Was I knock on their front door on Fournier Street in London’s Spitalfields, Gilbert and George have been in their studio since 6 p.m. 7 and painted the words “Oh My God” in capitals on 50 posters in size in the Serpentine Gallery. They are, of course, visited and lead me through the dark hallway of their house, George in front, Gilbert behind, to the airy, pristine space out the back where they work. They have lived here since 1967 and first rented the half-abandoned ground floor for a princely £ 12 a month. It was then the cheapest place in London: the Queen Anne houses, built for Huguenot silk weavers, had become home to Jewish tailors and their workshops, but fell empty as the cloth trade migrated to the Far East. Half a century later, not least because of the artists’ unique presence, the street has become a slogan for sympathetic restoration, and homes are being sold for £ 5m.
Perhaps London’s most famous addictive, the days of Gilbert Prousch and George Passmore, now both in their late 70s, are a city ritual. They are up at dawn and handing out mugs of tea to the homeless who mingle along Brick Lane or sleep on benches in the cemetery of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church. They have a piece of toast before coming to work, along with their 28-year-old assistant, Yigang Yu, whom they met when they had an exhibition in 1993 in Shanghai and brought home. 11.30 they are ready to go out for lunch, today with me in tow.
They never stored food in the house, but during the pandemic, when the neighbors brought them meals, they were also forced to replace the champagne in their refrigerator with at least some cheese and ham. They shudder at the thought of crumbs in their studio. For 30 years, lunch was at Market Cafe, at the far end of the street. Now only the traces of the café’s sign remain. “It was really us and the traders from the fruit market [now also closed], ”George remembers. “We would go in and there would be a choir of‘ Oi Oi ’. They were quite tribal. ”
Now their favorite place is a Turkish cafe called Nilly’s on the other side of the gentrified Spitalfields market. On the way there, they point to landmarks, and passers-by point to them, landmarks in lock. Walking has always been central to their art. Previously, they strolled the four to five miles to Highgate or Crouch End in the evening. In lockdown, they produced Instagram clips of “Our New Normal Walk,” which involved choreographed promenades around their study desks. These days, they do not go much further than William Blake’s grave at Bunhill Fields Cemetery, or their evening haunt, the Mangal 1 Grill in Dalston.
Going is their research. They photograph graffiti, keep an eye out for curious new images of street life that find their way into their montage prints: containers of club laughter gas; women in burqas. “As we always say,” says George, “if you want to know about the whole world, you have to spend an hour at Liverpool St station.”
They remember the first Indian restaurants on Brick Lane. “In those days, it was only us and Bangladeshi men who had not yet picked up their families, and the police who had come in to get a takeaway. It was so hard that tramplers would take food off your plates and run out. ”
Nilly’s is an open-front café filled with builders in hi-vis jackets. We sit in one corner and the couple orders what they usually order: bacon, eggs and spinach for Gilbert, black pudding, fresh tomatoes and spinach for George. “The greatest English invention is cooked breakfast,” says Gilbert, with his accent bent from his post-war childhood in Austria. “All the good cafes are Turkish now,” George said, “they used to be Italian.”
They like that the cafe owner himself is in their eyes a living sculpture. “In Berlin, there is this gate from an ancient civilization. Sumerian, I think, with beautiful bearded figures on each side. He just looks like them. ”
You have the feeling of sitting with them about how their performance art over the course of six decades has become something much more gripping and remarkable. We talk about how it all started when they first got together at art school, fell in love in the year the same sex became legal.
“We wanted a studio, but we could not afford it. So we came up with the idea that maybe we could be the art, ”says Gilbert. A turning point was hearing Flanagan and Allen sing their music hall standard, Under the Arches. “We found this record,” he says, “and we came back and played it again and again in our little apartment, and we thought, ‘My God, it’s us!’ We lived under the railway arches here and dreamed of being artists. ”
They created the idea of a “singing sculpture”, in which they performed the song on a loop, stiff-fitted, blank-face. “We had an idea to put up a little tent on Trafalgar Square and let people in,” George says. “When we started explaining to a Ministry of Labor official what we wanted to do, we noticed that he was masturbating like crazy under the table.” Eventually, they performed under an arch on Cable Street, and the famous artists of the day, like Richard Hamilton, came to see them. From there, they had a concert at a gallery in Düsseldorf and sang for eight hours at a time. Then New York, and they never looked back.
They say they had no fear, then or now, because they had each other and nothing to lose. “We were very hostile. We still do, non-stop, ”Gilbert suggests. “We made ourselves outsiders. We were never in the art world. As George says, ‘We would never eat lasagna in other people’s houses.’ “
Success coincided with liberation. George remembers the thrill of first coming to London from Oxford – he had grown up in Plymouth – and finding gay pubs in Hampstead. In the 70s, they saw the show go mainstream. “We used to go to the Blitz Club and we met Boy George and Steve Strange and so on,” George says. “At first we used to sit upstairs and look down at the dance floor and wonder who these people were that looked extraordinary. We guessed they might be children of Latin American dictators or something. We asked one and he said he worked in a stroller store in Croydon. ”
A fixed theme in their work has been a cataloging mockery of the religion’s homophobic “you shall not”. “We knocked on the door recently and it was an elderly pastor,” George says. “A very pleasant gentleman in the 80s. He said: ‘I just wanted to tell you that I think your idea of banning all religion is great. This is what I always say to my congregation: I do not want them to be religious, I want them to be good.
“We like to think we’re in the service business,” Gilbert says.
What service do you offer?
“We think of it as speaking to the moral dimension of people,” George says, perhaps with Spunk Blood Piss Shit Spit in mind.
During the pandemic, they have made photo montages where they appear to have been beaten and terrified of their London streetcapes. They have felt the extremes in the past year very sharply, not least because every day their street has been lined with funeral processions for the mosque up the road. “Infinite lines of coffins,” says Gilbert.
George is reading a book called London is marching on, a story about the capital between the wars. They have a sense of self as survivors, war babies who went through AIDS, fixed points in a place of complications and change. When they went home from lunch, they tell me about a permanent £ 10 million gallery of their work in a nearby brewery building they are converting. In part, says George, the space is perceived as a personal reply to the art institution’s “intolerant liberals” who refuse to embrace them (they supported Brexit, for one thing). The second motivation is a simpler one. “That’s so we can live here forever,” George says.
We walk back along Fournier Street. On the high wall of the mosque, formerly a synagogue that used to be a church, is a sundial dating from the 1740s. “Umbra sumus” – we are shadows. Gilbert and George say their formal goodbye, close the solid door behind them and, as always, return to work.
The Gilbert & George Center will open in East London in the spring of 2022. They are participating in the Folkestone Triennial, which runs until 2 November.