Upcoming in The Work magazine
Gilbert and George have been creatively and emotionally merged as one since they fell in love at first sight in 1967. Usually wearing similar or complementary attire, and often finishing one’s sentences, theirs is a striking, almost vaudevillian double act that started in college and now extends into the farthest reaches of the popular culture. It’s rare for an artistic and personal partnership to have survived so long—what’s their secret, I wonder? Their trick, apparently, is alchemical in nature – the fusing of two elements to create a magic compound. Possible only through the complete and willing abandonment of self, of course. “We always say we are two people, but one artist,” says George. “One artwork, composed of two human beings. So we are not a ‘collaboration’. We are a composition.”
Born Gilbert Proesch in Italy in 1943, and George Passmore in England in 1942, Gilbert and George have worked and lived together as a single artist since first meeting at St Martin’s School of Art, London in 1967. Their works feature themselves as subjects, dancing vaudevillians with stern expressions, telling their own personal emotional stories within Zeitgeistal contexts. They are their own subjects, their own muses, always, always together.
Two individuals as a single cell organism...how does that work in a studio, I wonder? Are there ego-driven battles for creative supremacy? Is there a leader in their collaboration? George shuts that question down immediately.
“Leader? No. That’s sexist. Please don’t be sexist.”
So, a leader implies patriarchal forces are at work?
“We believe in a modern relationship of equality,” he explains. “We are against the idea of bank managers pretending to be like medieval knights with a little wife, a bit like a bird, who tweets around. We believe in equality of the relationship.”
I’m curious what they think about other famous creative pairings - Lennon and McCartney, Dali and Disney, Smith and Mapplethorpe? There are so many instances artists have come together and become greater than the sum of their parts.
“No idea,” says George.
“We’re not really into that,” adds Gilbert.
“The only ones we like are the Queen and Prince Philip,” says George. “The queen. What a woman. Amazing woman.”
A curve ball from this gleefully atypical pair, a pair of homosexual Conservatives who love the Queen and Margaret Thatcher, and made headlines in 1970 by publishing self portraits of themselves titled “George the Cunt” and “Gilbert the Shit”, as a means of pre-empting the hatred they knew would inevitably come their way. Indeed, from the beginning, they were discredited and shunned by the art establishment. “In the 60s we were doing the work that was not the art of that time,” explains George. “We were not minimalist. We were not conceptualists. We believed in color. They didn’t. They did lines and circles. We wanted to talk about sex and life and hope and death.”
Fifty years on, we are in the White Cube gallery in East London and their work is still about sex and life and hope and death, set in their ever-changing perception of “now”. Their show Scapegoating Pictures features large-scale works with literary, Joycean day-in-the-life names. “Body popping”. “Fruit Exchange”. “Smoking Dildo”. Conjures a colorful picture of Brick Lane in 2014, does it not? The works feature, as always, Gilbert and George as threads woven through the fabric of the city, against a backdrop of Zeitgeistal memes - women in burkas and empty whippets cans, in homage to the stuff kids in their neighborhood are getting high on these days. This is how they’ve always worked, merging themselves over and over, in different societal laboratories.
So here’s a thought - what if they were wrenched apart for a day. Made to create their own art as individuals. What would that look like? Some kind of nuclear fission, perhaps? Would they create their own personal Higgs Boson “God” particles by moving into separate studios, just for a bit? George laughs.
“Work alone? Why on earth do that? Everyone does that.”