Their own kind of normality

Gilbert and George make a pot of tea and grant an audience to Iain Sinclair
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The Independent Culture
Question: if Gilbert and George post a letter is that a work of art? Have they, through their success at marketing their lives and foibles, founded a cult in which everything they do is significant? Drinking, performing their bodily functions, walking. How do you fix cash value?

The photographer Marc Atkins, who worked around the corner from the Living Sculptures' base in Fournier Street (in the now fashionable East London district of Spitalfields), spotted the notorious pair stepping out. He followed them, snapping away. He was fascinated to know where, if anywhere, performance art diverged from the banality of everyday existence. They marched, step for step, in the style they had perfected: customised embarrassment. George the Gent keeping to the outside, protecting the curb. They crossed Liverpool Street into Broad Street, placed a single letter in the box, and returned to base. Synchronised drifting.

George, the balding, bespectacled West Countryman, is more visible. He's the one who takes an afternoon constitutional to Hampstead and back. "In three hours," as Gilbert boasts with justifiable pride, "I did half - because I have flat feet." George in photographs is rarely without a silver pen in his breast pocket. Gilbert, the shorter of the pair, the shrink- wrapped matinee idol, is more casual. George has the wife who has been airbrushed out of the story. Even in their forthcoming biography - whose author, Daniel Farson, they liked and admired - details of the marriage could not be disclosed. "Not telling! Not telling!" is George's response to impertinent questions. "Not part of the G & G story." Gilbert backs him up.

It's clear that G & G operate two modes, both equally valid. There's Living Sculptures - with strict rules and Zen discipline. And there is the book buying, pottery collecting, restaurant visiting, chatting up waiters, off-duty existence of unexceptional Spitalfields millionaires. According to official doctrine, they never go to art shows. But locals still speak about the opening of an exhibition of Stephen Harwood's "East End Paintings" in the Art East Gallery in Spitalfields Market. Peter Ackroyd and Dan Farson also attended. And the evening climaxed, riotously, in a tapas bar brawl.

They are supposed not to read, but George, in our short conversation, quoted from the Old Testament, declaimed a fable by Olive Schreiner, expressed admiration for Ackroyd's Hawksmoor, and signalled his familiarity with the poet Lee Harwood. He liked William Burroughs for speaking so well of Denton Welch. They claim to be apolitical, post-sexual, without opinions. What did Gilbert think about the recent transformation of Spitalfields? "We don't have views," he replied. "It's our motto." Yet, within moments, both of them were gleefully slagging off the public art - the Richard Serra, the Barry Flanagan, the Jim Dine - of the Bishopsgate redevelopment. "Appalling stuff," said George. "The art is invisible," said Gilbert.

It's strategic. Having no opinions is an opinion. Owning a block of houses in Fournier Street, in the shadow of Nicholas Hawksmoor's Christ Church, is a privilege. While I stood on the doorstep in the dusk, I felt a flutter of unease. It was like being taken into the attic to have a conversation with the picture of Dorian Gray. "Picture." That word is very important to Gilbert and George. The great rectangles that they compose from boxes of preliminary photographs, taxonomies of chewing gum, bird shit, urine stains, piss crystals, street signs, are always "picture". They love the term for its sense of tradition, its links with the Aesthetic Movement. "We wanted to call them something normal," George said. Normal. That's another of their favourite words, along with "sweet", "loving" and "beauty". Everything should be so normal that it's terrifying. Invasion of the Body Snatchers normality. Pod person normality. They admire John Major for his surreal normality. They adore Sir Edward Heath, whom they met at an exhibition of theirs in Shanghai. "We like Heath," Gilbert added. "He invited us down to Salisbury". "Yes, Sunday lunch," George picked up the story again, "very hospitable. When people arrived, Heath said: `May I introduce you to the great artists?' Very grand. Beautiful house."

Nothing disturbs the admiration Gilbert and George maintain for conservatism, Lady Thatcher and the Daily Telegraph. Both men, together or alone, are to be seen mopping up the tables, clearing greasy plates, lending a hand to Phyllis and Clyde in the Market Cafe, before settling down to a mug of tea and a quick scan of the Telegraph. They've taken their breakfasts there for 30 years. "Even criminals in the Market Cafe, they know us," Gilbert boasted. "But we never get involved in that, in drugs." They've stuck with alcohol. Drinking to maintain the romantic artist's necessary drench of melancholy, holding to the presentation of themselves as the cheeriest depressives on the block. "Goodbye," trills their answerphone. "Goodbye and good riddance."

Assumed conservatism is a way of asserting their status as outsiders. They have adapted as the area in which they live has shifted from Jack London's abyss to a tastefully restored ghetto of New Georgian properties. The swing to politics delights them. "New Labour is very amusing. We love it," said Gilbert. "Love it," echoed George. This extraordinary extremism. "The Margaret Thatcher era," said Gilbert, "This is more." "They're doing all the things the Conservatives would never dare to do," George added. "They just bomb foreign countries," Gilbert concluded. "We never heard of that before."

Gilbert tells me that they rarely go up west and then remembers a night at The Ivy. "All the luvvies are there. But we sat down. Who was in front of us? The table in front of us?" George answers: "Seven young gentlemen and Cherie Blair." Gilbert continues: "And who was at the next table?" George comes back with the well-rehearsed response. "Nick Serota was at the next table. Never saw him in 15 years." And they both corpse with unsuppressed laughter. A quick glance passes between them, reassuring each other that they haven't come out of character.

As I knocked at the door, George was waiting. He let me in and whisked me rapidly through the house and across the yard to the studio. He made a pot of tea and lit up one of the cork-tipped cigarettes that he was to chain-smoke throughout our interview. They looked smooth, healthy, watchful and resigned. Gearing themselves up for yet another performance. They were doing this to promote Farson's biography. As they responded to my questions, I began to wonder if they had the Zelig-like ability to melt into any situation. They presented themselves as lucid dreamers, walkers, psychogeographers with a passion for the London A-Z. The surprise was that Gilbert dominated the conversation. His accent and his emphases, terse but passionate, had alarming echoes of Dr Strangelove. George tended to echo Gilbert's sentiments with supportive enthusiasm - "astonishing, very sweet" - like one of Trollope's invertebrate clerics. If things threatened to flag, George could be relied on to find an appropriate text to read. Or to produce a letter.

He had received one that day (many come from prisoners). But this was different. It underwrote the weird millennialism of their recent work, New Testament Pictures, in which hellfire condemnations of sodomy are combined with naked frolics and vastly enlarged droplets of urine. Gilbert and George had ceased to be Living Sculptures. Now they were the inspiration for stained windows. They were icons.

"About a year ago," George explained, "a person wrote to say they had a friend who was ill. Would we send a catalogue? Today we get this letter: `Dear Gilbert and George, your work has always given us so much pleasure. Last year when I was poorly with Aids you very kindly sent me your signed book. It was such a boost that I am now quite well again. I put my recovery down to your work.' Incredible."

They don't visit galleries or shows by living artists, but their catalogues, like holy relics, can work miracles. They might have been denied the honours that the art world has showered on Sir Anthony Caro and "Dame" Howard Hodgkin (as they call him), but they are on the verge of founding their own cult.

My audience was over. It was dark outside. George, very solicitous about the cold wind, pressed a couple of recent catalogues into my hands. In the shadow of the streetlight the pair lost their perceived resemblance to Morecombe and Wise and shifted to John Reginald Christie and Timothy Evans. Nobody in East London had worn such beautifully polished shoes since the Kray twins went down. It was left to the Living Sculptures to maintain the standards of tailoring established by gangsters who grew up in the years of post-war austerity. Now G & G, as they called themselves, were the faces on the manor, the main men. Acknowledged everywhere they went, dancing with lorry drivers in Redchurch Street or dropping in on the Krays' favourite cafe, Pellicci's in Bethnal Green Road.

I brooded. What is the afterlife of a Living Sculpture? Gilbert and George had successfully authored their own histories. Now they were trapped in a fiction. They were self-invented. Articulate puppets. Their con had worked because it was true. Was that why prisoners were so attracted to them? Because they wanted to find out how the scam operated? "It's true," George said. "We've cracked it." "We're able to sell a picture with shit in it," Gilbert laughed, "and get money for it. It's unbelievable."

Their strangeness was unfathomable. I couldn't forget a tableau reported by Graeme Roberts, the owner of a Shoreditch bookshop George drops into. He was driving home one evening when he saw Gilbert and George, at the junction of Shoreditch High Street and Commercial Street. Under the traffic lights. One on the east side of the road, one on the west. Still as statues, the colour of their faces changing luridly with the lights. An art piece without an audience.

`Gilbert and George: A Portrait' by Daniel Farson will be published by HarperCollins on 15 March at pounds 19.99.

`Liquid City' by Iain Sinclair and Marc Atkins will be published by Reaktion Books on 13 May at pounds 14.95