The clock moves on, but time stands still for Gilbert and George

Britian's most controversial pop artists have outlasted the city around them, writes Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Online
On the left, the artists Gilbert and George on the roof of their Spitalfields eyrie; on the right, the artists Gilbert and George on the roof of their Spitalfields eyrie. Eagle-eyed readers will, however, spot a number of differences between these two photographs, both taken by Herbie Knott.

The brickwork of Gilbert and George's Dickensian chimney stacks appear to have been repointed (right). The Fifties-style suits they sport on the right are surely more sombre than those on the left. The clock of Christ Church, Spitalfields, which lies on the edge of the City of London, registers twelve o'clock on the left and twenty past six on the right.

The giveaway to the difference between Knott's twin portraits is the skyscape brooding behind the parapet of this London rooftop: broad-shouldered, Brobdingnagian, the ambitious Broadgate development fills in a background that, in the left-hand picture, is still composed of individual buildings, including one of the 400ft towers of the Barbican.

The two pictures are taken at the same time, same place, 10 years and one day apart. Knott's earlier portrait slightly predated the first issue of The Independent, which celebrates its tenth anniversary next month.

The yuppie boom was at full volume and Broadgate had yet to rise the length of Bishopsgate, the north-south axis that divides the plutocratic City from shadowy, penny-pinched Spitalfields, which was built by Huguenot refugees in the 1720s. The clock on Hawksmoor's peerless church had not been working for as long as anyone could remember. As you can see, the clock is running today; the church is in the process of a protracted restoration due to be completed in time for the millennium.

Spitalfields itself has changed radically since 1986. Then, the old fruit- and-vegetable market was still in full flow, the glowing hearth around which houses like Gilbert and George's huddled for warmth and security. But the market has since moved to a hi-tech warehouse in the outer wastelands of Hackney further east.

But the two things that haveremained constant over a turbulent decade are Gilbert and George's standing as two of the most controversial British artists, and their devotion to the Market Cafe in Fournier Street where they have breakfast every day.

Since their debut as human sculptures at the end of the Sixties, Gilbert and George have always been enigmatic artists. Their most recent sale, of a work entitled Bloody Life No 4, returned them pounds 85,000 in June.

They courted adverse criticism with a remarkable continuum of gigantic photographic works that featured the rough and rude side of working-class London life. In Gilbert and George's imagery, testosterone-fuelled boys, many of them skinheads, were mixed up with East End skylines and scrawled across with a brutal Anglo-Saxon vocabulary designed to provoke.

Even so, these brutal works were beautifully realised and, seen together in major European and American art galleries, had much of the quality of great stained glass. Their most recent show was a major retrospective this summer in Bologna, northern Italy; their latest work, currently in the making, will be first seen in Paris next year.

George (on the right of the two pictures) describes the talented duo as "just a pair of working class wankers", but they have proved to be the unchanging anchor around which the fortunes of changing Spitalfields continue to rise and fall.

Brian Appleyard, page 17