‘That Irish greeting of Sodom and Gomorrah? We thought they were saying good morning’

British artists Gilbert & George are celebrating 50 years acting as one. They provocative pair look back on a controversial career, and an encounter with protesters in Belfast

The White Cube Gallery in southeast London has hosted plenty of openings in its time, but they wouldn’t usually be filmed for Sky News. Such hectic scenes at a morning photocall in Bermondsey resemble an appearance by The Rolling Stones rather than a visual artist.

But this isn’t any visual artist. This is Gilbert & George; two people, one artist. Like The Rolling Stones, they’ve been active over for half a century.

On September 25th, 1967, George Passmore met Gilbert Proesch at Saint Martin's School of Art on Charing Cross Road. In 1968, they moved into Fournier Street in Spitalfields, a gorgeous row of old Huguenot houses, where their neighbours include Tracey Emin and Jason Pierce of Spiritualized.

Today's media launch of The Beard Pictures is part a flurry of activity to commemorate the duo's 50th anniversary. This month, their Scapegoating Pictures will open at the Metropolitan Art Centre (MAC) in Belfast, an exhibition that debuted in London in 2014 and begins with a bold statement of intent: "We want our Art to bring out the Bigot from inside the Liberal and conversely to bring out the Liberal from inside the Bigot."

When Gilbert & George last exhibited in Belfast, members of the Free Presbyterian Church picketed the Ormeau Baths Gallery. Aside from this protest, which was widely reported at the time, they have very fond memories of their Belfast exhibition, which was opened by then secretary of state for Northern Ireland – and architect of New Labour –Peter Mandelson.

As Gilbert & George walk the media around the exhibition, George reveals the inspiration behind four gigantic pictures entitled Sex, Money, Race and Religion.

“These are based on a real tragedy,” he adds gravely. “We always walk the length of the Kingsland Road on the way to dinner. We used to stop at a small shop to buy an alcopop to cheer us up on our way, where we were always served by the same very nice young man. One evening, he wasn’t there, which was strange because he was there every single night. We asked his father, “Where is the young man?’ He told us, “He hung himself last night.’ We asked, ‘Do you know why?’ He answered, ‘We don’t know.’

“We walked to dinner full of a great sense of doom and unhappiness, thinking why, why, why? We thought it was most likely to do with either sex, money, race or religion” – they chorus these four words together – “or a combination of these things, so we did those pictures for him.”

Belfast brouhaha

Later on, in the gallery's meeting-room, we discuss the Belfast brouhaha of 2000 at length. Interviewing Gilbert & George is a surreal and entertaining experience, as their manner owes much to classic comic duos such as Laurel & Hardy or Morecambe & Wise.

"We remember being greeted with a famous Irish greeting, 'Sodom and Gomorrah'," George recalls. "I thought they were saying, 'Good morning', or 'top of the day to you!' The Very Reverend Houston McKelvey camped outside with this homemade tin megaphone. It really was quite backward. We subsequently went on BBC Northern Ireland. Someone called Reverend Wilkins was in the studio in Belfast, while we were in London. We asked him what he thought his men meant when they shouted 'Sodom and Gomorrah' at us, and he answered that he didn't know and couldn't get inside someone else's mind.

“We said, ‘We’re not asking you that. What do you think they meant? He wouldn’t say and completely evaded the question. Of course we know what they meant, but he just couldn’t admit it. We had a sudden brainwave to polish him off. We said, ‘Great that your religious tradition is, ours is an older one. Yours is 2,000 years old, but art and drawing goes back to figuration in caves.”

Gilbert & George have never been picketed anywhere else in the world, although they are no strangers to controversy. They give their exhibitions titles such as The Naked Shit Pictures and use excrement, urine, blood and semen as subject matter. In Miami, children were prohibited from seeing their show.

“Parents wanted to campaign against us and there was a big meeting,” George remembers. “The director said, ‘Good morning. We’ve come to discuss this. Before we go on, I’ll just like to show you the attendance figures for the last month.’ All the trustees were there, and of course, our show had seen a massive increase in visitor numbers. ‘Thank you, gentlemen. Anything else to discuss?’”

George hilariously illustrates their notoriety. "A bunch of art collectors were in the taxi going to the White Cube," he says. "They were discussing what works they owned, which works they missed, and what ones they were hoping to buy. 'I bought Shit on Piss, but I really wanted to buy Spunk on Blood.'

“A London cabbie was listening in to all this, so one of the ladies said, ‘Excuse me, cabbie. I hope you don’t think we’re vulgar Americans, or speaking in a very coarse manner. We’re actually discussing contemporary art.’ The driver said, ‘Oh, must be that Gilbert & George so.’”

‘Large truck’

Another classic G&G yarn goes: "A large truck slowed down on Commercial Street and a big, shaven-headed, middle-aged driver leaned out the window and shouted, 'Gilbert & George! My life is a fucking moment. Yours is an eternity!'"

Gilbert & George say they are approached for photographs and autographs every single day. You could argue that they inadvertently invented the selfie. “We might be 70-something, but we still have the youngest following in contemporary art,” George states. “We get hordes of young people coming to our shows. Most artists carry the same audience throughout their career, but we renew it.”

In England, they're affectionately known as eccentric national treasures, but their audience is global. "It doesn't matter where we are – Paris or New York," George says. "Any artist who says they don't like publicity is just saying that because they're not getting any.

As we wind down the conversation, they lob in another stunning anecdote.

“We were once contacted by an incredibly famous lady pop star, who will remain nameless,” George says. “She was very interested in our art and wanted to meet us, so she arranged a restaurant for dinner. The restaurant contacted us with a list of rules: not to have more than one waiter serving, no photographs or autographs, it was a huge list. So we arrived at the restaurant and she was with a fake partner, who was her security boy. The four of us sat down. In the middle of dinner, a lady got up from a neighbouring table. She advanced towards us with a sheet of paper and a pen. The security man bristled and all the staff froze. The lady reached our table and said, ‘I’m so sorry to bother you, gentlemen, but I’m an enormous fan of your art. Can I trouble you for your autograph, please?’ The pop star was furious.”

Every single evening, George walks for 1½ hours to the same Turkish barbecue in Dalston to join George for dinner, while George takes a bus and walks for 45 minutes. They meet at exactly eight o’clock, but if one of them arrives a minute early, the staff get concerned that something may have happened.

Joking aside, what is going to happen when one of them dies? “Aha, we call this the great German question,” George replies. “It’s the first question of any German press conference. ‘Vot happens if vone of you dies?’

“We say, ‘Well, we don’t carry cyanide tablets, but we will now.’ Or sometimes, we answer, ‘Do you mean if one of us gets knocked down by a bus? Fear not, for we always cross the road together.’”

Scapegoating Pictures is at the MAC, Belfast from January 26 to April 22. The Beard Pictures and Their Fuckosophy runs until January 28 at the White Cube, Bermondsey, London.

Art for all - 50 Years of Gilbert & George

1967: Gilbert Proesch meets George Passmore at St Martin's College of Sculpture.

1968: They move into Fournier Street, Spitalfields. They become "Living Sculptures", performing an old music hall tune, Underneath the Arches, in galleries.

1969: They create a series of postcard sculptures and object sculptures, and a living sculpture entitled The Meal.

1970-1974: Gilbert & George work on charcoal sculptures.

1977: The Dirty Words Pictures are shown in Amsterdam, Dusseldorf and New York.

1984: Gilbert & George exhibit Drunk With God at Rosc '84 in the Guinness Hop Store.

1986: Gilbert & George win the Turner Prize.

1987: A huge exhibition, Pictures 1982 to 1986, runs at the Hayward Gallery, London.

1989: Gilbert & George exhibit at Imma.

1994: The Naked Shit Pictures in Cologne becomes their most controversial and headline-grabbing exhibition yet.

1997: The Fundamental Pictures opens in New York, where they work with images of bodily fluids.

1999: They appear on a Graham Norton Christmas special.

2000: Recent Pictures opens at the Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast. It incurs the wrath of the Free Presbyterian Church.

2002: The Dirty Words Pictures 1977 is fully exhibited in the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park for the first time. It is sponsored by FCUK.

2007: After years of wrangling, a gigantic retrospective opens at the Tate Modern, the largest ever held for a living British artist.

2009: Gilbert & George tell the Daily Telegraph that they vote Conservative, and that, in their opinion, Margaret Thatcher did a lot for art. "Pop stars and artists are meant to be so original," they said. "So how come everyone has the same opinion?"

2015: They purchase a site on Heneage Street, which they hope will be turned into a free gallery for east London.

2017-2018: Gilbert & George celebrate 50 years together as artists with The Beard Pictures in the White Cube, London, and Scapegoating Pictures in the MAC, Belfast.

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