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Features / Art

50 years of Gilbert and George: the artist duo tell us the meaning of life

Words:

Lucy Bourton

“There is no bigger force than sex and fucking,” proclaims Gilbert, one half of revered, admired and sometimes offensive artist duo, Gilbert and George. Then he laughs, “maybe eating…”

The artist uses this foul mouthed statement to explain the meaning at the heart of a forceful, profanity-based artwork covering the walls of their latest exhibition at London’s White Cube, The Beard Pictures and Their Fuckosophy. A list of words, sayings and sentences centred around the word fuck, The Fuckosophy is Gilbert and George’s “great experiment in literature”. But, despite its philosophical roots, the artists present the work in a way that anyone can understand.

Capitalised and printed in alternate shades of black and red, it is equally daunting and funny to walk around the gallery reading “Fucking and the Industrial Revolution”, “Fuck Sussex”, or “Hi Ya Fucker”. As an artwork, The Fuckosophy reflects the anger many feel at the world that is developing around us. It does so simply, reproducing a word we’ve all used, whether it be fuck Trump, fuck Brexit, fuck this, fuck that or just fuck off. Gilbert and George shout the word youngsters are told off for saying and adults mostly mutter under their breath. They express it, push it, shock us — as they always have — by presenting not one but 4000 fucks, and pasting them on the walls of a gallery.

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Gilbert and George: Beardout, The Beard Pictures and Their Fuckosophy © Gilbert and George courtesy White Cube

“Are there any other swear words?” George remarks when I ask why fuck of all the possible curses. In presenting the audience with one of the harshest and most common swear words, Gilbert and George believe they have created "a kind of utopia, where you are able to say whatever you want,” explains Gilbert. “I think everyone has a book about philosophy in their house, or we all know the names of the philosophers, but we don’t know much more than that. The Fuckosophy is more democratic, more art for all,” continues George. "We think it’s an extraordinary experiment.” And just at the second things get a little serious in the room, Gilbert lightens the mood: “We were also inspired by the scaffolder next to our house.”

In turn, the word-based artwork is the rare kind critics will discuss deeply and at length, but can also be easily understood and reviewed fairly by the next person who happens to walk in the gallery. Gilbert and George’s decision to have the word fuck at the core of this artwork clearly demonstrates and embodies the anti-elitist front that has always driven their work.

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Gilbert and George: Mint Beards, The Beard Pictures and Their Fuckosophy © Gilbert and George courtesy White Cube

The Beard Pictures and Their Fuckosophy marks the 50th anniversary of Gilbert and George’s partnership, working together through Tate retrospectives, Turner Prize nominations and more recently, their election as Royal Academicians. Not only have the pair ticked off many of the most difficult accolades in the art world, their works have also managed to reflect the cultural progress of the world too. “There are so many subjects that we have concentrated on,” says Gilbert. “If you go through big books of ours you just have to read the titles and you see the whole story. The titles tell the story of our interests.”

The most easily identifiable quality of Gilbert and George’s awareness and consequent progress is how the explanation of their work is delivered with a pinch of cultural reference. The second half of the exhibition, The Beard Pictures, displays this visually in its use of beards, demonstrating both the religious and cultural context of facial hair: “For example, when we were teenagers you wouldn’t get a job if you had a beard,” explains George. “Now you won’t get a job in Stoke Newington if you don’t have a beard.” Other visual factors of The Beard Pictures continue this, particularly the consistent use of barbed wire, something the pair noticed cropping up all over the world. “Europe, all over America, fencing, barbed wire and walls. All the walls were like insecurity, for us that was extraordinary,” says Gilbert.

Unlikely visual references are also noticeable in the artists colour palette decision for The Beard Pictures. Arguably the most striking element of the exhibition, each work sees reds sit beside violent purples and glowing shades of green. “It’s a very limited colour palette,” says George. “Red for ourselves and a very tiny range of colours which we like to think is like being in the house and hearing the tuning of a piano in another room.” This artistic explanation is then coupled with a bit of simplification from Gilbert: “and it reminded us of Acid House when we were young”. Hearing Gilbert and George reveal snippets of their lives like this is equally as fascinating as the work itself. It almost feels as if they’re stepping out of their self-imposed East End bubble, revealing themselves as normal music-listening, telly-watching people, not just the formally dressed artistic act the world regards them as.

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Gilbert and George: Beardtoast, The Beard Pictures and Their Fuckosophy © Gilbert and George courtesy White Cube

Considering and communicating factors outside their daily lives is also the focal point for one of the largest pieces in the exhibition, which continues their ambitious approach to representing subjects as a quadripartite. The piece, which measures in at four by seven metres, displays topics of Sex Money Race Religion, vocalising a personal tragic story the pair have thought about for decades: “We always walk the length of Kingsland Road on the way to dinner. We used to stop at a small corner shop and buy an alcopop to cheer us on our way,” explains George. “We were always served by the same, nice, young person. One evening we went in and he wasn’t there and it was very shocking, we always saw him, every night. We said to the father ‘Where is the young man?’ and he said, ‘he hanged himself last night’. We were very shocked, amazed and horrified. We said ‘why?’ and he said ‘we don’t know,’ and that seemed even more horrific as well. We walked to dinner with a great sense of doom and unhappiness, thinking why? Then we realised it’s probably to do with [Gilbert begins speaking in unison] sex, money, race or religion, or a combination of those things. We couldn’t think of anything else outside of that. After 15 or 20 years, we finally did this picture for him.”

While they may be painted red in The Beard Pictures, silence is golden when Gilbert and George enter the studio to work. When I ask what they discuss while working George exclaims, “No! No. Conversations? That would ruin everything.” Once in the studio designing, “the most creative part,” the artists don’t speak at all, and work in darkness too. “The whole studio is black when we design. It’s very interesting because we always say that we want to design with closed eyes,” explains Gilbert. “We don’t want to see the outer world in some way. We don’t want to see the ordinary landscape, we want to see the inner landscape.”

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Gilbert and George: The Beard Pictures and Their Fuckosophy, White Cube Bermondsey © Gilbert & George. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

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Gilbert and George: The Beard Pictures and Their Fuckosophy, White Cube Bermondsey © Gilbert & George. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

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Gilbert and George: The Beard Pictures and Their Fuckosophy, White Cube Bermondsey © Gilbert & George. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

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Gilbert and George: The Beard Pictures and Their Fuckosophy, White Cube Bermondsey © Gilbert & George. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

This inner landscape is presented in works which spit out all the elements of the world Gilbert and George have soaked up at that particular point, from hipsters to acid house. Each piece comprehensively documents “how we are at that time, how we hope, how we think, how we feel, what’s on our mind,” says George. “We trust any picture that comes out of us,” and accordingly historical, artistic and everyday factors are all featured. Each artwork begins with a photograph of the pair, a process they describe as “fixing and freezing images,” explains Gilbert. “Freezing some time in some way. That’s what art is, if not it’s just a non-stop rolling world. Freezing ideas, it’s quite interesting. Freezing time, our ideas of the world.” The artists don’t give anything away about how these pieces are created; even when asked George just says, “the pictures more or less make themselves, we try not to interfere”.


Working together in this way with little input from anyone else, (it is reported they only have one assistant, rare for artists of their stature), Gilbert and George describe as “the greatest strength in the world”. The notion of being apart from one another is one met with bewilderment in their tone of voice, “can you imagine being alone in the studio?” Gilbert asks. “It’s quite difficult. It’s very funny because a lot of people think art is very easy, but it is not. You’re confronting an empty wall in front of you, stretching something there. After all, that’s what they did in the caves, we haven’t moved, it’s all the same.” Pairing up is additionally a factor they see as totally normal, “that’s why most people are divided in twos, even in the animal kingdom”. But being a pair is also a main counterpart to Gilbert and George’s overall magnetism: ever together, like the established elders of contemporary art. “It’s very simple. We are two people but one artist,” George explains. “That’s the secret.”

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Gilbert and George: Bearding Along, The Beard Pictures and Their Fuckosophy © Gilbert and George courtesy White Cube

A further part of their charm is their tendency to go off on a tangent, particularly George, and divert to a worldly old story or anecdote. At the opening of the exhibition he does this, recalling an old story the pair enjoy while discussing the philosophical aspect of their Fuckosophy: “We always remember the story of Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, who got into a London taxi and the driver said [George puts on an impeccably good cockney accent], ‘Oi, ain’t you Bertrand Russell the famous philosopher?,’ and he said ‘yes of course’, and the taxi driver said ‘so what’s it all about then?’.” Anecdotes such as this evidently tickle the pair, moments when the establishment interacts with the everyday and becomes a little unsettled – a constant reaction to their work too.

As our interview draws to a close I bring up the anecdote and ask them, after 50 years of being together and creating artworks, what they think it’s all about then? Their answer is both scholarly, humble and a little provocative at the same time, but is still a piece of advice anyone could take something from. “We think it’s about the freedom of the individual. To get out of your bed in the morning and say, ‘what do I want to do in the world today,’ and say ‘I Am Me’,” explains George. “That’s very difficult. Very, very few people in the world can do that. Most people get out of their bed being a slave of religion, a slave of the dictator, slaves to the banks. Freedom is the great privilege we can hope for.” To which Gilbert concludes, “It’s what we have to do.”

The Beard Pictures and Their Fuckosophy is on at White Cube in Bemondsey, London, until 28 January 2018.

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Gilbert and George: “Early morning. The Artists set out for breakfast at Jeff’s Café in nearby Brune Street. Seated are the Artist’s friends George Crompton and Tara McKerr.” © Gilbert and George courtesy White Cube