to run the bandwidth. One can’t sometimes pinpoint a position, because both positions of polarity are included within the one image. You could say it’s positive, negative, it’s weaker, stronger. Polarities seem to me to be a basis of some of the pictures you create.

G&G: We like very much the opposite of what everybody thinks. A lady friend of ours took her bigoted grandmother to see our show at the Tate Modern (2007). This grumpy old lady who hates everything modern. Coming out of the exhibition she hadn’t said a word, and then she said to her granddaughter: ‘I’m not entirely sure what I think of every picture, but they do dress very nicely.’ So we got away with it, you see? (laughs).

RB: One of your most quoted statements is: ‘Art is capable of bringing out the bigot inside the liberal and the liberal inside the bigot.’

G&G: That’s our invention, yes. It’s a great invention.

RB: And I don’t think you’d say anything has changed, would you?

G&G: It remains exactly like that, to this day. It’s a great power to have – we’re very proud to have that power.

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Gilbert & George: The Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland Exhibition 2022
Gilbert & George: The Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland Exhibition 2022

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Often controversial, sometimes cheeky and always questioning, British artists Gilbert & George have been creating art together ever since they met in 1967.