Gilbert & George

Working collaboratively for 50 years, Gilbert & George have consistently been at the forefront of British contemporary art. Starting out as “Living Sculptures” — making “Art for All” — they evolved into fearless “picture” makers, willing to tackle a broad range of social subjects. With a six gallery exhibition of new work, titled “The Beard Pictures,” taking place internationally, Gilbert & George recently spoke with artBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster at New York’s Lehmann Maupin about their working process, humanist values and new fascination with beards.

What can you tell us about working together for 50 years?

George: We’re still here!

How did you meet?

George: We met at St. Martins School of Art in 1967. It had the most famous sculpture department in the world.
Gilbert: We were in a special course—one that didn’t have anything to do with the official college. It was more about experimentation.

When did you start showing together?

George: We exhibited together for our degree exhibition, except it wasn’t an exhibition in a gallery.
Gilbert: We hired a small café nearby and made all the students and professors leave the school and go there. I put three objects on one table, and George put three objects on another table. We gave everyone free tea and biscuits, and that was the first time we made art together.
George: We wanted to take art out of the normal context of school, where a group of students and tutors went around and discussed each person’s art in the same formal terms. No one ever mentioned content to me, or suggested that art could mean something — it only mattered if it was a “good piece.”
Gilbert: In school, art has its own language, but outside, it’s totally different. We didn’t know exactly what we were doing, but we were already exploring the idea of art in the world.

How did you conceive the idea of becoming Living Sculptures?

George: We were made into Living Sculptures. Most of the artists that came out of St. Martins immediately walked into part-time teaching jobs, which they thought was essential in order to make art because you can’t make art if you don’t have food. We could have never gotten a teaching position, especially as two people. And then other artists got grants for studio support or equipment from the Arts Council, but again, they wouldn’t give that to two young men called Gilbert & George.
We felt excluded.
Gilbert: Isolated.
George: Stranded, beached, left behind.
Gilbert: Every day, we had to try to find a way of succeeding, and since we didn’t have a studio, we realized that walking had to be our art. So we started sending out cards describing the events, like “Gilbert & George drinking tea.”
George: They were very successful.
Gilbert: Our German gallerist, Konrad Fischer, gave us his mailing list, and overnight, we were internationally famous.

Do you still consider your work in relation to sculpture?

Gilbert: In 1978, we started calling our artwork “Pictures.” It was simpler, as calling them sculptures would be misleading for a lot of people.
George: It was good in the art world, because we were trained as sculptors. Everything we do even now still comes out of sculpture, but for the vast general public it would be too confusing.
Gilbert: It came out of Living Sculpture, the moment we made ourselves the subject of our art. We are still the centre of it, but we are producing artwork that reflects our inner souls.

How did photography enter your practice?

George: Photography has always been there. People in the art world are so fond of the charcoal-on-paper sculptures — they call them drawings — but those are based on photographic images.
Gilbert: We aren’t unique in that way. In the last 100 years, nearly every artist has had a photograph in front of him.
George: Even before photography, artists made models of the scene they wanted, with little figures and two candles to get the lighting right.
Gilbert: A colour photograph is not so unlike a Renaissance painting. If you look at a Titian, it looks like a modern colour photograph.

How has digital technology affected your way of working?

George: It’s been an amazing revolution for us. It means we have a much wider vocabulary. It’s much easier and quicker.
Gilbert: We can work sitting down now — we used to have to go up and down a ladder hundreds of times a day deciding what areas we wanted to superimpose. On a computer, we’re able to cut, manipulate, and add colour in extraordinary ways.

Do you operate the computers yourself?

George: We’ve always worked alone — except with our old system of making pictures, when we used to hire a bunch of young people to help do the colouring, because it was very laborious.
Gilbert: We would do the outline and mask it, and then they would fill it in. It’s exactly how the computer masks it now.
George: It’s the same language.
Gilbert: But we’ve realized that many artists aren’t very inventive using computers. We’re much more inventive — we’re able to think of stuff that we want to do, rather than just doing what the computer lets us do.
George: We wouldn’t like to be baby artists leaving art school with a computer.

How much of your work is inspired by living in London?

George: Well, not London, exactly, it has to be East London, which is an amusing hub of activity. Sometimes when we walk, we switch off our visuals, so that we’re just conscious of sound. We can walk for a mile and never hear an English person speaking. It’s extraordinary. People from all over the world come to Brick Lane.
Gilbert: But it wasn’t like that 40 years ago. It was totally Jewish, and then some artists moved in. We were the first ones.
George: Then Somalis, briefly, and Bangladeshis next.

What inspired The Beard Pictures?

Gilbert: We started The Beard Pictures two and a half years ago. We began seeing barbed wire all over Europe and the talk of the wall in America. There were holes in the fences and beards on the other side. And then we started to see men with beards in our neighbourhood—the hipster beard and the religious beard. To have a beard or not to have a beard—it’s an important issue these days, even if you’re not religious.
George: When we were teenagers you couldn’t get a job if you had a beard, but it was normal to have a beard in the middle of the 19th Century. If you wanted to achieve something in the world you had to have a beard. Queen Victoria made her son grow a beard, so that he would look more progressive, more forward-thinking. Charles Dickens in the middle of his career grew a beard to make him look more genuine, more factual.

What kind of research did you do for this series?

Gilbert: Before starting on the series we collected images and put them together in groups, such as beards, fences and plants, as well as our heads, bodies and body parts. Then we started to design the pictures. We opened our big books with photographic contact sheets and saw two leaves that looked like beards and that’s how it began. Then we started to do the tree beard, the chair beard, the gate beard, the fence beard, the snake beard and so on.

When you were sourcing these images were they all photographs that you had taken or were they things from media sources, too?

Gilbert: We never use images that are not ours. We take our own pictures. We used to only shoot black and white film and add colour, but now we shoot digitally with colour and manipulate the images in the computer.

Do you photograph things that you see during your walks?

George: We let the pictures make themselves. We want to be mysterious about it. We don’t want to share or reflect life.
Gilbert: We believe that when you close your eyes what you see inside yourself is more interesting than what you see outside. We only shoot specific things for new bodies of work. We don’t shoot photos everyday. We start a project and then there is an end to it.

What about the portraits of your selves? Are they new images or ones from your archives?

Gilbert: They are all new.
George: When we start a new series we use new materials.
Gilbert: I take George. George takes me.

Does that have a relationship to performance?

George: We never did a performance. We’ve only made Living Sculptures.
Gilbert: When we started out we had this genius idea that we were the art—we were the Living Sculptures, walking through to the end of life. It’s us speaking to the world. That’s why we are always in the centre of our art. You see what’s in front of us and how we deal with it. It’s very private and personal, yet very open, as well.

Do your young artist friends ask you for advice?

George: We used to give advice to baby artists. They always wanted to know how to succeed. They thought that if we gave them a list of telephone numbers it would help, but we respond by saying there is nothing that we can tell you other than tomorrow morning when you wake up sit on the edge of the bed—don’t stand up—and with your eyes closed proclaim, “What do I want to say to the world today?” Don’t move until you decide. It doesn’t matter what you do, but do something.

How does that work for you?

Gilbert: We’ve made ourselves alone in front of the world—without all of the baggage of history. That’s very important to us and it’s why we are able to make new pictures again and again.
George: We realised that we didn’t want to be normal, because everyone is. And we didn’t want to be weird because all artists are. We decided we wanted to be weird and normal at the same time. That works very well because it keeps our heads free. Our heads are empty and open for us to create within.

Relative to your social concerns, do you read the newspapers and watch television?

George: We buy a newspaper in the morning and we watch the news at six o’clock every day—to check on the enemy!

Where are you exhibiting The Beard Pictures?

Gilbert: There are six shows in the US, Europe and the UK. We start in New York with a big show at Lehmann Maupin and then go to Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris. In Brussels we have a smaller show at Albert Baronian, and then a big one at White Cube in London and a medium one at Galleria Alfonso Artiaco in Naples. The final show takes place at Bernier/Eliades Gallery in Athens.
George: We’ve made hundreds of these beard pictures—from big to bigger—and they’re all unique. Every gallery has a different group of pictures, a different invite, a different catalogue and a different set of posters—all designed by us. We are very excited to see where the beard can take us.

Portrait of Gilbert & George at Lehmann Maupin, New York. Photo by Paul Laster

GILBERT & GEORGE. BEARD HONOR, 2016. Mixed media, 88.98 x 149.61 inches 226 x 380 cm LM25897
© Gilbert & George. Courtesy the artists and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong