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Grave hopping with Gilbert & George

Grave hopping with Gilbert & George

Simon Willis heads to a burial ground to debate Brexit with the iconoclastic British artists

Simon Willis heads to a burial ground to debate Brexit with the iconoclastic British artists

Simon Willis | December/January 2020

Gilbert and George are standing before the grave of John Bunyan. A mossy effigy of the author of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” reclines on a magnificent limestone tomb in Bunhill Fields Burial Ground in central London. But the artists are distracted from the grandeur of the monument by a small figure of the pilgrim himself, carved into the stone and lugging his worldly possessions on his back in what looks like a rucksack.

“We are very anti-rooksack,” Gilbert spits, his accent still thick with the Italian of his birth and his voice raspy from a sore throat. “They are a physical disfigurement,” George agrees in patrician tones. “They turn people into fat old ladies or fat gentlemen!” Gilbert goes on. “On the Underground, they smack you!”

Gilbert and George would never shoulder such a slovenly accessory. When I meet them outside the cemetery’s public toilet on this chilly autumn morning, they are dressed in their customary tailored suits. Gilbert’s tie is decorated with orange sea anemones, George’s with winter roses that match the yellow flower in his lapel, plucked not long before from a crack in the pavement. The rigour with which they dress is far more than a matter of style – it’s a basic element of their art.

Since they became partners in both life and art in 1967, Gilbert and George have featured themselves in most of their work, which encompasses an extraordinary range of media from performance to kaleidoscopic photomontages. Their suits have provided continuity, a buttoned-up look that made them seem old even when they were young. Gilbert, now 76, is rheumy eyed and slightly forgetful. George, at 77, has a gammy foot. Otherwise they seem almost as timeless as Bunyan on his plinth.

The pair first attracted attention in 1969 with their so-called “Singing Sculpture”. For this they dressed in tweeds and sang “Underneath the Arches”, a music-hall number, for up to eight hours at a stretch. The song, about homeless people trying to keep their spirits up, reminded them of the world outside their window in Spitalfields in east London, then a warren of derelict houses populated by drunks and drifters. Their familiar London haunts are now in the high summer of gentrification and Gilbert and George have restored their home to its former glory, complete with a vast collection of antique furniture and ceramics. (They were delighted to discover recently that a type of vase they collect is now worth £1,500 a pop. They have over 500 of them.)

Their brand of theatrical wistfulness shook up the art world, which at that time was dominated by cool minimalism and conceptual abstraction. It proved to be a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. When the “Singing Sculpture” arrived at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York in 1971, people queued for hours to see them. The gallery laid on tea and cucumber sandwiches to refresh weary visitors.

They have become “the most important artists to emerge in Britain since the war”, according to Richard Dorment, a British art critic. During the civil strife of the Thatcher years they pictured themselves flanked by skinheads and disaffected youth. They evoked the AIDS crisis with rotting flowers splattered with blood and semen. After the London bombings in 2005 they displayed veiled women wearing suicide-belts. Their bombastic and confrontational work has drawn inspiration from the residents of Bunhill Fields, which has been used as a cemetery since the 17th century. It was the resting place of choice for non-conformists who didn’t belong to the Anglican church. This club of cussed radicals and original thinkers, such as Daniel Defoe and William Blake, challenged conventions. Gilbert and George have always felt they belonged here.

Gilbert Proesch was born in the Dolomites in 1943 and grew up Catholic. Until he was 15 he believed that missing church on Sunday was a mortal sin. George Passmore was born in Plymouth in 1942 and raised a proud Methodist. George retains only one memory of his childhood religion: the smell of mothballs emanating from the congregation’s Sunday best.

For each of them, the word of God was quickly eclipsed by the power of art. London in the Swinging Sixties promised liberation for these “country bumpkins”, as George puts it. But they found art school stultifying. They didn’t see the point of the abstract sculpture they were encouraged to make. “We didn’t want just a nice angle or a nice shape,” says George. “We realised that if you took that art out of St Martin’s and into the Charing Cross Road it wouldn’t have any meaning whatsoever.”

They connected with a wider public through living sculptures of themselves doing ordinary things, like singing or getting drunk or eating dinner. Over time they became more lurid and extreme. In the 1990s Gilbert and George went through a phase of depicting themselves naked, surrounded by magnified turds and giant globules of their own semen and urine. They bucked against the conformity they perceived in the art world. When they began, George says, “Colour was taboo. Sex was taboo. Feelings were taboo.” True artists see a taboo and reach for an axe.

There are two memorials to Blake in Bunhill Fields: a squat headstone next to Defoe’s soaring obelisk and a newer slab laid on the site of the mass grave where he was buried in 1827. “Blake was an outsider and totally neglected,” Gilbert says as he stands over the final resting place of the painter, poet and printmaker. A plastic cup of dead, drooping flowers decorates the bleak scene.

Blake’s work provided the culmination to “The World of Gilbert & George”, a feature-length film from 1981 about the patch of London around their house in Spitalfields. The film ends with a recording of “Jerusalem”, the hymn that sets to music Blake’s poem about the dark satanic mills in England’s green and pleasant land, but it’s played over images of young men fighting and Gilbert and George’s screaming faces.

A mood of nostalgic nationalism with an undertow of menace runs through the pair’s work. And it is as relevant as ever now that Britain is trying to navigate its exit from the European Union. When I meet the artists, Boris Johnson has just become Britain’s prime minister. His mantra of “get Brexit done” is music to their ears. Gilbert and George are both proud conservatives of a libertarian stripe, with an unshakable faith in Brexit. For them it is a matter of freedom. Gilbert was born in Italy during the second world war and grew up in Austria and Germany in its aftermath. He derides “totalitarian Europe” telling member states what to do. “England is the most democratic place in the world,” he says. George looks around the cemetery, filled with people who fought for freedom of conscience. “The world we live in, the idea that we are free and safe, is all to do with these guys.”

At first glance their conservatism sits oddly with the quantities of effluent and profanity in their pictures. In fact, they are entirely consistent. The art world, George says, “is incredibly intolerant, with one set way of thinking about everything”. Many artists would label them “wicked nationalist pigs” for their views on Brexit. The pair are the only people at their local shop who buy the Daily Telegraph, a right-wing newspaper. In their artist-heavy enclave of east London this is tantamount, says George, “to reading the Nazi Paedophile Times”. They enjoy baiting the group-thinking liberals that dominate the scene. Sometimes they end meetings by wishing people a happy Brexit.

The pathetic flowers on Blake’s grave lead us to talk of mortality. “Now if you die there is very little left of you,” says George. Surely, I suggest, the advantage of being an artist is that you leave the work behind. “Only if the art speaks,” George says. “If it doesn’t you’re finished.”

To keep their voices alive they are working on a foundation for their art, which is due to open nearby in the next few years. For now, though, there is still art to be made. As they go, George holds me by the elbow, leans in close and tells me their favourite Blake story. “Someone went to visit him, and the maid said, ‘He’s in the garden, go through.’ And there he was, naked except for a Roman helmet, sketching the wife!” Gilbert, who has a habit of stopping before he speaks, which envelops everything he says in a cloud of significance, brightens with delight. “I hope they have a hole here for us, George!”

Gilbert & George’s exhibition, “The Paradisical Pictures”, will be shown at Spruth Magers in Los Angeles until January 2020