gilbert and george

Andrew Wilson: Why did you decide that you wanted to show your work in China?

George: We simply believe that it is very good for people to have access to what is going on in art, just as they have access to what is going on in any other arena. Our message is global. It can be shown to people from all races and backgrounds. To most Western people China is this great magic land with this enormously mysterious history and the idea that we, as living artists, can go there with our pictures and put them on the wall, for people of all ages and from different walks of life to come in and see, is for us an amazing and exciting opportunity. They are not people who know our pictures or have seen them before, so it is a completely fresh and experimental idea.

Wilson: With your exhibitions, to what extent do you want to break down barriers?

Gilbert: We are all one. We are part of everything — East and West — it is all part of life. We should be able to understand and mix up the cultures. I think that is very important.

George: The barriers between people and nations and societies can only be broken down with culture.

Wilson: And do you have any idea what the reaction of the Chinese audience might be?

George: Multi-layered human. The debate in China is not so different from the huge debate which is going on in Europe now, which is the question, "What is an individual?"

Wilson: Your pictures often indicate a subject-matter without defining it. How important is this degree of openness?

Gilbert: In some way we do know that art is everything and also that it is nothing. So it is complete. We are just trying to express ourselves in the most visually simple way and the viewer has to be able to be woken up in front of it. It is like a discussion. I think that if you take a group of people into one of our shows, each person will interpret it in a different way, if they are allowed to be totally free.

Wilson: Is that the moral foundation of your work — that it is open for anybody to get what they can from it?

George: Yes. It is an incredible new idea — art for people. 'Art for All." It is increasing the idea of the individual. Making the individual a new idea, instead of just having groups of people. Art is a choice. It is only opportunity. You cannot impose a picture on someone.

Wilson: Is that why you have to be responsible and serious in what you do?

Gilbert: Yes. That's why an artist should be provoking thought.

George: And then the person can be different, if they want to be. It is very important that our pictures are not lecturing to the audience. We believe that our pictures are an open opportunity for the viewer to compare their lives with the subject-matter and the thoughts and feelings. We are not saying that "This picture is about this," or "If you don't understand it, bad luck." We always say that we allow for the life of the viewer in a picture. We don't want to be selfish when we make our pictures. We want to love the viewer. The success of the artist is in the viewer, and in their life. The viewer has the success, not the artist.

Wilson: And you call the suits that you wear "Responsibility Suits."

George: They are our working clothes. We do believe that we can speak through how we cloth ourselves, as well as through how we do our pictures. It is very important part of our democratic idea. We can go anywhere, and be in any situation, after all we never wanted to be the freaky artists in that bohemian way. They are very typical, normal suits.

Wilson: Why did you choose to live in London's East End?

Gilbert: It was the cheapest part of London and also the most romantic part as well. It was so incredible. The first time I went to the East End I felt as if I was in the nineteenth century. All around here it was like something out of Charles Dickens: Dickens's village.

George: Where we live is steeped in history, but it is also very actual and very up=to=date. We really believe this is a typical "planet Earth place." It is an ideal example of roughly how the world is. We are both country boys who are up in the city, and we love it. We live in what seems like an ordinary house in an ordinary street. On the other hand, it is quite extraordinary because it is a street that was built by French people who were driven from their country by prejudice.

Gilbert: The East End of London is a melting pot of different cultures. That is why it is so exciting. Everybody in some way is much freer here than in other parts of the country. You have to be more tolerant because there are a lot of different races, different religions, and different people.

George: It is not partisan. It is not narrow-minded in any way. It is like our pictures. It is open. It is gentle to everyone.

Wilson: Do you find your immediate surrounding inspirational? Is London important to your work?

George: Important that we are here. ut not in terms of subject-matter or anything like that. There is nothing in our pictures that doesn't exist all over the world, and inside every person. It is local and global at the same time.

Gilbert: We don't fee; we need inspiration. We feel we have to look inside ourselves for what we feel and think.

George: looking into any person's face anywhere in the world is very, very inspiring. We are not looking at the fabric of our world in any way because we don't want to represent the world as how it is. None of our pictures can be found in reality. You can't find or see our pictures in the real world. They are totally artificial.

Gilbert: We are trying to look in, instead of looking out. We are trying to look inside our brain, and I think that is more interesting because that is where the confusion is. "Outside" is always the same. It is only what we think that changes every second because it is all an artificiality. How we look at the world every day is all artificial, and that comes from the brain. We believe very much that art is about re-inventing life. How we walk, how we speak, how we behave, how we look at things. That is art. That is creative. We don't believe in the artist with a brush. Art is about having new ideas. We don't care who or what it actually is, as long as it is re-inventing something. In some way we believe in a mad art, a desperate art. We are searching for the truth.

George: A picture is a frozen example of thought and feeling and you can stop life with it. When you are looking at a picture it is a stopping of life, to consider for a moment.

Wilson: So, should art shock and cross barriers? The avant-garde is often understood in terms of transgression.

Gilbert: "De-shock," that is what we always said.

George: And not shock by form but by content, by the meaning. We don't want people running away from our exhibition because they find it freaky or too unusual or not part of their world. We want to seduce the viewer into entering our friendly world, to discuss together with us.

Gilbert: And I do believe that it has to be shocking in the beginning because if it wouldn't be shocking, then it wouldn't be new.

George: Anything that is new in any field in any subject is bound to upset a certain section of society. There are always people who want to hang on to the present and freeze it, people that just want to hold onto life as it is. We believe in the future, and it will be an amazing future, a very different one. We do not believe that the greatest advancement from now on will b a redefinition of the person. We think that change is very good. We are not the artists to demolish everything. We see what we do as a combined effort: upholding certain things and changing others and that always changes. Next year maybe that does need demolishing.

Gilbert: We are not revolutionary artists. We aim for evolution, always. We like tradition. The line between what is good and bad changes from say to day. It is not fixed. Even to accept the idea of "bad" in art, as Baudelaire did, is also a new idea. Morality is there for changing. The world is changing all the time and that is what we want. We don't like the idea of a rigid morality. It's all much better to mix it all up and make it a little more chaotic.

George: If you believe in the system that Western civilization was based on — which is that you give in exchange for the gift of life, that you are here and have this fantastic life and that you do something for that — then we can't believe that we are here as artists to congratulate people on how they are. We cannot give to the people pictures that they want, we have to do the pictures that we believe the world needs, otherwise we are just reassuring and restating what is already there. We believe that the artist has a responsibility. We believe that an artist should have sense of duty. They're not here to please themselves. We do believe that art should be for something, for people. We believe that all culture creates the future and we want to be part of building the future. We want the world to be a little different because of our pictures. Most artists do not want to do pictures for people because there is a huge personal cost involved in that. They are scared to pay that price. The artists who are leading the lief are unhappy.

Wilson: And do you think that the more unhappy you are perhaps the more you will find out?

Gilbert: No. The more you find out, the more unhappy you become.

Wilson: You are interested in the Aesthetic Movement of the 1890s and the work of Oscar Wilde. Were they "leading the life"? I would have thought that they were to a certain extent disinterested in life.

Gilbert: It was very contradictory. They said that nothing else was important except for "art for art's sake," a beautiful beauty, but they didn't do it. Oscar Wilde was the most miserable person in the world. In the end, every sentence that he wrote is always searching for the truth, so truthful. He had to die in the end for his reinvention of live. It was not for the beauty.

George: We think that they were the first true subversives because they were saying one thing in order to get away with doing something entirely different. Wilde is the best example of that. He said everything was all just pleasure — and one puff of a cigarette, and one lily that lasts all day — in fact, he was getting away with murder at the same time as saying that. He created a world which is entirely different. We would not be here if it hadn't been for Oscar Wilde.

Wilson: Do you like work?

Gilbert: We don't like work, we only like the result and the effect. We don't like the "doing" very much.

George: We're not selfish enough to actually enjoy doing it. The process for us is unimportant. We like the pictures to look as if they were made by magic. We wouldn't like people to look at our pictures ad say, "My goodness, I can see that took ages to make," and to admire them for that reason.

Gilbert: The work is totally unimportant except for the end result. It is only the message that is important. Not the aesthetics of brushes and painting. Just the power of that image.

Wilson: Do you feel that as artists you are driven people?

Gilbert: Driven mad, yes. As an artist you always feel unhappy ad dissatisfied because you feel you are never going to be able to reach what you actually want. You have this goal in front of you and you are never able to reach it. That's it, we have this amazing urge and we don't know why: deep down inside us, we want to live. We more and more believe that everything in the world is art, it is all artistic. It is all art. There is nothing else. A complexity of life.

George: You could say that culture creates human love, to make a better world that everybody wants. It doesn't matter where you go in the globe, everyone will say we need a better life. We have a very high ideal of art and for ourselves. This is a "serving idea" in a way and not that you are locked away in a studio going crazy. We believe that artists can create enormous effects on people's lives. Art does filter through all levels of life and have its effect. How we think about each other, how we love, how we hate, how we dress, how we live, how we travel — all this is an artistic idea.

Gilbert: We are one of the only artists who actually believe that art means something.

George: many other artists believe that it is wonderful and fantastic but that it doesn't have anything to do with life. They don't believe that it has nay effect on life. Most artists have enormous disregard for the viewer. It is important to have a love of the viewer, not a love of the art. A love of the art is a decadent idea.

Wilson: Do you think that there is such a thing as Eternal Truth?

George: I would say so. The thrust of human activity is the Eternal Truth.

Gilbert: We are searching for the truth.

George: The Eternal Truth is that majority of people get up in the morning each day. When you don't have an Eternal Truth organized society collapses and then you have dead people lying in the streets with other people driving past. There are countries like that where you just drive past the dead bodies. They have lost the idea that there is a truth. There is a human God and we are it. We have got to do it, if not we are all lost.

Gilbert: That must be Eternal Truth.

Wilson: Are you at all religious?

Gilbert: We believe that maybe there is an eternal Truth. That's the God that we believe in. Yes, we believe in truth.

Wilson: Are your personal political beliefs anything to do with your art? Do you have any political beliefs?

Gilbert: No, we don't have political beliefs. We are not involved in politics. We are just Conservatives. We don't want to be the strange artists. Most people in Britain vote Tory so we're like that. Also, we feel that in some way we are Socialists, that's what we are. even when we say that we are boring Conservatives I think that the reality is that we are Socialists because we like to do things for people. That's what Socialists means.

George: Once ideology becomes more important than the individual you are lost. It doesn't matter whether it is an extreme Communist country or an extreme Right-Wing country, both of those regimes will lock up the artist and writer, with the same key. So, it is not just a matter of Right or Left.

Wilson: Are your works ever intended to have a politically explicit message?

Gilbert: No, we never think of politics. We never analyze anything. We are just drifting into this. We have this feeling that we want to express ourselves in a certain way but we never consciously want to do political works ever.

George: It is political enough to be an artist. That is a political enough statement. We are not involved with the details of life. Politicians will only be different in the future if they have looked at work like ours and other people's — that is how we are politically effective. It is a more human idea.

Wilson: Why did you both renounce the use of your family names to become "Gilbert & George"?

George: Partly because it is simpler and it is more friendly. We reinvented ourselves at that moment, and we became something different.

Gilbert: We were taking our personal history away. We left the family behind and just became human sculptors with two names, like a brand name — like Van Gogh who signed himself "Vincent."

Wilson: Do you think however that in a sense your past — before you became Gilbert & George — is what formed you into what you are now? Can you identify what made you want to become artists?

George: We were both very very interested in art from an extremely early age. I remember when I was young being very excited by the idea of Van Gogh. I thought that it was amazing just to be n artist in the world.

Wilson: your description of yourselves as Living Sculptures implies that as artists you use yourselves as the material for the sculpture — creator and created become one and the same. What does this entail?

George: It is the artist speaking through the picture. It is not an artist making an aesthetic composition but making a letter, a visual letter to the viewer.

Gilbert: We think that was our main idea. I think that is it.

George: We believe that every picture, whatever it has got in it, is still based on that. It is the foundation for everything. in fact, we are inventing our language.

Gilbert: We are only interested in the message and that i art and life for us — "vision," "art and life," "us" — and not the actual structure of the painting.

Wilson: In the same way you have spoken of form and content being one — what this amounts to is that you are abolishing aesthetics.

George: We have the form there only to support the meaning never never for its own sake. It is never red there to be a nice red.

Gilbert: It is there to create moods: of desperation, of happiness, of unhappiness, whatever. Through combinations of color you can create and trap a mood. It is the combinations that are important. The subject and the combination. That can create an amazing atmosphere.

Wilson: you have made your work together for about twenty-five years now. Why did you decide to work in this way?

George: We didn't. No decision. We always say it was something that came over us. We were already doing it in a way before we realized.

Wilson: Do you think as one artist or two?

Gilbert: Two people make one artist.

George: We think that we are an artist.

Gilbert: Two visions make one vision.

George: A family is made up of people who have different views on different subjects but there is always a family feeling or a family direction — as well as the individual — where they share a common ground in going forward.

Wilson: Would it be pointless to make your work individually?

Gilbert: I think it would be totally impossible. It would finish us. I mean, it is totally impossible. I think I would be totally lost. It would be like cutting the legs off the "Singing Sculpture."

Wilson: How do you work together when you are in the studio?

George: When we go to the studio, it is not what we think, it is how we feel, how we dread, how we hope, how we love, how we hate. We just do the pictures like that. We trust that. We are not consciously deciding whether to do a picture with trees or without trees — how tree we are that day will decide on that. It is like using ourselves as a rubber stamp and we will see what prints off that day. We cannot fall into making a marvelous picture by concentrating on doing it. We have to be completely empty, completely dead, and maybe manage to fall into some mistake or some new way of seeing that subject.

Gilbert: In a funny way it is like having a big ball of throbbing material inside you. And you don't want to analyze it.

George: Also we would be doing something that we have already done because we were familiar with that; and if we're familiar with it we've said and done it already. We have to fall into a new hole in the road every day, and we don't want to fall into the ones we have fallen into before.

Gilbert: We know little of what we want to take, but mostly it is done subconsciously and we don't want to think too much. That is why we feel it is always like a funny dream in front of us, the untouchable dream, or like a big shout — "aaah" — but never analyzing it and never trying to sort out how exactly it should be. In fact, we are making our pictures in some way half-asleep. We want to make them when we are half-conscious, never when we are totally conscious. We are not looking for an end result; drifting, drifting into something.

Wilson: But this sense of drifting seems to be a contradiction.

Gilbert: I'm sure it is.

Wilson: You have this very strong sense of purpose, and yet you are drifting.

George: Because we do believe that creativeness is based on inspired thought. Millions of people tried to fly, but some crazy person actually got it together and invented the jet engine.

Wilson: Your art is born of contradiction . . .

Gilbert: Not more than life, we do believe that.

Wilson: Are you visionary artists in any way?

Gilbert: Yes, I would say so. A vision is new thought, a new morality, a new way of seeing the world. A new way of thinking; that is our vision.

George: We knew that we were artists in the egg and that when the last day of art school came the egg would crack open and out would come these fluffy yellow new artists.

Gilbert: The day we said that we are the living sculpture, that was it. Art and life became one, and we were the messengers of a new vision. At that moment that we decided we are art and life, every conversation with people became art, and still is. It becomes like some object speaking. Normally sculptures are completely dead. But we are living ones. Speaking ones, complex ones, unhappy ones. That is a fantastic difference. I think that was a big breakthrough for us. That's what the basis of it all is: Art and Life. That is the title of our Art.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.