Gilbert and George: Double vision

Gilbert and George have been inseparable - in life and art - for the past 40 years. What makes them tick? Here, the original odd couple of scatology reveal all to Deborah Ross
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Gilbert and George are charming, adorable, generous and such fun. If it's an act, then I fall for it hook, line and sinker. Or, given their famed, scatological obsession, maybe that should be hook, line and floater. Whichever, I am with them for much longer than most people would even think of putting up with me. When we cross the little courtyard that separates their house from their studio in the pouring rain, they hold an umbrella over me as if I have a hairdo to protect rather than the one I do have, which looks part Russell Brand and part as if I've had a go at it with an electric toothbrush. They treat me to lunch at a Spanish restaurant - ham; olives; anchovies; halibut; Rioja - and get the hump when I try to pay. They give me a parting gift, a sketch of theirs showing a swearbox and inviting you to either put your money in or "Fuck off". ("Good, no?" asks Gilbert. "Good, yes," I reply, tickled.) The only thing they don't give me is their pubic lice, which is fine by me, but I do get to see the lice on one of their microscope slides and guess what? They're rather sweet: like titchy-witchy translucent crabs. I'm not sure if the pubic lice were theirs originally, if you get my drift, but they are now. They also have slides of piss, blood, spunk, spit and shit, God bless 'em. Whatever else you may say about Gilbert and George you will be safe in saying this: they do like their bodily fluids and waste.

They live in the East End of London, in Spitalfields, on Fournier Street. I am invited there as all journalists are. They have never had any problem being committed, almost evangelical promoters of their own work. "People who are frightened of modern art need not be frightened by us," says George. "Art for all!" adds Gilbert. They want everyday life in their pictures, taking it to the logical extreme with nakedness and other everyday (but still strangely shocking) human materials. Why are we shocked? Why do we want to snigger at the sight, say, of a colossal turd? George says he doesn't know. "A doctor or sanitaryware manufacturer wouldn't snigger." They like being famous. "Yesterday," says George, "we were even recognised by a very smelly tramp."

Anyway, the house is lovely, a Georgian gem in a street of Georgian gems. The street is quite smart and restored now, but they say that when they first moved here in the late Sixties the area was so fabulously rundown that the smelly tramps would rush in, seize handfuls of their meal, and rush out again. "That's how poor it was," says George. Their house is surprisingly prim and restrained, with the original wood panelling throughout as well as stairs that creak like an old ship. Creak-creak, creak-creak, creak-creak. "Blimey," I say, "there is no creeping secretly about this house, is there?" No, says George, there is not. He adds: "It's no good Gilbert trying to sneak in late at night." We all laugh. It's such a preposterous thought, Gilbert sneaking in late at night so as not to waken George. Gilbert would never gad about without George just as George would never gad about without Gilbert. They are "Gilbert & George", a brand, a single entity, like Marks & Spencer. They are never apart. They live, breathe, even think as one, and have done for 40 years. They first met as sculpture students at St Martins School of Art in 1967 and that was that, really.

George: "We share a vision because when we left St Martins we felt very alone."

Gilbert: "The opposition was very good. It thrust us into a hole. Everyone else was our enemy."

George: "We were trained to do sculpture but didn't want to do the same as other people. The whole idea of art is to be original so we invented the singing sculpture. [They would bronze their faces and sing "Underneath The Arches" for hours at a time.] We thought it was fantastic, so we went back to St Martins to present it and within two minutes, the head of sculpture, the famous Frank Martin, stomped out."

Gilbert: "We had a lady friend in Hull and we asked her to write a letter to the sculpture department saying she was considering doing a project with us, what did they think?"

George: "She got a letter back saying: 'Dear Madam, have nothing to do with these people.'"

Gilbert: "We threatened them. In some way we finished off the idea of sculpture."

George: "Not that that was our intention."

Gilbert: "We wanted to enclose emotion and humanity in our art. We didn't want to make forms."

What, I ask, if you hadn't met? Do either of you ever imagine it? "It would have been difficult for us," says Gilbert. "Really difficult," adds George. Never apart, though? Truly? What if one of you has toothache? Do you both go to the dentist? "Gilbert hasn't been to the dentist for 10 years," says George. "You must go, mustn't you Gilbert?" George is very good at answering questions by not answering them at all. On the other hand, he will answer others very precisely indeed. You have lovely skin, George. What's your secret? "Gin and spunk!"

Naturally, they wear the twin, tweedy suits and the twin ties - it's an ant motif, today - yet they are easy to tell apart. George is the taller, English one who looks a little like an etiolated Auberon Waugh and speaks in a very, enunciated BBC kind of way. Gilbert is the Italian one who is shorter. He still has a bit of an accent, such that "truth" becomes "truce" and "catholic" is "cat-o-lick" and the idiom "beyond belief" transmutes, rather charmingly, to "beyond the belief", as in the fight they had to get the Tate Modern to put on their upcoming retrospective. "It was the greatest battle beyond the belief," says Gilbert. "We battle for five years. English artists are not allowed to show at the Tate Modern. They are only allowed to be part of the installations but not a one-man show. Only foreign artists are allowed to do that. It is massive injustice for every artist." "It's wicked discrimination," says George. "We had to literally kick the door in," says Gilbert, "but hopefully we have not only broken it but broken it for other people." They do break down doors, and are often referred to, even, as the godfathers of contemporary art. Where they first went, others followed.

Anyway, would I like a tour of the house? You bet! They don't call me Snoop Ross for nothing, you know? So we're off. I see their Christopher Dresser furniture, their stunning collection of Branham art pottery, their painting of Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane, their collection of children's books from the 1880s with titles like Queer Chums and Scouts in Bondage, "which were very innocent then. Priceless! Look at this. Charlie to the Rescue. I bet!" That's George, by the way. I peek into the bedroom, which is sparse and neat and home to their DVD f collection. There's The Sound of Music, Grease, Sleepless in Seattle. OK, maybe not. They have titles like Straight Boys Who ... and Farm Boys City Fuck so I think we know what they are, God bless 'em. Then it's up to the top room where they have more books, more pottery, and where they repair to at 5pm every day to watch The Paul O'Grady Show on TV.

George: "We find the show very touching. He's never spiteful, never horrid."

Gilbert: "It's very optimistic."

Me: "I like his little dog."

Them, together: "We like his little dog."

Famously, they have a sink and a kettle but no kitchen. It minimises stress, they say. No shopping, no cooking, no washing up. It's like wearing the same clothes every day. It saves time, saves having to make choices and decisions. They eat out, breakfasting on Brick Lane, lunching at the Spanish place and dining nightly at Mangal II, a Turkish restaurant in Dalston where they have two chops apiece. They walk to the restaurant, meeting at 8pm precisely. Why do they go separately? Because, says Gilbert, "I have flat feet which can hurt so I take a shorter route, leave home later." They are fond of the waiters. They are never rude. They believe in being nice. "We'll say, oh, what a lovely haircut," says George. He adds: "There is one waiter they call Turkey because he looks a bit like one and they tried to get us to call him Turkey but we wouldn't. We said he was very handsome instead." When I later ask what they fear most they both come back with "abuse". Criticism hurts, they say. And what about something happening to one of you? Isn't that a fear? "We're too busy to worry about that," says George, answering but not answering.

Now, into their studio where they have been busy, busy, busy, preparing for the Tate retrospective, the biggest show of their work to date. They are terribly excited, weirdly excited. They like to describe themselves as "outsiders". They never socialise, won't share views. The last time they went to the cinema they saw The Deer Hunter. When I ask if they have a favourite word they decide on "apostasy", which means what exactly? "It's the state of being free and independent, free of clubs and organisations and faith. You are yourself," says George. "Our freedom is extraordinary," says Gilbert. "When we come into the studio - we can think and feel whatever we want," says George. "Whatever we want," echoes Gilbert, adding: "When we see all the offices and those girls in front of computers day and night, what a nightmare for them!" So they are outsiders who simultaneously want to be inside, as with their campaign to get into the Tate. They are quite curious in this way.

If someone, I ask, had never seen any of your work, and you could show them one thing - something that says: this is us, Gilbert and George - what would it be? "Naked Shitty Human World," says George, instantly "That is good," confirms Gilbert. "Naked Shitty Human World is a huge, brightly coloured photo-based collage on a black grid showing a crucifix formed from a colossal turd plus Gilbert and George tumbling naked though the skies, cocks akimbo. What are you saying? I ask. That religion is shit? They certainly think so. They say the passage in the Bible that goes on about man lying with man being an abomination, why not just change it? "They had to change Agatha Christie's texts didn't they. They had to change Ten Little Niggers ... so why not this text?" Would they ever consider getting "married"? "Perhaps," says George, "we already are."

I wonder what their first memory of art is. Gilbert says an uncle of his was an amateur artist and would copy Rembrandt paintings, so he remembers seeing Rembrandt. George says Van Gogh's letters were what got to him. "I was very impressed he was able to become an artist without doing all the right things. We found out that when he shot himself he went to the local dung heap to do so. That's extraordinary, don't you think?"

Gilbert: "He was a manic depressive."

George: "He speaks from beyond the grave. At the moment there are people looking at his paintings and wondering about life and death. It's not trees and grass and fields. It's amazing, gnarled, human concerns."

What do we know about Gilbert and George? Well, Gilbert Prosach was born in 1943, in the Dolomites. His father was a shoemaker. "He used to go from farm to farm, making the shoes." Did the elves ever help him out in the middle of the night? "Ha! No!" Were you bought up in an atmosphere of: one day, son, all these shoes will be yours? "My father used to say, what does he want to do, this boy? Everyday he wants to be something different." His greatest passion, though, was wood and marble carving. "I was carving Madonnas out of wood when I was six years old. I still remember, when I was seven or eight, my sister went up the mountain to stay with farmers and for when she was coming back I made little cups and a teapot, all out of marble." At 14 he went to the local art school, which didn't offer academic art but more a craft apprenticeship in carving. "But it was not making shoes, eh?" At 17, he left for the Munich Academy and then to St Martins, then the best art school in the world.

George? George Passmore was born in Plymouth in 1942. His father left home before he was born. His mother, Hermione Ernestine, was a waitress and something of a goer. George remembers many "gentleman callers". He has an older brother, Alec, who is an evangelical vicar. I don't think they are close. Do you speak? "Once a year, maybe," he says. Gilbert, do you ever go back to Italy? "I've been once in 15 years," he says. They do seem enough for each other. Anyway, George failed his 11 plus, which he now thinks a good thing. "It was very good because it meant I didn't go to the grammar school and become a policeman." He left school at 15 to work in a stationery shop. At the same time, though, he took art evening classes at Dartington Adult Education Centre and won a full-time scholarship to Dartington Art College. He was supposed to become an art teacher, but was rejected by the teaching college, another good thing. "Thank goodness. If they'd have taken me I'd probably be teaching still."

At the time Gilbert and George met, George was actually married, and was married long enough to produce children who, now, must be in their thirties.

However, when I try to raise the subject George just laughs and says, "that isn't relevant to Gilbert & George!" There are definitely some dark corners that aren't part of the show, which is fair enough, but it does make you think: how much is show? Are they for real? Or is it just an act? I couldn't tell you how real they are, but I think you have to just kind of accept that's their point. If you didn't come away from Gilbert and George thinking: what's real about them and what's not, they wouldn't be Gilbert and George any more, wouldn't be their art. And what is art, if not a performance anyway?

Anyway, it's out to lunch, which is lovely. I hold George's arm and share his umbrella on the way there. Gilbert does look a little put out. "Don't worry Gilbert," I say. "I'll hold your arm on the way back." I do think they're terribly fine, worth believing in. It may even be a question of putting your money in or just F-ing off, in which case I'd put my money in every time. E

'Gilbert & George: Major Exhibition' is at Tate Modern from 15 February to 7 May 2007. For further information visit