Gilbert and George: Artists of the floating world

Next week Tate Modern celebrates the 40-year partnership of Gilbert and George. Hermione Eyre spoke to them at their Spitalfield home about their life as art, Sophie Leris investigates the importance of London and Londoners in their work
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The Queen, one imagines, sometimes tires of being the Queen. Ditto Gilbert and George. For 40 years they have maintained their seamless double-act, walking in step and talking in antiphon, all clothes, habits and opinions synchronised, all sentences prefixed by a regal "we". They are never off-duty. Even spotted on the top deck of a passing bus, they are waving graciously in unison, like dinky mechanical men. How do they sustain it? Isn't life as an art institution, a "living sculpture" sometimes, well, a bit of a drag?

The answer slips out half way through our interview, as we are sipping instant coffee in the studio at the back of their home off Brick Lane. George (who sounds just like Prince Charles): "We don't go out to art openings..." Gilbert (who retains his native Italian accent): "...because it means we have to perform, when we want to relax. We are exhausted by that." George: "We have to entertain. People expect something from us. It's quite tiring, being entertaining."

It is disconcerting, this little exchange, rather like glimpsing, through the curtains at the opera, a weary stagehand. It gives rise to a host of worries. What if Gilbert and George had enough of being Gilbert and George, and retired? Would they appoint a successor? (The Barclay Brothers? Ant and Dec?)

But these doubts are soon dismissed. It becomes clear, by the end of the interview, that they are as conjoined as it is possible to be. And surely Gilbert and George are entitled, like HRH, to tire of public appearances. They will continue to be Gilbert and George, perceived or unperceived. It may all have started out as an act when they met at St Martin's School of Art in 1967, but it is now life itself.

They are utterly preoccupied with their new Major Exhibition at Tate Modern. "We love the title! So much more democratic than Retrospective - even waiters can understand it." (There is a lot of talk about waiters. Every meal they eat out; their home is famously kitchen-free.) They proudly display their designs for the gift shop, including a swear box inscribed "Pay Up or Fuck Off", and a poster that will be free to download and print out ("Art for all! Almost everyone has a printer now, don't they?") as well as some new pictures, to raise money for the exhibition, "because no one will sponsor us".

The retrospective takes in their seminal Cunt Scum work, the Naked Shit and New Horny Pictures, as well as their religion-baiting SonofaGod collection. Strangely, the larger investment banks would rather be associated with Monet. "They are terrified of living meaning," says George, matter- of-factly.

The duo has become accustomed to conflict. The latest debacle concerns some essays about them in the Tate's in-house magazine, which they required be cut at the last minute (leading Duncan Fallowell, one of the contributors, to liken them to Stalin in his column for the online paper, The First Post). What was in the essays that they so objected to? "They said horrible things," says Gilbert. "They were full of words like 'gay' [they resist the "heterosexual" division of the world into gay and straight] and Duncan Fallowell made fun of the Spanish Ambassador and his wife and his wife's hairstyle, which was very rude. And they said George tried to poison his mother." George: "My mother would die if she read that!"

These reasons sound rather batty. I test out another theory on them. Did they want the essays cut because they mentioned George's one-time wife Patricia, by whom he has two children, Rayne and Sunny? "No," they say easily. "Everyone has history."

They never seem uptight or prickly. When I bring up the graffiti I once saw daubed on the wall outside their home "Gilbert and George are wankers..." George responds with glee. "Well, we are. We were rather flattered by that. We photographed it to include in our work. Wankers and tossers, I think it said."

They laugh. They laugh a lot, Gilbert and George, at their own little jokes, like Gilbert's funny fur hat "made from shaved beaver! Ha ha!". George is drier (he reads E F Benson, but not Mapp and Lucia - "too amusing"), while Gilbert is more broad (he is tickled by the stuffed bulldog at the local posh restaurant, Les Trois Garçons - "You can touch his bollocks! Hee Hee"). Their humour possibly explains why some of their more surprising attitudes have been written off as jokes, or irony.

Their patriotism, for example. Red, white and blue ribbon is visible in their new work. "Well, this is the 300th anniversary of the Union," says George. "An important birthday." He sounds customarily wry so I laugh, before seeing his earnest expression. "We will be celebrating all year round."

And then there's their libertarian Conservatism. "We oppose collectivism," says George. "Being Italian, Gilbert doesn't have a vote but I always vote Conservative." Even when they're not in Opposition? "Loyalty is important, don't you think? I have a lot of hope for Cameron." "He's so good looking," pipes up Gilbert, looking dreamy - imagining, perhaps, the leader splayed in one of their pictures? George continues, "You're not allowed to be Conservative in the art world, of course. Everyone has to be Left. Pop stars and artists are meant to be so original. How come everyone has the same opinion?"

They work hard at their independence. Gilbert: "We don't have any friends. We're very fond of Tracey Emin, who lives on this street, but we don't want to get involved socially with..." George: "...anyone."

The normal trappings of life are, to them, a distraction. "We don't want to go on holiday. It would be a waste of time, wouldn't it? There would be less pictures. We lost interest in having to be somewhere. You don't have to be in Africa or India to be artists. We see the world changing from here."

Their latest works, Bomb, Bomber, Bombing and Terror are responses to 7/7 - but not in a personal sense. My question "Where were you on 7/7?" is met with a curt "No" from George and a shake of the head from Gilbert. "These are more general pieces. As far as we are concerned, they are like a memorial. We thought of Lutyens and the Cenotaph - one stone for everybody."

Working on them has been "chilling". "We could smell the bombs, feel the tears of the loved ones."

Do they ever think of what will separate them? "Death. I think we've dealt and do deal with that aspect."

They show me out, gently, courteously. "Do you like Perversive Paintings?" they ask pruriently, and give me a book full of images of themselves doubled up symmetrically, mouths laughing and screaming. That night I fall asleep thinking about how kind and pleasant they were, and how full of laughter. But in my dream that night their laughter is demonic, and they are laughing at me, and at the world. HE

Gilbert & George: Major Exhibition, Tate Modern (020 7887 8888), Thur to 7 May. The artists host an evening of programmes on Saturday, from 8pm, on Artsworld, Sky channel 267

Given that they never go to galleries or museums (too "polluting"), do not visit the theatre or cinema (too "soothing") and loathe the countryside because the people that live there say things like "Fuck off, you weird-looking prats!", the streets of London have provided Gilbert and George with a fantastically rich source of material; their only source, in fact. "Nothing happens in the world that doesn't happen in the East End," George has said, an observation that seems particularly apt in the light of their latest series of pictures based on the 7/7 terrorist attacks of 2005 and the continuing climate of fear in which Londoners exist.

Showing as part of Tate Modern's retrospective, opening this week, which charts the artists' 40 year collaboration, the "bomb" pictures were drawn from Evening Standard billboards filched from Liverpool Street Station. These are the most "chilling" works they have created to date, according to the artists who have restricted themselves to a black and white palette for the first time in 30 years. The show, which will occupy the entire fourth floor of the building, will be of blockbuster proportions - over 200 works - and should demonstrate, finally, that Gilbert and George have created a significant and definitive oeuvre; but most fascinating of all will be a cohesive view of their relationship with London over the last four decades.

London has always belonged to artists. Hogarth, Sickert, The Camden Town Group, Frank Auerbach and, most recently, Banksy have all honed in on the city's ignoble contradictions, its filthy gutters and soaring architecture, its privilege and wealth, its impoverished underclass and the swathes of immigrants all jostling for position in the ever-shifting hierarchies of the ghettos, especially in the East End.

Gilbert and George are very much part of this tradition, bearing down on their Spitalfields doorstep with a particularly powerful lens, sparing us nothing. They've been there for a very long time, after all, moving into Fournier Street in the late Sixties, soon after they met. When they arrived it was Jewish, they've said, "then it got arty, then Maltese, then Somali, then the City boys came. Now its families and the new art elite."

These days, of course, it's also Bengali (G&G are on nodding terms with the tikka touts who try to entice you into their Brick Lane curry houses) and Muslim (G&G collect fundamentalist Muslim lamp-post stickers). George has said that his artistic epiphany came when he passed a graffito which read "My wife sucks dogs balls" on one of his daily walks, and realised that most art is "tame and middle class, compared to that. Not shocking at all. Only the terminally middle class would be shocked by it."

Gilbert and George want their art, they have written, "to speak across the barriers of knowledge directly to the people about their life and not about the knowledge of art. The 20th century has been cursed with an art that cannot be understood. The decadent artists stand for themselves and their chosen few, laughing at and dismissing the normal outsider." So they take photographs of London, talk to people - sometimes befriend them and take them in, as they did a schizophrenic Bengali boy they found sleeping outside Spitalfields church - eat in their local restaurants and cafes and make art about the "normal" life that surrounds them. After four decades of living their lives as a continuous happening, they now belong to London in the same way as the skylines, statues, graffiti and post-Dickensian squalor that inspire them.

Highly visible in their bespoke suits, shiny shoes and deadpan expressions (they are often likened to 1950s bank managers or celebrated murderers), they stick so rigidly to their daily routine that we can count on seeing them. They have breakfast and lunch at the same Turkish and Spanish cafés each day and they dine at the Mangal II, a Kurdish restaurant on Dalston Lane, every evening. Now and then they pop in to see their friend Sandra Esquilant, landlady of 30 years at the Golden Heart pub on Commercial street and they can be seen at the odd private view, immaculate, quiet and watchful, politely acknowledging the waves of admirers that wash back and forth to pay homage.

Their neighbour, Tracey Emin, someone who knows a thing or two about being a national treasure (her house is pointed out as an extra bonus on Jack the Ripper tours), attests to their status as local, living monuments. Yet they don't stand out in their neighbourhood, as Emin does because she's a card-carrying celebrity who has the paparazzi rifling through her rubbish. G&G are attention-seeking yet anti-fame so that they're taken on their own terms, as harmless, well-mannered eccentrics. They commune with outsiders, immigrants, the dispossessed, even prisoners, apparently, who write to them to say "we understand".

Photographs are their raw material and they take hundreds, manipulating them on their state-of-the-art graphics workstation computer to create huge pieces of work for maximum impact. Before they went digital, they used to lay their photographs out on vast tables in their studio and stare at them until a picture began to emerge in their minds, but the size of their work was limited by the photographic paper. According to James Birch, the art dealer who showed G&G in Moscow in the late Eighties, they have been arrested several times for photographing London - legally, it seems, they should ask permission. Among their subjects are youth, religion, shit, piss, sex, spunk, drunkenness, nature, graffiti, themselves and their homosexuality, but all within a very specific urban context.

They don't mean to shock, they say, merely to enlighten - "We want to un-shock people, and bringing these subjects into the open, allowing them to live and breathe, should un-shock" - but in gleeful contrast to their anachronistically "proper" appearance they manage to wind people up no end, not to mention tapping into the zeitgeist with an enviably accurate touch. The Dirty Words series (1977) made headlines with hardcore obscenities taken from local graffiti; Gilbert and George won the Turner Prize in 1986 amidst criticism from left-wing commentators of their "glamorising" of skinhead culture and racism - one of their pictures showed an Asian man bearing the title Paki; their gigantic photo-pieces, entitled Wanker, Bummed and Prick Ass, caused a furore at the Royal Academy in 1987; the Naked Shit pictures (1995) featured their own excrement and attracted 1,000 visitors per day to the South London Gallery; the New Horny Pictures (2001) used ads for homosexual prostitutes taken from magazines and newspapers and fuelled the debate on gay marriage; and their Ginko pictures made for the Venice Biennale (2005) showed "hoodies" in a sympathetic light and were used by the press to illustrate the infamous shopping-centre ban.

To coincide with the show, the Tate is releasing a feature-length film, The World According to Gilbert and George, made 20 years ago, mid-career. Here is the Waste Land, alluded to and drawn from in their work, spread out before us. A poetic narrative adds to the Eliot-like style but also allows us unusually direct access to their feelings. Spitalfields' glorious Hawksmoor church features again and again, lovingly framed against a hopeful blue sky, but their words say the opposite: "Dead church... home of tramp and pigeon and sad, cultured music lover". Dryly humorous as ever, Gilbert and George feel as sorry for the "gallery-going classes" to which they say they don't belong as for the destitute drunk on the street.

Gilbert and George love contradiction and rely on it to make their point. They film themselves cosy and solvent in their wood panelled Huguenot drawing room looking out at decaying warehouses, while the narration speaks of "Cracking ghosts... stinking history... glimpsed through dirty panes they look like shadows in disguise." But seconds later they lament their "oaken misery of neurotic escape".

As the camera swoops over London, down cobbled alleys, up modern, phallic office blocks, over chimney tops, grandiose architecture and green foliage, past buses and inside cafes, the lives of city's inhabitants are described by sudden sounds and still images: funereal music, a union flag, a military statue, gun fire, a plate of greasy food, flowers, blossom, ivy.

There are lots of sweetly gormless teenage boys whose emerging masculinity is somewhat hilariously explored using botanical descriptions of plant specimens. We see Gilbert and George at home and in bars getting drunk, dancing, drinking tea, discussing vases and planning to "go to the Clifton and see some waiters". This is as close to being a fly on the wall chez Gilbert and George as anyone will ever get, I imagine, and as good a description of their enmeshed London lives as they are likely to make. Making art within this familiar, urban context, Gilbert and George address the human condition with a mixture of horror and satire, hoping, like Hogarth, that they might engender a bit of reflection, even critical thinking, in their audience.

They may be from the Dolomites (Gilbert) and Plymouth (George) but Gilbert and George could only be Londoners. Sandra Esquilant is from white, working-class East End stock - and a practising Catholic to boot - and is astonished to hear that anyone should find her old friends odd. "There's nothing odd about them! They dress like old-fashioned East End gentlemen. My father was a docker, but you'd have thought he was a doctor from the way he dressed. In those days, no man would go out on a Saturday night without his whistle and flute. Gilbert and George are real, 100-per-cent genuine, and we have conversations about everything under the sun." She adds. "They've always fitted right in - why wouldn't they?" SL