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Gilbert and George: The Original Artist Duo

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Gilbert and George singing 'Underneath the Arches' at King's Place, 21 May 2015

Last night we were charmed by the infamous pair of 'living sculptures', Gilbert and George, joined by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist at #GuardianLive at King's Place. It was, to use a favourite word of George’s: “Extraordinary!”

Gilbert described the first day he met George on the fifth floor of Central St Martin's College in the late 60s when, in their words (together) "something new was happening". George notes that the ‘advanced sculpture course’ was "a course where everyone felt arrogant and special". The duo recalled many anecdotes about their misbehaviour and mischief during their "baby artist" days, from having meetings on the dance floor with the likes of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol; the New York scene of artists and dealers on their many, many nights out. “We were drunk for two years” said George gracefully recounting the aftermath of the first $1000 sale of one of their early drawings—to turning up to the ICA show that had rejected them as 'living sculptures' and literally standing their ground. And “we were right” George said dryly as we giggled with delight on their behalf.

We had been in awe of the two of them since before we met—also at art school—and last night showed to us what a marvellous duo Gilbert and George really are. With the ease of two individuals who are one artist, they finished one another’s sentences, punctuated them for the other, managed to speak seamlessly without talking over one another even as George described their ambition to achieve “thought transference”, in particular with their audiences. “We live for that” said Gilbert, referring to perfect strangers stopping them in the street to tell them they like their art. The duo aim for direct transference of thought and feeling, and indeed of meaning, to their audience.

Gilbert and George did not follow the official route to becoming artists and ‘living sculptures’. The sculpture course they attended was not an official course but a pet course of a particular St Martins tutor intended literally for misfits - artist that did not fit the traditional mould. “It was hard for us, we didn’t fit in. And we liked that we didn’t fit in.” remarked Gilbert. They were not trained in traditional fine art media and as a result had discovered their own particular way of drawing, for instance, starting with a black and white palette, inducing red four years later, then yellow two years after that, blue, green and so on.

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Gilbert and George, Fates (2005)

The “very slow” (Gilbert’s emphasis) process of self-taught artistic discovery is what gives their works their particular look. The tiled effect of their multiple panelled installations too is the result of a process of DIY discovery, of scaling up without knowing how to make large-scale work. Traces of their DIY approaches a everywhere in their work, from stumbling across their iconic ‘singing sculpture’ record ‘Underneath The Arches’ on the sidewalk of a second-hand store to the delicately cut out type reading “GEORGE THE C***” and “GILBERT THE S***' across their rose and pocket square embellished lapels.

Everything they do, everything they are, is sculpture: singing sculpture, video sculpture, living sculpture and so on. At one point Gilbert said of their drawings: “We call them charcoal sculptures on paper.”

As controversial as ever, Gilbert and George remain politicised and did not shy away from criticising rising nationalism, religious fundamentalism in their neighbourhood in east London as well as the rest of the country. No subject was off limits as both commented upon the present nationalism gripping the nation also reflected in one of the top arts institutions in the land, the Tate. “We utterly disagree,” said the duo on the subject of the division of Tate (Modern, Britain, Liverpool, St Ives) into literal and figurative regions, a subject they themselves brought up. George protested “We have a problem with Tate, they create provincial artists.” And to bring the point home he later brought up this comparison “If you have a Tate Modern, then there should be a Tate Old-fashioned? Or, Tate Britain and Tate Foreign.”

There was much laughter. And, there was seriousness. Tenderness too. We took away with us another memorable anecdote from the evening, namely George’s recitation of a dear poem given to the pair by a street newspaper seller whom they used to see every day for many years, only ever exchanging a few words of greeting. One day, evidently in poor health, the newspaper seller suddenly recited a bawdy and brilliantly funny poem to the pair. The man had passed away a long time ago, yet they held him in such high regard, for his humour and his ‘gift’ of the poem, all these years later. This everyman, so exalted by the duo, is what we admire about Gilbert and George themselves. They wear their art on their sleeve and they are their art. And then, they got up and sang a refrain from ‘Underneath The Arches’, admitting “we don’t always remember the words”, also a gift, to all of us.

And we loved their advice to young artists:

1. The first is, tomorrow morning when you wake up, sit on the edge of the bed, keep your eyes closed, and don’t move or do anything until you have decided ‘what do I want to say to the world today?’ declared George, and the second piece of advice;

2. “F*** the teacher!” Gilbert concluded.