Interview

Gilbert and George on their epic Covid artworks: 'This is an enormously sad time'

Gilbert and George unveil their New Normal Pictures.
Witness … Gilbert and George unveil their New Normal Pictures. Photograph: David Levene/The Hlcarpenter.com
Witness … Gilbert and George unveil their New Normal Pictures. Photograph: David Levene/The Hlcarpenter.com

The artists have responded to the pandemic with comic, haunting works showing themselves being buffeted around a chaotic London. They talk about lines of coffins, illegal raves and ‘shameful’ statue-toppling

Jonathan Jones

Last modified on Fri 19 Mar 2021 07.24 EDT

As they call themselves living sculptures, I can’t resist asking Gilbert and George what they think of all the statue-toppling that took place last year. When I ask for their verdict on the removal of public works that have been accused of celebrating slavery and colonialism, they are sceptical.

“We would call that shameful behaviour,” says George. “And it’s very odd – because normally those statues are totally invisible. Nobody ever looks at them. I remember, very near my home town, there’s a statue of Redvers Buller, the hero of the Boer war, surrounded by dying Zulus and things. And if you asked people in Exeter, ‘Where’s Buller’s statue?’, none of them knew. It’s a bit silly. Rewriting history is very silly.”

Actually, Exeter’s equestrian statue of Buller doesn’t have “dying Zulus” around it, but its base is engraved with the names of imperial campaigns. A public committee in January recommended its removal to a less visible spot – only for Exeter council to vote unanimously, a couple of weeks ago, to let it stay.

Gilbert and George think all such works should be respected as cultural monuments. “Leave them as they are,” says Gilbert, “because they’re part of the city. You don’t go to Rome and take down all the Roman sculptures. You don’t destroy all the heads of Caesar – although he must have done very bad things.”

They are not remotely heated as they tell me this, via a Zoom call from their home in Spitalfields, east London. When I enter the meeting a minute early, they are already present, perfectly arranged in their suits looking just like Gilbert and George. They seem a lot more composed, in fact, than they do in their latest epic series of photoworks, The New Normal Pictures.

Exhausted souls … Priority Seat, 2020.
Exhausted souls … Priority Seat, 2020. Photograph: Gilbert & George, courtesy White Cube

They constructed these comic yet haunting photomontages at their home studio mostly during lockdown last year, using photos taken just before the pandemic. They look dazed, flattened, pummelled and suffering tragicomically, thrown all over the streets of London like human detritus. In one, Priority Seat, they collapse farcically exhausted on seats at a bus stop. Gilbert Prousch is now 77, George Passmore 79, and they tell me they do sometimes take the bus these days. In another, Woken, they seem dragged from their graves.

They’re clearly not all that woken. The British empire, claims George, “was a wonderful invention”. But their defence of Victorian statues is a crucial insight into their own art. They find these old effigies much more aesthetically powerful than today’s public art. Those figurative statues from the past, argues Gilbert, “are fantastic. Modern art is more difficult in the street. Like in Trafalgar Square, you see these artificial sculptures they put up every six months…”

“More or less daft,” shudders George at the Fourth plinth programme, which currently boasts a statue of a giant swirl of whipped cream, a cherry, a fly and a drone.

So what do they like about bronze generals? “It’s human sculpture,” says Gilbert simply. And that takes us to the heart of their work. They are nothing if not human. The pair have created art that is an outward projection of their own day-to-day existence. Textbooks will tell you they are founding figures of conceptual and performance art. When they met and fell in love at art college in 1967, they embarked on a joint career as “living sculpture” that put the human figure – body and soul – back at the centre of modern art.

Compassion … George Passmore, left, and Gilbert Prousch.
Compassion … George Passmore, left, and Gilbert Prousch. Photograph: David Levene/The Hlcarpenter.com

It is not only their personal story they portray. Living near Brick Lane, they look, listen and take walks, the better to experience the lifeblood of east London. They’re aware how lucky they have been in the pandemic, as self-contained artists: “To be alone and walking the streets of London,” says Gilbert, “is fantastic.” But they have also witnessed what it’s like for their neighbours.

“Huge lines of coffins and incinerations,” says George.

“Especially in our street,” adds Gilbert. “In the mosque next to us.”

“Every day.”

“Every day there are dead people, three, four.”

“Five, six funerals,” says George. “We even had an illegal rave on Brick Lane which was very exciting. All the police coming to put all the teenagers in the vans. And one young lady appealing to the police, ‘Don’t take him, brother. Please, I beg you brother. Don’t take them.’”

George gets angry when people see the bright side of this crisis. “Oh,” he says, quoting them. “It’s marvellous, this virus. You can see all the stars at night so clearly without the pollution. Or: It’s so nice – you can drive through London without too much traffic. What a selfish approach. Tens of thousands of people are dying in misery. Husbands and wives and brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers are suffering. It’s an enormously sad time.”

Emotional response … Woken, 2020.
Emotional response … Woken, 2020. Photograph: Gilbert & George, courtesy White Cube

Here is the paradox of Gilbert and George. They are masters of provocation and proudly right wing, but they also have a compassion that would put plenty of seemingly virtuous artists to shame. It’s an emotional response, not a political one. When I visited them at home before the pandemic, I was struck by the mugs on their doorstep, left by their homeless friends. One, George Crompton, appears with them in their New Normal Picture Number Twelve. If this strikes you as self-congratulatory, a Victorian image of charity, note that the picture’s title is their actual house number, and their street is well known, so it’s like an open invitation to come and get a cup of tea.

Ah, but the New Normal Pictures, when the gallery can physically open, will be on show in posh Mason’s Yard, in an art world far removed from poverty. But maybe it’s not such a huge distance from the gallery to the street – certainly not according to a tale they are keen to relate.

“Tell the story of the drug addict who stopped us on Brick Lane,” says Gilbert.

“Yes,” says George. “We were just walking down towards Whitechapel and one of the regular drug addicts came limping along the street with a pair of torn trousers and some horrid strange blood pouring from one ear, and a very grubby face. And as he limped past, he turned round and, referring to our art, he said, ‘I like the Shit ones best.’ This was a reference to their 1990s series The Naked Shit Pictures. “And we laughed – and then we came home and we cried.”

I might feel more sceptical about the crying bit if it wasn’t for the fact that, during our interview, as George talks about how Aids “bumped off” some of their best friends, I see the tears well up in his eyes.

Statement to the world … their earliest living sculpture, in 1969.
Statement to the world … their earliest living sculpture, in 1969. Photograph: Tony McGrath/The Observer

Their compassion seems real – and they are no strangers to prejudice. Sometimes their mock-posh language strikes me as a defence mechanism, just as, in more than 50 years as a couple, they’ve used their fine suits as a kind of armour of respectability, to protect their long-proven love for each other. These are two men who first announced their coupledom to the world by painting their faces silver and looking like two robots, as they sang a music hall standard that was absurd and archaic, yet actually about two homeless men sleeping under railway arches: “Underneath the arches / We dream our dreams away.”

George, for instance, likes to call their addicted friends “dope fiends”. But that doesn’t stop them being close to their local drug community. “We even have a favourite dope fiend who is called Daniel,” says George. “He’s very good-looking, he’s very polite. He’s a fantastic person. He disappeared for a few weeks and we asked the other drug addicts, ‘Where’s Daniel?’ One said, ‘He’s inside – he swore at a policeman.’”

I ask about the graveyard whose battered stone plinths appear in some of the new pictures. It turns out to belong to Christ Church Spitalfields – “Hawksmoor’s masterpiece” located nearby. But, says Gilbert, they have now turned their eyes away from spires: “We realised for 45 years we were looking up in the air when we used to walk. Now we’re looking down towards the earth and we start to see a new world: humanity is looking down to earth.”

The New Normal Pictures are not just about their drug-taking friends who frequent the churchyard. They also imagine the lives of people they have never met, using clues found on the street, which appear in the works. In fact, these pictures are crowded with stuff they’ve found as they walk London with their eyes to the ground, from blankets to makeshift beds, from graffiti to party balloons, as well as “drug bags” marked with logos including an image of Bob Marley.

On the streets … Bag-Men, 2020.
On the streets … Bag-Men, 2020. Photograph: Gilbert & George, courtesy White Cube

As George explains the balloons, you can see how their art keeps them young. “When we did the Scapegoat Pictures” – in which metal canisters for laughing gas were made to look like bombs – “we collected all of the canisters together with balloons. You can’t inhale the gas from the canisters. You put the gas into a balloon and then you put the balloon to your mouth.” However, they chose not to feature the balloons in the end, “because that would give a festive, jolly, party air to the pictures we certainly didn’t want”.

It’s a helpfully thorough account. “But now, we feel it’s time to use balloons because they begin to speak of blow jobs and intercrural love, illegal rave parties at the moment and, of course, respirators. They seem to be just the job.”

Perhaps, I joke, there should be a statue of them both. They say the closest thing to that is their Gilbert and George Centre, a museum of their work that they are creating in the East End. This morning, they went to see concrete being pumped in to create the ground floor. The centre will give a home to art that lingers in the mind like a music hall melody, underneath the arches, among the drug baggies. “If,” says Gilbert, “it doesn’t go bankrupt.”