LIVING SCULPTURES. The artist duo Gilbert & George is made up of Italian-born Gilbert Proesch (b. 1943) and British George Passmore (b. 1942).  They have lived and worked together in London for 50 years and have made their mark on the international art scene.  Together they create large formatted photo-based works in a graphic style with bright colors, as well as paintings, collages, performances and video works.  Gilbert & George do not separate life and art and can often be seen in their own works, which depict a wide range of human experiences such as religion, sexuality, identity, urban life, terrorism, superstition, AIDS, old age and death.

What is your artwork?

Our artwork is very hand made, and artistically done, but we like that you can’t see the hand.  We invented a new language, how to speak with a new form of two dimensional pictures.  We believe in the power of the two dimensional picture.  We stopped making artistic drawings in 1975 because people liked the aesthetics and didn’t realise the content and meaning of what we were trying to speak to them.

For you art is not aesthetic?

The form is very important as the servant of the meaning.  It is not the boss.  It has to carry the message to the viewer.  We were brought up in a college tradition where form was all.  Colour, shape and form was what it was all about.  Nobody discussed death, life, and hope.

Are you abstract artists?

We are trying to empty our soul, to speak directly to the viewer.  We were able to make the human person again the centre of the art, and to show emotions that were totally taboo in 1970.  To show fear, unhappiness, hope, drinking.  We were able to show our emotions.  We use our heads, pour souls and sex to make a picture, and every viewer has to use their head, soul and sex to view it.  The artwork is only finished when there is a viewer in front of it.

“We do no cooking at home, there is no kitchen.”

The artists Gilbert & George have lived together in London’s Spitalfields for fifty years.

How is it to work together?

We are two people but we are one artist.  That is the key.  We start by both taking images and material that speaks to us at the time.  We take pictures around here, we don’t go somewhere to be inspired, and we have four Nikon cameras.

Where do you take pictures?

In the studio, in the yard or outside.  We never travel to take pictures.

How do you work?

When we have enough material we open up all the contact sheets and walk from book to book, taking the images that inspire us that day.  We use black and white images and then we add the colour.  We do one design a day, and then it takes two days to make, adding the layers like an artist always did in the Renaissance.  We are trying to find the moral dimension, not just the image.

What is the moral dimension?

We make a composition with images and we use computers, but they don’t make these pictures.  How we are is how the pictures will be.  We lift them out from inside ourselves, our mental and moral position at the time.

Why did you become artists?  Gilbert is from the Dolomites and George from Devon.

The artist has to express himself.  Gilbert: I never had any other idea.  George: I saw my uncle doing little paintings.  I was 7 and that was it.  I read a book of van Gogh’s letters as an early teenager.  He did it all wrong and he won!  You don’t have to do it right.

What happened when you met at St Martin’s Art College in London in 1967?

It was a love story.  We believed that we were artists.  We weren’t practicing to be artists.  We were lower class people with no safety net.  We were outsiders and didn’t fit in, but were able to function because we are two people, so it was very powerful.  Everyone else was doing so-called normal art, and we invented this idea of living sculpture.  We were the emotional artists, speaking to the viewer.  We expressed it in many different ways and expressed ourselves like crazy.  We sent out images and became famous overnight.

Were you aware of the world of art?

We were late developers.  We wanted only our art.  In ten years of art school we saw every Madonna and Jesus and wanted to remove ourselves from that and do something new.  The living sculpture was new.  We thought differently from other art students who were trying to get somewhere with exhibitions.  We went to galleries and showed them our art; which was us, with a suit on.  We never wanted to be the artist the mother would be ashamed of, so we were not shabby bohemians.

Are you politically incorrect?

More now than before.  We became worldly in 1975/76.  Our art became a journey through life, like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  We didn’t fit in, but some people liked us.  The famous art dealer Conrad Fisher saw us at the ICA in London in 1969.  He said, “Come to Dusseldorf and do the singing sculpture.”  In London we didn’t do them with metallised heads.  In Dusseldorf we did, for 8 hours, with all metallised heads.  All the people who stood there were crying, filled with emotions.  We never thought of it as an alienating performance, but as living sculpture.

(At this point in the interview Gilbert & George spontaneously sing “Underneath the Arches” a 1932 popular song.)

“We are two people but one artist.”

Were you in any groups or movements?

No groups.  We never were.  We were friends with the Arte Povera movement and Pistoletto.  Andy Warhol came to see the singing sculpture.  We are not friends with artists any more.  It’s all gossip and money.  We are still fighting for our form.  Art with paper photography was not accepted in the museums.  We had a show in Munich and they said: “If only they were painted we could sell them all!”

Do you do many shows?

Last year we did six shows: New York, Paris, London at the White Cube and at Thaddaeus Ropac, Naples and Essen.  It took three years to make the pictures.  This year among others we have a huge exhibition in Arles: ‘Gilbert & George: The Great Exhibition (1971-2016)’ which runs from July 2nd to January 6th 2019 and is presented by LUMA.  Then there are exhibitions at Galerie Thaddaeus in Salzburg from July 28th to October 5th, and at HAM (Helsinki Art Museum) from October 12th to February 19th 2019.  We like exhibitions.  We like a public.

Do you sell a lot of work?

We sell 20% of what we make.  We have a Foundation and we bought a building two minutes’ walk from our house in Spitalfields, London.  We need to restore that building and it and the house will become part of the Foundation.  We do it because we want to be immoral.


That too!

Some artists are known for one thing.  What about you?

We are very famous as two people.

Thinking of Gilbert & George, do you have periods?

We are full of periods: Living Sculpture, Charcoal on Paper Sculptures, Living Drawings and Nature, Drinking Pieces.  Like all artists, we drink, and we created art around drinking and intoxication and we did drinking sculptures.  We did Cherry Blossom; Human Bondage; Bad Thoughts; Dead Heads, Mental – we felt we were mental; Red Morning; the Dirty Words Pictures; Are you angry or are you boring?  We started with black and white, and it took us two years to find red, and two years to find yellow.

An image from DEATH HOPE LIFE FEAR. 1984. 423 x 1919 cm, mixed media by Gilbert & George

An image from SCAPEGOATING. 2013. 381 x 1963 cm, mixed media by Gilbert & George

An image from SHITTY NAKED HUMAN WORLD. 1984. 338 x 2656 cm, mixed media by Gilbert & George

An image from DEATH HOPE LIFE FEAR. 1984. 423 x 1919 cm, mixed media by Gilbert & George

An image from SCAPEGOATING. 2013. 381 x 1963 cm, mixed media by Gilbert & George

An image from SHITTY NAKED HUMAN WORLD. 1984. 338 x 2656 cm, mixed media by Gilbert & George

“We fight every day for our vision.”

How is your life?

We are badly behaved in art and well behaved in life.  Over the years our life is a reflection of life.  Our pictures are forming our tomorrows better.  We are creating different levels of freedom.  How to behave in the modern world of today, without god, the vicar and the pope.

What is your philosophy?

Love your neighbour.  Don’t beat up your neighbour, unless he likes it!  John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is like a visionary art.  William Blake is a visionary artist.  We are very against religion, but we deal with it, now it is very important.  We don’t like fake gods.  The waiter at our favourite restaurant said: “I don’t believe in all the man-made gods.  I am a Muslim.”

Do you eat at the same restaurant all the time?

The same Turkish restaurant for at least 20 years.  We do no cooking at home, there is no kitchen.  In the morning we go to a café and have one marmalade toast and coffee.  We wake at 5am, have breakfast at 7, and go for lunch between 11 and 11.30.

What do you eat for lunch?

It has become more difficult now that our local Italian cafes have gone.  We have lived here for 50 years, and now everybody is from another place.  We work in the afternoon and have dinner at 8 at the Turkish restaurant.  We don’t have alcohol in the house, except for entertaining with a glass of champagne.

Do you still drink?

Gilbert: I have had no drink in 15 years.

George: I have an occasional beer.

You have been together for 50 years.  Do you fight?

We always call that a great heterosexual question.

Who are your friends?

We don’t want other people in our lives, we don’t want people around us.  We don’t want a relationship with museums.  We have a very small group of very special young friends who we like and can trust.  We have rolling new generations all the time.

What are you looking for?

We still want to win.  We want to be loved more.  We do art because we want to win and be loved.  The world of Gilbert & George has lasted many years.  Our success is if the pictures succeed.

What is the key of your success?

Regimentation.  Seven pairs of identical shoes and many suits.  The whole exercise is to keep the brain empty and free.  The more orderly our life is, the crazier you can be with the pictures.  We have two privileges. The first is that we are totally free to say whatever we want in our pictures.  The second is to take whatever we want out into the world.

How is the world of today?

Utopia is here now.  The world is an enormous success and the western world is an even greater success.  A western triumph!  It is extraordinary.  You can travel.  You can see every book and video.  We feel amazing that we can do what we can do.

What is fun for you?

Winning with our ideas, that’s what it is.  We fight every day for our vision.  Our belief is art for all, winning over the people.  We care about that very much.


Spitalfields, London. 2018

All images © Gilbert & George.

With special thanks to Yu Yigang and also Phoebe Adler at Heni Publishing.


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