Q&A: Gilbert & George
by James Gaddy, 05/07/2012
Through June 23, Lehmann Maupin and Sonnabend art galleries are hosting simultaneous shows of the latest works from Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore, better known as the single—and singular—name Gilbert & George. Channeling the spirit of Victorian-era gentility in dress and mannerisms, the two men first became famous in the late 1960s with their "living sculptures," a mix of theatrical performance enhanced by their well-dressed, polite personas that inverted accepted notions of society, convention, fine art and dowdy Britishness all at once.
For their latest exhibition, London Pictures, the duo used 3,712 found newspaper posters splashed with the day's most grisly tabloid headlines: "Girl Found Hanged in Wardrobe," "Sex Beast Tore Off Victim's False Arm," "Student Death Mystery." The posters are grouped around words that commonly occur in these headlines—words like "found," "suicide," "thugs," "playboy," "gunman"—then photographed. The artists replaced the background with film noir–like shots of brick facades and empty streets, as they themselves peer back from behind the letters.
Grim as the show's subject matter may be, the artists themselves are not ones to dwell on death and destruction in conversation. When interviewed on the day of the Lehmann Maupin show opening, they instead exuded a sense of childlike wonder, using words like "extraordinary," "amazing" and "interesting." For them, working with such grim subject matter is a way to confront the unthinkable and honor the dead. "Each poster represents a deep human tragedy," says George. "We're celebrating the lives and deaths of a huge number of people."
Interestingly, none of the works lift headlines from the more yellow British tabloids such as the Daily Mirror, The Sun and what Gilbert & George refer to as the "so-called vulgar papers" like Sport. Instead, they come from the more traditional London Evening Standard and smaller local papers like The Hackney Gazette and the East London Advertiser. "It is the world as it is," they say.
Dressed in their usual tweed and ties, the duo spoke to nycgo.com about the show itself as well as their own nostalgia for a scruffier New York, the current Rupert Murdoch wiretapping scandals and how the art world has changed since they began working more than 40 years ago. "Galleries used to be like fur-coat shops," George says. "You didn't go in one unless you were going to buy something." Through June 23, you can go to Lehmann Maupin—both the Chelsea and Lower East Side locations—and Sonnabend galleries to see the work for yourself.
You've said that you stole the nearly 4,000 posters off the streets of London to make these pictures. Can you elaborate on how you did that?
George: We had to steal them because at first we thought it would be simple to ask the news agent to keep last week's poster, when the new one comes in, rather than throw it away. So we tried that, and the minute we asked, they became deeply suspicious and aggressive and asked, "Why would you want a poster with the word 'murder' on it—what sort of pervert are you?" Years ago, we used to take pictures of bird droppings on the street and where people had spit, and the moment we started, members of the public became very aggressive toward us. There's something inside [all of] us that doesn't want to look at these things.
Gilbert: And these subjects are not exaggerated.
George: Journalists tend to think that these are some kind of comment on the media. But you can see right there it says, "Two Hurt in Street Shootings." "Spate of Shootings Rocks Town." They're very plain, in fact. A lot of people have likened them to an urban horror version of haiku.
Gilbert: When we had the Tate show in London, we made up a tabloid headline for our own show.
George: "Perv Duo Desecrates Tate."
Gilbert: Because they would say that about us!
How did you determine which part of the headlines to change or rearrange?
George: We didn't change anything.
Gilbert: That would be very unartistic.
George: We just photographed them as they are. It would be un-Christian to interfere.
Explain why the backgrounds of your posters seem to have a film noir quality to them.
Gilbert: When you walk the streets of London, you feel the surface of old buildings and the people moving around, so we tried to re-create a journalistic ghost of London, in a way.
How do the ghosts of London and New York compare?
George: Walk on First or Second Avenue and you can certainly feel them when you see the names of shops of people who are clearly long dead.
Gilbert: It's very nostalgic, downtown New York. Ukrainians, Italians, old churches—it's all mixed up down there. And the bums next door to our hotel.
George: We didn't understand what happened, because when we were here in the '70s, all of the tramps were very aggressive and singing very loud, shouting, coming up to you and grabbing you, drooling in the corner. And now they're totally well behaved—they don't look at you, they don't beg, they don't shout. It's all very civilized.
How would you compare the newspaper culture of New York and London?
Gilbert: There are many more newspapers in London. And there is a big market for news about culture. Even the galleries are interested in press. And that's becoming more true in New York as well.
Do you think that's a part of your own legacy?
George: "Art for all." We did campaign for that. We didn't want to be willfully obscure, which a lot of artists like to be because it makes them feel more superior. "Nobody gets it—I'm great!"
Gilbert: That's why we made cheap catalogs and posters.
George: Mostly to people 25 years and under. And contrary to expectations, the ones that were more difficult—or the ones you would think would be more difficult—they were the ones bought the most.
When you say "difficult," you mean more confrontational?
George: Yes, because young people want to be challenged. They don't say, "Which is the nicest one for me?" They say, "Which is the one that will annoy my parents the most?"
What do you think of the News of the World eavesdropping scandals in London?
George: We're rather a bit mystified by it, actually. People have always been eavesdropping. Servants have always listened at the doors of their employers. There's a policeman always on plainclothes duty at the pub to see what he can pick up. We understand people's objection to it, but we don't understand how you plan to police it.
Gilbert: We are pro freedom of the press, totally. We don't like it sometimes, and we want to strangle them sometimes, but we are pro it. It's a very good thing in the end.
George: Because when people say, "Oh, my god, this is depressing, these murders and war and shootings and things," we see it as a celebration of the simple fact that there are so many countries in the world where you cannot have a poster with the word "sex" on it. It's not allowed. And there are many countries where the press is controlled by a department of the government. There seems to be this feeling among artists that needs to be anti press, but the London Pictures are not anti the press.
So if your show in New York were to make the front page of the New York Post or the Daily News, would you consider that a success?
Gilbert: Oh, yes.
Gilbert: In London we did quite well. We got on page two.
George: Of the Daily Mirror. Which is a huge number of people who have never heard of us or gone to galleries or read reviews. It's much better than being in the review section.