The Verse’s Jake Francis reviews Gilbert & George: In Conversation at Brighton Pavilion on Wednesday 9th May 2018.
Audience member: Do you ever argue?
George: Ah, we call that the great heterosexual question…
You may have noticed this past month a certain prominence of two names, speckled about Brighton and Hove in vast numbers. These banners, announcing ‘Gilbert and George’ in its white, bold lettering symbolises an eccentric benchmark of the phrase ‘better late than never’. Despite the Turner-prize winning artists being perfectly befitted for countless generations of this seaside community, neither Gilbert nor George (as if they’d dare separate for a day out) have been yet to claim Brighton as a platform for their ‘sculptures’ of truth, life affirmation, and moral exploration – until today. Here we are, sat in the garishly extravagant Brighton Pavilion – Gilbert and George sat centre stage in their dapper, yet slightly aloof posture glaring out at the vast range of audience members, all social classes are there. Despite the lack of contact the pair have had with Brighton, one feels that the clear opulence of this room with its huge dollop of mania and lust for breaking the traditional – they may have found a place to, at least temporarily, lay down their hats with habitual comfort.
George: ‘We had a perfectly nice day 35 years ago here in Brighton, we haven’t been back until now. Even then, we’ve walked straight from the train station on foot and down here to the exhibition and this room – isn’t it remarkable? We’re not very good travellers.’
What they may lack in nomadic experiences, they certainly make up for in expertise of London’s multiculturalism – a trait that our vicarious interviewer, Michael Gracewell, fittingly relates to that of Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens. Fortunately for us, Michael makes good on his promise to interview lightly, his subtle, yet probing, questions sending Gilbert and George into a synchronised spout of memory and shared philosophies – although I’m sure they would hate that I’ve put that so formally. Unlike many artists working today, it is clear that Gilbert and George are not beyond explaining their work and modus operandi – wishing to cast off the elitism and institutional rhetorics that are burned into the fresh faces on day one of art school.
Gilbert: ‘It’s not intellectual art, it’s about feelings and expression….Victorian art criticism claimed that the critic’s role was to see art as it really ‘is’ – but not so, this is wrong, it’s about the feelings and experience of the artwork.
The pair, most famous for their series of ‘pictures’ (or sculptures, as they prefer them to be called), have a great sentimentality within their 50 year life-as-art practice – their work residing in the liminal space of the unassuming, as the nonjudgemental anthropologist of the East End. ‘We feel our art is a love letter to the world, like Dickens we’d walk day and night around London – marvelling in celebration at what we have achieved together, you me, our grandmothers and their grandmothers. Western culture, with it’s theatres, galleries, book shops, cinemas, and libraries is a phenomenal achievement.’ G&G originally met in an advanced sculpture class at Central St.Martin’s in London, their discomfort for precedent making them natural allies. George from Devon and Gilbert from Northern Italy, their ‘outsider-ness’ to the ‘safety net of the middle classes’ merged them as ‘Pilgrims of progress’: ‘It feels like fate’, Gilbert proclaims,
Gilbert: ‘George was the one who could understand my terrible English – I still speak in terrible English, he showed me life in London and took care of me – we did not want to learn how to draw the perfect line or circle, or create dead pieces of sculpture out of bronze or marble, we wanted to make art with feeling, about life.’
And that they did, the duo soon discovering the perfect soundtrack to their role as that of the optimistic outsider – ‘Underneath the Arches’ by Flanagan and Allen. This became the backbone to Gilbert and George affirming themselves as the ‘Living Sculptures’ – a performance that has lived in infamy throughout their career since they started its performance:
George: ‘When we performed the piece in the Universities auditorium, our course leader, Frank Martin, stomped out in a rage, and he was right. It was completely different. Even now, wherever we are in the world, we have people of all ages asking us about the Living Sculptures. It’s extraordinary’.
Merely the mention of this backing-track leads the two to break into song on stage with flawless synchronicity; an occurrence that would feel rehearsed and artificial if performed by most, but not for Gilbert and George.
As the conversation goes on, the living sculptures touch upon their use of religious imagery, a theme in their work that has brought them a fair amount of criticism. Instead of offering harsh words, George delivers a compromise – a prime example of their knack for institutional critique:
George: ‘Religions are fine, as long as they come under the same liberal umbrella as us – churches should be the same height as other buildings, religious totems should be placed back into their houses of worship and out of galleries as it is Christian voodoo.’
The artists are well aware of their critics, but dane to listen to them and play cautiously with that ever-thickening line in the sand: ‘We certainly don’t want to go to prison, we have a clear idea of where the line is. We want to get away with it. After all, it would be silly to be shut down by the police.’ Despite these reputations of vulgarity, Gilbert and George hasten to remind us that ‘all the middle class artists were into sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, we were such goody goodies, really.’ Perhaps we are sniping in the wrong places.
In short, it would be easy to paint Gilbert and George with a singular, fat brush of piss-art-nonsense. They however do not subscribe to the babble and ego that is associated with their industry, acknowledging their status as fortunate purveyors of the world that surrounds them:
George: ‘We are privileged, we are able to have free thought – not to have to work in an office or seek permission but to 1) make whatever and 2) show whatever. And then there’s the catalogue and the exhibition where the artwork is all lit beautifully, and then the private view where we have a glass of wine in one hand and are surrounded by young people licking us all over.’
It’s rare to hear such honesty from the esteemed artist. In a time where artists take themselves too seriously, and fads lasting for no longer than 5 minutes, Gilbert and George are coherent and committed: ‘We do what we know – walking viewing, relaxing. We’re not inventing it, it’s all here for you to see.’ Their love letter to the world, and to art, appears to be one that will never be finished.
George: ‘Culture keeps us safe – we’ve found that in countries without it, you will need a bodyguard’.
‘Artist Rooms: Gilbert & George’ is open until the 2nd September at Brighton Museum and Gallery. Individuals under 26 have free entry. Entrance is charged at £3.50 for Brighton and Hove residents aged 27 and over.
Featured images property of Stephen Lawrence