Profile Gilbert and George: The distinctly odd couple

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Life Story

Birth: Gilbert Proesch in San Martino in the Italian Dolomites in 1943; George Passmore in Plymouth, Devon in 1942

Education: Gilbert studied at Wolkenstein School of Art, Hallein School of Art and Munich Academy of Art. George studied at Dartington Adult Education Centre, Dartington Hall College of Art and Oxford School of Art. They met in 1967 at Central St Martin's

First appearance: Frank's Sandwich Bar, London, 1968

Other appearances: Robert Fraser Gallery, Nigel Greenwood Inc, Robert Self and Anthony d'Offay galleries. Many appearances at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the Hayward Gallery. There was a 30-year retrospective at the Musee d'Art Moderne in Paris in 1997

Works: Sperm Eaters; Spit on Shit; Bum Holes; Shitted

Ansafone message: "Good morning. You have telephoned Gilbert and George. We are not available at present"

They say: "We seek to speak across the barriers of knowledge directly to people about their

life and not about their knowledge of art"

And they add: "We think we should be able to make a sculpture that can address every man, every woman, every child; whether in Africa, New Zealand or anywhere. `Art for All' means an art that everyone can have a look at, be part of"

Others say: "The evil of banality" (Peter Fuller)

"Where there is an absence of beauty, impossibility of beauty, the overthrow of beauty's empire, there Gilbert and George stand drivelling their ritual paean of the beautiful, uttering the word in the same tone of voice as they utter `shit', `fuck', `cock' and `buggery'" (Roger Scruton)

"Self-obsessed men whose own images are central to compositions that embrace scatology, foul language, confused religions and political beliefs, and the nudity of adolescent boys" (Brian Sewell)

Who are Gilbert and George, and why is everyone saying such terrible things about them? The difficulty with this question, many people may have supposed, at least until earlier this week, is that the first part won't work with the second part. Surely everyone knows who they are? And to know that is to know why there might be objections to them: they are shockers, art-shockers; they make art that shocks. Plus they are gay (although the artists themselves never say this; they say it's no one's business if they are - but to everyone else they certainly seem to be gay). And they make very large pictures of totally nude men and human turds. These pictures are often in the papers. One of them, entitled Eight Shits, shows six turds and themselves - so it's clear they are artists of "attitude".

The shouting in Belfast at the moment - the "tides of filth" and the rest of it - reminds us of the pair's existence once again, but also of how extreme they are. What previously seemed so "given", so much part of urban chattering cleverness, suddenly seems open to question. How did they become Gilbert and George? Who gave them the idea - the permission? Can they be stopped? Should they be stopped? What is it they do, anyway? Is George secretly married? Which one is he?

Gilbert and George were both born in the early Forties, within a year or so of each other. George was brought up in Totnes, where he moved with his mother and brother as a result of the Blitz. Gilbert was born in the Italian Dolomites, a region connected to Italy but with its own language, Ladino, incomprehensible to the rest of the country. Both were brought up poor.

Gilbert's upbringing was arty and, at first at least, not too unhappy. He was trained as a woodcarver in his father's workshop, turning out Bambis and nativity scenes. George effectively had no dad - he seems to have left home before George was born. George's brother was converted to Christianity by Billy Graham in the Fifties, and is now a vicar. George sought out his father in the early Sixties, and after making contact with him lost it again for ever. (Later, his father was converted by George's brother.) George's mother, Hermione Ernestine, had three divorces and a lot of boyfriends. Divorces were uncommon in Totnes at the time. When Hermione Ernestine was leaving the court after one of them, and came face to face with a gawping crowd, she called out: "Lock 'em up, girls, I'm free!" She sends George a shirt every Christmas and recently she started including a tie for Gilbert (whom she'd previously resented).

At 15 George left school to work in a shop. He had already started painting - he exhibited a small work in the local annual exhibition; it was called The Estrangement, and represented a family row. He and his brother always saw themselves as, in George's words, "lower class", and they wanted to "better" themselves. Their home had three rooms - a bedroom where they all slept, a kitchen, and a damp room with nothing in it except a chamberpot. Down the corridor was a shared lavatory. There was no radio, no nice furniture; everything was run-down.

After the shop he got into the art class at Dartington Hall, a famous progressive education place that was often in the news because of sex scandals. He was in a class of 10, the only one on a grant. He thought the school was wonderful; it seemed to represent an ideal society. He did well for three years but then failed to get into a teacher-training college in Corsham and decided to hitch-hike to London. There, he got a job in Selfridges in the china section, and an evening job as a barman at the Players Club on the Strand. Part of his work at the Players involved a music-hall routine, theatrically bringing on the first pint of the evening, and joining in with some kind of singing and performing. Then he went to Oxford and got a place at the technical college, studying art for a year. And he got himself a place on the Advanced Sculpture course at Central St Martin's art school in London. It was 1965. Two years later, Gilbert arrived on the course.

Gilbert couldn't speak English at this point; he communicated by sign language. Some friendly German students - whom Gilbert affectionately dubbed the "Nazi bitches" - helped him to make himself understood. He could speak German because he'd been studying sculpture at the Munich Academy for eight years. When he'd started there, he'd been horribly bullied for being different, for being a Ladino - his torments included being stripped naked, being hung upside down by his feet from a high window, and being packed into a trunk partly filled with wet clay. But, because he was recognised as the best sculptor in the academy, he become popular and his tormentors became his friends. When he arrived at St Martin's, like George he was naturally strange.

The sculpture course at St Martin's in the mid-Sixties was like Goldsmiths Art School in the Eighties and Nineties - a hotbed of avant-gardism. The idea was to be completely revolutionary; any materials could be art, it was thought. Also there was a creed of "truth to materials". That meant you had to go along with what the material wanted to do - be regular and angular if it was iron, say. Gilbert and George, now a pair, seem to have chosen annoyance as their main material. They certainly annoyed Anthony Caro, the course's most celebrated teacher at the time, who told George he hoped he wouldn't succeed but he feared he might. At St Martin's they invented the personas they now have. Or, at any rate, they found a way to project these personas as "art".

They were still at St Martin's when they developed one of their most famous routines, the Singing Sculptures. Everything they did was called a "sculpture" - it might be a Magazine Sculpture, or a Drunk Sculpture - but never a carved or modelled sculpture. For this one they painted their heads and hands with metallised paint and posed stiffly for eight hours, miming to Flanagan and Allen's "Underneath the Arches". They painted their faces so that people would feel free to go up to them and stare, as if they were objects - "You have to become different, otherwise it doesn't mean anything," George says. "It was very important that we came from a tradition of making sculpture."

They were partly opposed to the creeds of art at that time, but were also partly liberated, or enabled, by them. They tended to literalise them in an extreme way - just as today they literalise what it means to be obscene (an American dictionary, for example, defines "obscene" as something involving nudity and filth.) Their invitation card for the Singing Sculptures included the phrase "the most intelligent, fascinating, serious and beautiful art piece you have ever seen".

It was 1968 now, and they felt they were artists. However, they were insulted to find that nobody had thought to include them in a big international survey show of new Minimal and Conceptual art - When Attitudes Become Form - held in London that year.To express their disgust they painted their heads, put on their suits and stood motionless in the centre of the gallery on the opening night, and were promptly offered a show at the Dusseldorf Kunsthalle by a German dealer, Konrad Fischer. Their international career then took off.

Their progress to today's effluvia outrages took a course from Singing Sculptures through huge, naive-style charcoal and pencil drawings showing themselves in woodland settings as romantic, artistic wanderers. They say they didn't know how to "use" the urban in those days, so went for the rural instead. They set a price of pounds 1,000 on one of the drawings, thinking of it as a joke, and were surprised a few days later when it was sold for that sum by Konrad Fischer.

You could say that there have been broadly three stages of outrage against Gilbert and George. The first was outrage caused by their apparent lack of skill; the second was outrage against their perceived racism or fascism; the third - the current one - is outrage against filth. These correspond broadly to stages of their notoriety. First they were notorious within an art world ghetto, and more and more they became notorious beyond that. They became more fundamentally outrageous, moving from jokes about language - including the accepted language of art - to jokes about Christianity, via jokes about right-on politics. In each case, the joke involved literalism. And, in each case, their literalism is itself frequently taken literally by their audience - they really are stupid, they really are racist, they really are filthy.

Throughout the Seventies they produced photo-works and video works. These showed them standing still, walking stiffly, drinking. They were all "sculptures". They gradually homed in on urban settings, and their photo-works became more elaborate. They put lots of photos together and began creating wall- size assemblies of fragmented images, making up one single composition. They take all their photos themselves, working long hours - 12 hours a day; breakfast is at 7am, lunch at 11am.

Much of their most notorious work is comedy, of course. But for the Free Presbyterian Church, and for the Reverend Ian Paisley (a founder of the "Save Ulster from Sodomy" campaign) they're not funny at all, but evil. A representative of the Free Presbyterians, the Rev David McIlveen, told Radio 4's Today programme that it wasn't necessary to see the exhibition to know that these artists represent filth. It was enough just to see the invitation card showing the nude pair, and to read some of the titles of works in the show. These include Piss On Us, Piss Guns and Human Shits and Spunk, although, of course, he didn't recite these on air.

We could easily imagine - I think it would be reasonable, anyway - that the pair's robo-movements, their posing, their never-changing suits, and George's unlikely made-up Prince Charles accent, are all part of the same package of insulating themselves against a world that is hostile to their particular sexuality - their badge of defiant otherness.

Of course, they deny that they make gay art; they see the label as too simplifying. But then, they tend to deny all labels. They say they do "normal" art, or "normal pictures", which, of course, doesn't mean anything. They make up slogans to explain what they do, such as "Art for all", which also means nothing. These labels don't explain anything. But they do keep up the insulation act.