Since Monday, a collection of exhibitionistic Londoners have seized their opportunity to stand on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square for an hour, to be gazed at by passers-by, as if theyw ere statues, like Lord Nelson. Antony Gormley's project, entitled One and Other, has drawn praise from art critics and the general public. But what do Gilbert and George make of it? They were, after all, the first "Living Sculpture", installed in proper galleries as breathing works of art, from their first appearance on the steps of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1969, dressed in suits, hands and faces painted gold, singing "Underneath the Arches". Were they impressed or dismayed by this unconscious public homage?
"Every artist nowadays puts themselves in their art," said George, dismissively.
"All over the world, many others are part of the art work in some crazy way," said Gilbert, who is Italian.
"Exhibiting their vomit, or whatever," said George, cattily.
"For 20 years, people ask us why we're in our own pictures – then it stopped because everyone's in their art," averred Gilbert.
"They laughed at the living sculpture idea, but now every newspaper and TV station accepts it as normal," George summed up.
But hang on, I said, these plinth-occupiers aren't artists. They're ordinary people. What do you make of the general public's determination to be works of art?
"Speakers' Corner, innit?" said Gilbert after a silence.
"Boring tourist attraction," said George, bitchily, "like the Crown Jewels. Nobody sees them except tourists."
"I haven't been to Speakers' Corner since I came to London," said Gilbert, dreamily. "But the Stedelijk Museum took a colour photograph of us on the stairs, and it's been the best-selling postcard there ever since."
"It was our biggest success," said George. "And when we were refused entry to the ICA, we went to the opening as the Living Sculpture, and stole the show!"
"It was the beginning of G'n'G!" said Gilbert triumphantly.
I make one last try. Your slogan in the past has been 'Art for All,' is the plinth experiment an example of that? Or just a lot of people trying to be in the limelight?
"I think that sort of art is popular, whereas we are famous," said George. "There's a big difference. People have stopped us on the street and said, 'Aren't you the famous...?' But they never say, 'Aren't you the popular...?'"
Welcome to the world of Gilbert and George, where every conversation ends up with them, their achievement, their history and their work; where they behave with scrupulous politeness, but are silkenly rude or competitive about all other artists; and where they chat antiphonally, constantly reinforcing or refining each other's words, repeating themselves with minor shifts of tone. After a while you realise it's a performance, a duet that aspires to be a solo.
For 40 years they have disconcerted (and annoyed) critics and art lovers by creating big, unsubtle photographic artworks featuring their own bodies – clothed, naked, mangled, distorted, sexualised – alongside, among other things, blown-up slides of blood, shit, piss and sperm. Despite their resemblance to formally-dressed butlers or bank managers, their art is always out to shock: the Dirty Words exhibition featured photos of extreme London graffiti; the Fundamental Pictures invited spectators to examine their anuses. After years of exhibitionism, critics began to say, 'Put it away, you two, we've seen it all before' .
In 2007, after years of neglect while the Young British Artists, like Hirst, Emin and the Chapmans – Gilbert and George's artistic godchildren – made headlines, the duo were given a life's-work exhibition at Tate Modern. It was the largest retrospective ever held at the gallery, and was followed by a gruelling 18-month tour. This week they're back with the fallout from that trauma: the Jack Freak pictures, a huge collection of 153 images, from which a selection is being exhibited at London's White Cube galleries. I called round to their home in Fournier Street, Spitalfields, where they've lived for 40 years. On the wall of their huge studio, all 153 images shimmered in poster-paint reds, blues and blacks. The artists were their immaculately suited-and-tied selves, George (67) in taupe, Gilbert (66) in dove-grey, both with matching ties. Gilbert's hair was carefully brushed forward, George's bald pate shone. Their manner was solicitous and chatty, but slightly edgy and defensive at the same time.
Did they socialise much with Jay Jopling, owner of the Cube and, after Charles Saatchi, the most influential figure in British art?
Gilbert (guardedly): Lunch...
George: ... a couple of times a year, maybe. We don't...
Me: Go on.
George: I was going to say, we don't mix much with dealers, but it sounds so snobbish. (Laughs.)
Gilbert: He bought one of our art books when he was young.
George: He was a baby fan.
Gilbert: He knocked on the door of this house once, in 1986, before he had the gallery. We were at the Anthony D'Offay gallery then.
George (darkly): D'Offay manipulated us.
Gilbert (vehemently): He terrorised us in a stupid way.
George: He told us, 'Your painting aren't selling' just to see how we'd react.
Gilbert: When we found Jay Jopling had a gallery large enough for us to show in, we jumped at it.
"But we've always had other galleries," said George, in case they risked sounding like victims. "We've always been independent."
"We have many galleries," said Gilbert, robotically.
The "Jack" in Jack Freak Pictures is the Union Jack flag, which features in 60 per cent of the images. The artists wear Jack suits and pose in Jack haloes. Christ on the cross sports a Jack loincloth ("I don't think that's ever been seen before," murmurs George proudly) and the image of the conjoined kingdoms marches round the borders of several painting and is ruthlessly exploded in others. Gilbert and George, meanwhile, with the aid of a huge graphic workstation and a lot of digital manipulation, mangle their bodies and features into hideously grotesque shapes. The results are startlingly vivid, if seldom beautiful, and manically concerned with distorted humanity, with faces wrenched into images from Hieronymous Bosch.
Why the Union Jack? Hasn't it become a cliché, from the 1960s up to Geri Halliwell, taking in a few neo-fascist flags along the way?
"It's the most amazing and extraordinary symbol of all time," said Gilbert. "What does it mean to us, to put on a Union Jack suit? What does it mean to a middle-class person, or a poor person, or a cockney or an Australian or an American? And in Iran you see people burning it."
"It's one of the few flags you can represent in black and white," said George, who likes to show learning. "You can chop it up and stir it up and still recognise it. American tourists who wear Union Jack hats, they've no idea that it's actually two crosses, both used for crucifixions. Jesus was certainly killed that way. It was called the Crusaders' Cross, used for beating hell out of the Muslims. But we're also celebrating the Acts of Union in 1604 and 1801. We're very anti the devolution of parliament. I don't think splitting up the country into separate entities is a good idea."
Now, I'm no historian, but I'm pretty sure the Union Jack goes back only as far as 1600 or so, and wouldn't have been available to the crusaders. And I know the Act of Union in 1801 united England and Ireland, but the other Acts were in 1707 (Scotland) and 1536 (Wales.) It's hard, however, to interrupt Gilbert and George in full flow, with some disobliging facts. Their world is so wholly self-enclosed that things like dates don't matter. Nor does consistency. They like to proclaim their Thatcherite conservatism, but ask whether they deprecate the changing face of London and they'll chorus, "But we love change". They routinely abuse all forms of organised religion, but call themselves "Christian secularists." And when it comes to their current reputation, well...
Me: How much does it mean to you, to be recognised by the art establishment?
Gilbert (shocked): We aren't recognised.
George (appalled): We aren't part of the establishment.
Me: You were given this huge retrospective at the Tate. You used to be furious about not having one. So how do you feel now?
Gilbert (sulkily): Exactly the same. We were establishment for three months, while the show was on. Now we're back again.
George: We were an enormous success with the general public. Not with the media, but the general public.
They're at great pains to protect their reputation as unpredictable outlaws, who never join in movements, who make no friendships (it keeps them "purer") never take holidays (because it softens you) and never visit art galleries. Their lives are self-regimented to a punishing degree. They rise at 6am every morning, breakfast at the same market café (they don't possess a kitchen), work a full day photographing and manipulating images on the computer, part company at 6pm to walk separately to the same Kurdish restaurant, before returning to Fournier Street at 10pm for TV and bed. No theatre, cinema, music or art shows, though they admit to a weakness for TV's Midsomer Murders. They got married last year in the local registry office at Bow, and celebrated with lunch at an Indian restaurant. Why the civic union, after so many years together? "Because if one of us died, the other would be finished," said George. Emotionally? No: he meant their share of each one's money would go to their families rather than to each other.
It must be said that, no matter how affected they may seem, Gilbert and George are terribly good company. When we met before, in 2002, they seemed a little detached and chilly. Today, they're friendly, charming, even confiding. Gilbert tells me his father was a shoemaker during the war and that the Fascists tried to make the family (Proesch) change their name to something more Italian. Such as? "They wanted us to be called Prada."
There's no denying the warm interest they've always taken in their neighbours. I mentioned that the Union Flag had been hijacked for political purposes by the BNP. "You know what BNP stands for don't you?" asked George. "The Bangladeshi National Party, here on Brick Lane. We get leaflets from them, saying Vote BNP."
"And the extreme Muslims beside the mosque," said Gilbert. "They're selling Union Jacks on – what are they, George?"
"On souvenirs, on ashtrays and pen stands."
"They normally sell extreme Islamic literature," George explained. "And books addressed to newly arrived immigrants. We've bought them. They say things like: 'Don't think you're going to integrate by sending the odd Christmas card, because you'll rot in hell if you do' or 'Don't think you're integrating if you go to the office party for 10 minutes, because you'll rot in hell too'. But the same shop is now selling Union Jack souvenirs."
"It's funny," said Gilbert, "because the flag, in some funny way, once stood for anti-immigration. Now the people selling it are very anti-integration."
Many of the Jack Freak pictures show medals on display – the kind of medals that used to be dished out for sporting prowess at school. I thought I could understand what lay behind the medal theme: they're questioning a whole world of old-fashioned values, like honour, duty, valour. Was that right?
Gilbert looked at me quizzically. "No, it's about the past, the past, the past. We hold up these medals and celebrate their owners."
"We're celebrating dead people," said George.
But aren't you (I insisted) subverting the whole idea of awards, as you're deconstructing the UK flag?
"It's such a cliché," said George sadly, "that art is assumed to be anti-establishment. We're the opposite"
Arrrrggghh! I thought we'd already agreed about what crazy rebels they were. Next thing, (I said) you'll be saying that the Union Jacks are in the show to express your sincere patriotism.
"There's nothing wrong with patriotism," said George smoothly. "Not enough of it around, in my view."
Their utterances are so contradictory, they threaten to drive you mad. After a while, you start to wonder if there if there's any intellectually connecting tissue in the paintings beyond a random disbursal of effects: trees, medals, pages of the London A-Z, portraits of the artists as revolting mutants. To my surprise, towards the end of our interview, Gilbert and George began to explain.
"We have this structure," said Gilbert, "We take images which somehow speak to us, like the trees speak of unhappiness or of dark winters, or these little leaflets in Brick Lane in which the Muslims shout against us, or these cards with sexual poses, they interest us and that's why we collect these images."
"We don't believe in having clear ideas about what we want to do," said George. "We like to let ourselves fall into something. We were collecting postcards about the UK and they became such a huge collection, they inspired us to celebrate the Act of Union. So choosing the Union Jacks came about by accident."
And the folding of your faces into grotesqueness? Whose idea was that?
"That's about the distortion of our heads when we get old," said Gilbert. "Looking through your own eyes, you start to see yourself as totally different than when you stand before a mirror."
Well, well. So Gilbert and George, in their sixties, have come clean about the real subject of their art?
"It's about seeing the body falling apart into small bits and putting it back together," said Gilbert. "We feel they are like small pieces of abortions."
"When you look in the mirror, you never see what you feel, do you?" said George. "We're always amazed on the TV news when a man is arrested for murdering 13 girls and the neighbours say, he seemed such a nice fellow."
Gilbert looked at him as though momentarily annoyed by his partner's superficiality.
"Ees about the monster," he said. "The freakishness of everybody. The Michael Jackson of everybody. That's what it is."
Jack Freak, today to 22 August, White Cube, Mason's Yard and Hoxton Square, London (020-7930 5373)Reuse content