The Great British Gilbert & George have become synonymous with contemporary British art. In conversation they uncover their views on London as the new Babylon, their conservatism and the impact of imperialism. This interview is taken from Thames & Hudson’s upcoming release London Burning: Portraits From A Creative City, a celebration ofBritain’s capital and creative hub.
In a way, you two epitomise London’s changing face in contemporary art and culture. You’ve become the cultural icons of your neighbourhood. For how long have you lived in the area?
George: Nearly half a century. We say that to take a walk around our neighbourhood is to take a walk around the world. The thoughts and feelings and visuals exist anywhere where there are people. What is happening in Brick Lane or in Spitalfields will almost certainly be happening somewhere else in the world tomorrow. It is sort of the beginning of things.
Gilbert: There used to be old Jewish factories here. They wanted to demolish everything, and some artists came here to live in one of the oldest parts of eighteenth-century London. It was restored and has become more and more the centre of the world, we feel. We used to say that Liverpool Street Station is where the rich and the immigrants and the artists are all mixing up together. The richest place in the world must be the City, where all the money goes through. Five minutes away is Brick Lane, which is famous in another way, and then all of the artistic culture ended up here in the East End. There is a certain freedom here. Here everything is boiling.
George: It’s always moving. First it’s Hoxton, then it’s Spitalfields, then it’s Dalston. We believe that it is super-modern, super up-to-date, but all of the history is here as well. All the great railway hotels are still here, all of the eighteenth-century buildings. This street was named after the Huguenots; the Edict of Nantes threw all of these people out of France. The next street is Wilkes Street, named for the man that invented freedom of the press. There is modernity and antiquity and the future side by side. Isn’t it wonderful?
London has had more than two thousand years of history and was an imperial centre for more than two centuries. Aside from the military skill and acumen that transposed the Empire across most of the world, what role did English culture play?
Gilbert: Darwin was English, and so was Alan Turing, who invented the computer. They changed the world for ever.
George: The Empire had its own attractions.
Walking down the street here, you might meet someone from Pakistan who hardly speaks any English and other people from different cultures. Does traditional ‘London-ness’ or ‘English-ness’ exist anymore?
Gilbert: London’s the new Babylon, don’t you think? Nobody can understand each other, but it is all happening.
George: People are coming from all over the world. For years we used to get stopped by people on Brick Lane who would say stuff like ‘I am concept artist from Bulgaria.’ Now, they say stuff like ‘I am curator from Slovakia.’ All curators suddenly. The only English language we hear in the evenings is from Americans, Australians and South Africans. No Cockney person would go to our restaurant, no indigenous person.
What’s happened to the Cockneys?
George: They are in Bethnal Green. We are their favourite artists. They are keen on us because they always thought that artists came from somewhere else. Finally they found some artists who were in their community.
So do you think of yourselves as London’s Pearly Kings of Art?
George: The acceptance is extraordinary. A lorry driving through the docks at Commercial Street stopped us, and what did he say, Gilbert? ‘Oy! My life’s a fucking moment; your art’s an eternity!’ The ultimate compliment! Then he drove off.
This art that you speak of: would you describe it as art of the people, as representative of the street?
George: We always said, ‘Art for all!’ That was our earliest slogan, from ’68.
Gilbert: We are searching for ways to live. I think that’s what the artist is doing.
Has any component of your art informed the debate around the evolution of contemporary London culture?
Gilbert: Oh yes! It’s not part of religion or politics, it’s culture and freedom to be able to challenge boundaries and accept more, like with sexuality.
George: When artists and writers and poets and musicians say that fucking about is okay, politicians have to say that fucking about is okay. If not, they’ll be voted out. No young person goes to the police station to check on how he should behave. No-one sees a priest to find out how they should behave. They go to a pop concert or a museum, a bookshop or something.
But when you started out saying these things, you were thought of as oddballs …
George: We said that we were conservative, and that was a big sin in the art world. Waiters, taxi drivers, with anybody else it’s fine, but in the London art world, you’re a Nazi child-molesting motherfucker if you’re conservative.
Have you stayed true to that line despite other people’s perceptions?
George: We believe in the individual.
Gilbert: There is a free market for art, and if you want to represent free people you should be able to make what you want and say what you want as well.
Enoch Powell predicted in the 1960s that unfettered immigration and the mixing of races would lead to rivers of blood. Fifty years on, do you see that happening or not?
George: It is part of an amazing celebration. We think everything is very positive in that way.
Gilbert: We are very optimistic about the future.
George: We like young people, we like what they are doing. We like it because we are in the middle of it. I don’t know where we are going, but we are going somewhere.
One side of your street is bookended by a church, and on the other side is a mosque that used to be a synagogue. Do you experience these constructs as religious encroachments or ever feel intimidated in your own neighbourhood?
George: No, not at all! We think it is fantastic.
Gilbert: We are not frightened of anybody.
What I have in mind are the parts of the Middle East that are under the control of Isis. Three-thousand-odd Europeans are going out there to fight, with five hundred or so Britons among them. The fellow who is beheading Americans and Britons is known as Jihadi John from the East End …
Gilbert: We are fighting for two values; that’s the battle that is going on. It’s medieval, what is happening out there, don’t you think?
Given your success, you could have easily moved down to Chelsea or Mayfair. Why didn’t you?
Gilbert: It’s dead down there.
But there are artists who frequent those areas …
Gilbert: Who? Give me names
So you believe that your creativity is partially down to living where you live? If you were sitting in Mayfair you’d be twiddling your thumbs?
Gilbert: We feel the world here. We have to feel the world. Our emotions when we go for a walk in the street, what we feel, are so complex. It wouldn’t be the same in Chelsea.
George: We are affected by London, but we have also affected it. We are making tomorrow.
Gilbert: We are helping to make people go to art galleries. Very few people used to go even to the Tate; going to a private gallery was unheard of. It was a place for posh people to entertain each other. Now everybody is going. They all want to see the new freedom that is brought about through art. That is a new religion, this freedom of thought, individuals who experiment in different ways with how we could behave.
George: A gallery in the ’70s was like a posh jewellery shop or a posh furriers. You wouldn’t go into a shop like that unless you were intent on buying something, right?
Gilbert: I remember the first gallerist we showed with. He went out to dinner with a posh lady and we were not allowed there ’cause we were poor artists.
This great churn, the powerful creative production house that has become this great city: are there any European parallels?
Gilbert: There is no other such city in Europe, not even Berlin. France is totally standing still; it’s dead. All the other countries are so deep in recession that they don’t know what to do.
George: So all the great artists from these places are here.
In effect you are the East India Company of modern London. You have helped establish the new order while becoming part of the Establishment even as the system has spurned you and you’ve been sidelined by the critics.
Gilbert: We never won, but we never lost.
George: The late Michael Sullivan loved London because he said it was like a polished coffin. Which it was, but now Paris is the polished coffin. There are still brass rails in shops that have been there since the 1890s, still that same dark green paint all over Paris.
Is there no chance that they will drag you out of here except in a polished coffin, then?
Gilbert: We have already set up a foundation, the Gilbert and George Centre, and that is going to be everything that we have.
Did you do that with the intention of promoting your ideas of creativity?
Gilbert: No. We want a legacy and we want it to be examinable: our designs and how we made them. Like William Blake – he had a visionary idea. To show that it is beyond just painting … It is a vision of living.
Is there an artist or writer that you both particularly admire?
Gilbert: Obviously William Blake. He personified what you could call looking at the world in a different way.
George: He has an amazing follower in me. Bunhill Fields, where he’s buried, was a cemetery for all of the people who weren’t part of the Church of England. We visit the graves there. There’s Daniel Defoe, the famous author, there’s John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, and there’s William Blake. Only one grave still gets flowers, and that’s William Blake’s.