Gilbert and George, two of the most dapper and gentlemanly shock troops in the modern art world, yesterday unveiled a giant, vibrant vision of their own morphed heads and the hooded youths of their east London home as the British contribution to the Venice Biennale.
The Biennale, the most important international showcase of contemporary art, opens to the public this weekend and the artists, who frequently feature in their own works, showed due deference to the prestige of the occasion by appearing clothed and not nude in the new series. They also eschewed the use of bodily fluids, which has been a feature in the past.
However, the pair insisted that this newfound decorum was neither a sign of age - both are in their sixties - nor that they were finally becoming part of the arts establishment they believe has undervalued them until now.
Gilbert, 62, said they were "smiling at both ends" at having been chosen by the British Council for what he described as the Olympics of art in his homeland (more than 70 different countries are showing work in Venice this year). They used to mind being ignored hitherto, Gilbert said, but not now. George, 63, said: "It's a tremendous feeling. It's very gratifying for our friends who always wanted us to be represented in the Biennale." Many people were convinced they had been shown in Venice in the past anyway, he added.
Gilbert and George follow in the footsteps of acclaimed British artists such as Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and Bridget Riley. Chris Ofili was the British representative for the last Biennale in 2003. Richard Riley, the curator of their exhibition, said: "They could have been selected almost at any time in the past three decades but for whatever reason, often because they were having big international shows, they weren't."
Now the pair are producing striking new works that use digital technology for the first time and this has opened up greater potential for inventiveness in manipulating the bank of images with which they work, he said. "Their clothes are back on and there are no bodily fluids but the raw power of the works is striking. Some are on a truly enormous scale," Mr Riley said. "It's not the work of 60-year-olds. They pick up so much on what is around them, like the hoodie image. They have absolutely tapped into what's happening."
Asked how they had observed the prevalence of hoodies months before the Government identified them as epitomising disaffected youth, Gilbert said: "We just see it more than other people. We just see the world in a different way." George added: "Because we're weird."
Gilbert, full name Gilbert Proesch, and George, full name George Passmore, began working together shortly after meeting at St Martin's school of art in London in 1967. Since then, they have become international stars - the Italians are said to be delighted that they are in Venice this year. The pair are famed for their conservative, besuited appearance which is at odds with the often scatological content of their work.
They say their conventional appearance enables them to push the boundaries and persuade people to accept art that they otherwise might not. "We don't alienate any section of society," George said, adding: "We've never wanted to be provocative or hurtful." Gilbert said using the new technology had enabled them to completely reinvent themselves - they could spend more time on thinking about what they wanted to do as the actual production was easier. "We've done amazing stuff recently. We're about at our peak. We think we can compete with everybody."
And while they complained yesterday that virtually none of their art can be seen in London, the Tate is making amends with a major retrospective planned for 2007. It yesterday announced that it had bought Fates, the biggest work in Venice, measuring 7.5 metres by 4.5 metres. Gilbert said they always wanted to be part of the establishment. "That's why we put the royal coat of arms in our early works." The response to the new collection, entitled The Ginkgo Pictures, had been enormously warm and emotional, which was gratifying. "We have seduced the establishment," George said. "A woman last night said, 'We're seduced, our legs are completely open.'"
The inspiration for the new commissions was the ginkgo tree, where the female of the tree produces foul-smelling leaves. The two artists came across the trees when they were in New York and brought some of the leaves back to Britain. "We didn't know the name but they we learnt it was the oldest tree in the world. It's a living fossil," Gilbert said.
The Venice Biennale opens to the public on Sunday and runs until November.
Best of the Biennale
ANNETTE MESSAGER, FRANCE
Messager has created a beautiful, theatrical installation for the French pavilion, based on the story of Pinocchio. Born in 1943, Messager uses a variety of media, including photography, knitting, embroidery and objects she has collected. Fragments are an important theme.
MIYAKO ISHIUCHI, JAPAN
One of Japan's pioneering women photographers, in "mothers 2000-2005 traces of the future", Ishiuchi has created an installation where you enter a hi-tech capsule. Born in 1947, Ishiuchi studied weaving before taking up photography.
FRANCESCO VEZZOLI, ITALY
The most hilarious experience of the Biennale is Vezzoli's trailer for an imaginary remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula. It stars Gore Vidal, Helen Mirren, Benicio Del Torre and Courtney Love.
TINO SEHGAL, GERMANY
Berlin-based British artist Tino Sehgal's contribution is a light-hearted spoof of the whole po-facedness of the heavier art event. Without giving too much away, the audience is ambushed as they walk in.
CANDICE BREITZ, SOUTH AFRICA
This artist explores the theme of parenthood in a film that interweaves clips of 12 famous Hollywood actors and actresses, including Harvey Keitel, Dustin Hoffman, Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep
Louisa Buck is London contemporary art correspondent for The Art Newspaper, and a Turner Prize judgeReuse content