Gilbert & George on Terrorism, Brexit, and Beards
In their new exhibition at Lehmann Maupin in New York, Brit-art godfathers Gilbert & George demonstrate their creative longevity and explore a thoroughgoing interest in the global symbolism of facial hair.
Gilbert & George's conceptual-art double act is fifty years old this year, and the duo is beloved for maintaining its position—with its tweedy outfits, throwback decorum, and arch insistence on outsider status—for so very long. Gilbert Proesch was born in a village in the Dolomites of northern Italy in 1943. He met George Passmore, born in Plymouth in 1942, when they were both students at St. Martins School of Art; the pair soon decided to become, together, one artist. They've lived together in the same Spitalfields house since 1968, long before the neighborhood's gentrification.
Gilbert & George's new series, The Beard Pictures, opened at Lehmann Maupin in New York on October 12. The gridded, luridly colored images look a bit like stained glass windows, and their recurring motifs—beards, fences, security badges, and goblin-like distortions of the artists' bodies—seem like updates on almost medieval concerns. Getting to their feet at their dinner that night (held at Indochine, which opened in 1984, already 17 years into their partnership), they took turns reading an excerpt from what they described as a 5,000-line Dada riff, alternating, to the delight and befuddlement of the crowd: "God As we Go . . . God Kills Babies . . . God Lights Me up . . . God Stoppers . . . God Loves God." The line that got the biggest laugh was "God for Brexit," which had also been one of our topics of a conversation a few days before at the Lower East Side location of Lehmann Maupin, where George was wearing a withered boutonniere in his lapel, and Gilbert fussed over the lighting.
GARAGE: Why beards? Because of all the hipsters in your neighborhood now?
George: We created our neighborhood. It wasn't like that when we moved there.
Gilbert: The neighborhood has become global. We looked at the news and began to see . . .
George: . . . barbed wire all over the world, keeping people out, and bearded people looking through it. Everyone at some point will have to escape through a hole in the fence, either romantically or socially. We all have to leave the gate open one day for some reason or another.
To let yourself out or let others in?
George: There's two possibilities already.
Gilbert: We wanted to see whole modern world through a beard. In the beards are keys.
George: The beard came to prominence in the 19th century when it came to symbolize the progressive individual. Queen Victoria made her son grow one. Charles Dickens grew one to be more up-to-date. Lounge lizards, men in their clubs, they were clean-shaven. People who went out in the world had beards.
But you've never had one.
George: Certainly not! What do you think we are, normal or something?
Gilbert: It's also a way to protect yourself.
And to make yourself attractive.
George: On the weekends, when half of London descends on our neighborhood, you see a girl with a guy on her arm who doesn't have a beard and she looks so downcast.
What about the fences, the security badges, the barbed wire? All from TV?
George: Barbed wire was for farming when we were young. Now it's for . . .
Gilbert: . . . keeping people out.
George: Never has the world spent so much money on security. From personal computers to national and international security. It's a huge part of the expenditure of mankind. And that's not going to change in our lifetimes.
Gilbert: 9/11 really changed all that, not only in New York but around the world. We used to live near Brick Lane and go to a lot of Indian restaurants and they were all full of young boys. And they were very friendly, we knew the all by name. But that changed. In some way they all became radicalized after that. Every shop is radicalized. They see the world as us- and-them.
George: They are reacting to terrorism news on the television.
But also to the way people in England fear them?
Gilbert: Not just the English, the Europeans. The world. I'm sure it's the same here.
George: You have people in prison here for terrorism presently.
Oh yes, many.
Gilbert: We gave an interview twenty years ago to a journalist named Theo van Gogh
George: He was a direct descendent of the artist. And he was among the first to be murdered by Islamic extremists in a European capital, in 2004.
George: When we did the Naked Shit paintings, the director of the museum in Amsterdam rushed us over, and the day after the opening he took us to be interviewed by Theo van Gogh. He argued strenuously against Islam for some reason, and we were very supportive of Islam at that time. All our friends were Bangladeshi. And the fact is that he is dead and we are alive. Someone has now made an opera out of the interview. It's called The Naked Shit Songs. It's quite beautiful. We went to the premiere.
Do you go to the opera otherwise?
George: No, never. It's a middle-class activity. We don't belong to that class.
Are you pessimistic about the way things are going in the world?
George: We were war babies, and we grew up believing one main thing: that everything is going to get better. And it did. Everyone got cars and ate in restaurants and got education and foreign travel. And then, suddenly, something else . . .
Gilbert: In some ways it still gets better. In England, there used to be three galleries when we started out. Now it's massive. When we have shows in private galleries, we have 40,000 people visiting. I think they want to be entertained.
George: We have a huge following among the general public, even among people who don't go to galleries or museums
Why is that so important to you?
Gilbert: That's the only way we can make art that means something.
Gilbert: We want to be like everybody else. We want to be on the same level. Because the problems we have are not different than anybody else. Drunkenness, religion, money, happiness . . .
When you started out, you shocked people by putting yourselves into your art. Now that's commonplace.
Gilbert: When we started out it was all formalistic. Everything was minimal.
George: Our gallerist would say there's art, and then there's whatever you are. Now we're much more central.
Gilbert: And we became part of the art. That was our biggest revolution. We aren't just part of the art. We are it. We're always splattering the canvas with our souls and feelings. But we removed ourselves from the art world a long time ago. We stopped going to galleries and looking at art. We only wanted to confront ourselves with the world, not with art.
You don't see art?
Gilbert: In about 1979 we stopped going to galleries, even national galleries.
So no opera, no art. What culture do you consume then?
George: We watch the news, that's it. To check on the enemy.
Gilbert: It's important to stay away, even from the cinema.
George: We don't want to become contaminated.
What was the last film you saw?
George: The Deerhunter, by chance.
Gilbert: Very good movie.
George: Good one to go out on.
But you eat out.
Gilbert: We have three or four restaurants we go to and that's it.
And you travel?
George: For exhibitions.
Do you walk around the cities you visit?
George: Not excessively. Any corner of the world is the same as any other, isn't it?
Gilbert: We don't want to be inspired.
George: The lonely person walking the dog is the same in London as he is anywhere else in the world.
Where does this show go next?
Gilbert: We are going to Paris next.
George [pulls out a notepad, covered in a clear plastic sleeve] We have to keep a record, you see: New York, then Paris, then Brussels, then London, then Naples, then Athens. Then we have a show in Belfast and it goes on from there.
Gilbert: We just want our pictures to be seen.
To what end?
George: It's very simple. If you break your arm you know where the hospital is. If you're robbed you go to the police. But everyone has an aching hole inside of them, either mentally or emotionally or spiritually. And that's why you have books or music or going to exhibitions. The force of culture is tremendous, but it's still little understood.
Gilbert: Even if they don't know what they are seeing, they still are marching into the museums by the millions. Extraordinary. In 1969 at the Hayward Gallery, over the whole summer they'd have 6,000 people. At a big show.
Now the problem is too many people.
George: It's a success story there. But not everywhere.
Gilbert: It is in New York or London or Paris, but not Japan. We went there, and they have these extraordinary, beautiful museums. And not one person there.
What did you think of Brexit? The art world is global; your art career is global. Do you think England is turning away from the world?
George: It's not true. Every gallery is moving to England. All the Germans and the Americans are opening there.
Gilbert: They are no big galleries in Germany or France. They are all in London. For all this talk of Little England there is no city that's as cosmopolitan as London. If you go to Germany you get German food. If you go to Italy you get Italian food. But in London you get everything. England loves Europe but they don't like the system of the United States of Europe. They never wanted that.
George: It was going to get worse anyway if we didn't leave. They wanted a central bank and a central taxing system. It was going to lead to armed warfare or something.
Gilbert: It is only Germany that's successful. Italy is bankrupt, Spain is bankrupt, Portugal is bankrupt. People only know one name: Merkel.
And what of Trump?
George: I understand him very well. He reminds me of—who's that American who plays the piano?
George: Yes. He's camp. The art world is madly opposed to him of course. We tell them to calm down. The people who are against them always need a witch anyway. If it wasn't Trump it would be someone else.
Gilbert: He didn't kill anybody yet. Did he?
But his supporters also need a witch. They found one in Hillary Clinton.
Gilbert: The world is more polarized, yes. Intolerant liberals, we call them. We always have that problem in the art world. They are always accusing us of how we have black people in our art or only men in our art or nationalism in our art.
George: The frowning classes, the middle classes, get upset. The lower classes and the aristocrats are always fine with everything.
Gilbert: We made an art that maybe 80 percent of collectors wouldn't touch. Even now when we make Naked Shit pictures, they like the pictures, but they wouldn't be able to put them up in their houses.
I think many people here voted for Trump as a defiant gesture.
George: We're not against him, that's all I have to say. It's exciting.
It is that.
George: And he doesn't have a beard.
Carl Swanson is editor at large at New York magazine.