Internationally recognised inseparable artists Gilbert & George on their Brussels’ solo show

With a body of work that tilts towards the provocative and subversive, Gilbert & George‘s art is a very singular reflection of society and its many taboos. Last week the eccentric London duo opened their exhibition ‘London Pictures’ at Brussels’ Albert Baronian gallery, and we grabbed the chance to sit down with the pair to talk about their artworks, stealing posters in the streets of London and the secret of still being together after 42 years.

Can you tell us more about your current exhibition here at Albert Baronian?

The exhibition consists of 292 pictures that are based on 3712 posters that we found at news kiosks in London.

So you went around London and secretly took the posters off? How do I have to pictures this, did you sneak around at night?

Yes, and also during the day! Some kiosk have the posters attached to the shutters, so we have to wait until they close down. For the others we developed a different strategy: one of us goes inside to buy a Mars bar to distract the owner and the other one grabs the chance to steal the poster.

Did you ever get caught?

Twice actually. Once we got caught by an over enthusiastic policeman who came running after us: “What did you steal this poster for?” We had just gotten it into the pocket. And we thought very quickly and said: “You know, at our school we had a debate on anti-social behaviour and we had a vote, and all the children and all the teachers agreed that we should all be doing more to prevent bad behaviour and not leave it all to you policemen. And he said: “Oh Sir, if only more people were like you!” And off we went with the poster.

London plays a central role in your current exhibition – how would you describe your relationship to the city and why did you chose it as your home?

London is becoming the multicultural center of the world. It’s just extraordinary. They are all hyperactive in London. Here in Brussels everything is so quiet. In London people are hysterical.We never wanted to make art in another place. In the beginning when we started in 1967 London was not the place to be for art at all. Everybody was trying to go to New York or Paris. But we wanted to stick our shoes in the mud and stay fixed there and succeed in London.

“If a young person has a problem with finances, education, nationality, sex, drugs,… telling him to look at a yellow triangle and a red line is not going to achieve anything.”

You use pictures of yourself in your art and have acted as living sculptures. Is there a line between art and your private life or has it become inseparable?

We are the creators and the creation. We are not standing back like traditional artists. We are actually inside the whole thing. How we think and how we feel and what we fear, that’s what the next pictures will be. We don’t think about what we should do, how we are, that is it. In ’69 we made ourselves the center of our art, and that was extraordinary because at that moment you become a living sculpture. This idea of the living sculpture is still inside us, nothing has changed. And then we invented a language to express ourselves through imagery and photography. The rise of formalism of art at the time was anti-human. If you have nice shapes and nice colours, that is not going to address any of the problems or difficulties inside the viewer. If a young person has a problem with finances, education, nationality, sex, drugs, … telling him to look at a yellow triangle and a red line, that’s not going to do anything. But if a young person, whatever their position in the world, sees an exhibition like this, they will find some connection with their lives, some opinion that they agree or disagree with. Memory and emotions are the keys. That’s what’s inside of human beings. Nothing is as you see it. Everything is interpreted by the brain and how we are. How you are brought up, which prejudices you have, which nationality you have,… people look at the same picture but see different things. You are not only you, you are also what music your parents listened or not listened to or what books your grandparents did or did not read.

What is the major message you want to pass on with your art?

Humanity. Death, life, fear, sex, money, race, religion…Art is after all the evolution of humanity. It’s about seeing the world in a different way, as Turner did. Feel different through art. Through art you can see the whole world in a different way.

“Criticism can be very character-building. You can feel yourself more.”

When you first met back in the 60s – how did you know you wanted to work together? Why did you team up? It’s not always easy to work in a duo.

We were stranded. Outside St. Martin’s school of art! Something came over us, it wasn’t our big decision. We didn’t say “Let’s think about working together”, it wasn’t like that. We were stuck alone outside the school, we were alone there, we had to reinvent ourselves and how to make art. We were more weird than the other students and more normal at the same time, if that makes any sense. And we didn’t have a studio or anything, so all we had was ourselves. That’s why we created the idea of the living sculpture. We were actually trained in sculpture. Our college even turned against us at one point, but that gave us an enormous strive, because criticism can be very character-building. You can feel yourself more.

You’ve been working together since over 40 years now and never split up – what’s your secret?

Like everybody else we want to be loved more. Who doesn’t want to be loved more? Every man, woman, child and dog always wants to be loved more. And it’s an extraordinary way of making pictures.

So you inspire each other?

We are more inspired by the response. Fan mail and people on the street who recognize us…we are very rewarded by that. Art can work! It can mean something to people.

Why do you prefer working as a pair?

Otherwise it would be very lonely! Can you image, the lonely artist in his studio…we don’t have that. We are two people but one artist. That’s the key, the secret. It’s not a collaboration, we are one.

“We are two people but one artist.”

How did you get involved in art in the first place? 

Gilbert grew up in a rather artistic home and already when he was 7 years old he wanted to be an artist. He did drawings and little sculptures and all kinds of things. I had always been fascinated by art and then as a teenager I found a book of the letters of Van Gogh and I read them and I realised one thing only from it: That you don’t have to do the right thing to become a great artist. He had the wrong background, the wrong friends, he was unpleasant to everybody…and he succeeded! There people now still looking at those paintings and they are speaking to them! Then I went to evening classes when I was 15 and one of the teachers told me I would be an artist and I believed him.

You’ve been in the art business for a very long time. How has it changed over the years?

Massively. It’s so big now. The art world used to be so small. It was five people in the whole world who knew each other. Everything was happening in Europe or America – now it’s completely global. The interest in art is massive nowadays. There is a public now that we never had before. I remember a gallery in London that used to do shows with famous artists like Jasper Johns and 6000 people would come. Now you have 200.000 people coming to a show. When we had a show in the Hayward gallery in ’87 we had 40.000 people, a record-breaking number. Today, that’s nothing.  The public is so interested. The other day someone told us we were on Iranian television. That’s just extraordinary. When we shows our ‘London Pictures’ in London David Frost from Al Jazeera came to make a programme about it. And that is new, that didn’t use to happen. Art penetrated society. But there is little else to do in today’s world. Even the kind of people that go to exhibitions changed massively. In London almost anyone feels like they can go to a gallery. It used to be just collectors and critics and artists.

What do you think is the reason for this dramatic change?

Art became more of use to people, probably. They found a way to make it a part of their lives. It became part of the currency. And television is boring. So what do you do to entertain yourself? Art is quite a good option. You can meet people, you can go to openings and get free drinks…people are fascinated. And art became a more democratic form, it was much more elitist before, just shapes and colours, limited down, thinner and thinner. And now it can be anything: Somebody on the floor, an assemblage…just anything. It’s more connected to normal life. People get it more. Once a huge truck drove by us and the driver put his head out and said: “My life’s a fucking moment but you art is an eternity!” and off he drove.

Do you often get approached on the street?

Yes, because we made ourselves the center of our art. In London everybody knows us. Even here, last night, we got stopped three times by people in the street. Our images became very visible.

Exhibition runs until 6th October
Albert Baronian, Rue Isidore Verheydenstraat 2 – 1050 Brussels