Portraits of Artists 02

Conversation with Gilbert & George

Wolf Jahn: Gilbert and George, you started your art at the beginning of the sixties proclaiming yourselves as "living sculptures" or as "seeing sculptures". What was the idea of doing that?

Gilbert & George: As we always say, we were never based on an idea. We simply had only ourselves. And knowing we wanted to speak to people we used that as our form. We still think that's our basic form, that is us, speaking to the people, whether it's through a living sculpture or a picture or a text or a film, it's still us writing a visual letter to the viewer. In fact, it was a very happy accident that we fell into this idea – we never knew about this idea that art had to become life, not art about art. And that, I think, was the biggest invention for us: to make art about life and not art about art.

WJ: So you had in mind to put together the artwork as well as the artist as one being, one same being – a living sculpture?

G & G: Yes, it developed in different ways over the years. At first it was probably quite innocent in many ways and then we adopted the slogan "art for all" – again in quite an innocent way. But that became more and more true in many different ways later on. Even when we gave it a name – "human sculptures" – and even that is becoming more and more important for us and we realized that the artist has to have a vision in front of him – that is the most important idea, the philosophy, the dream.

WJ: When did you start saying "art for all", which was said very early, I think?

G & G: I'm sure '67 or '68 we already adopted the slogan.

WJ: So what had you in mind then . and now?

G & G: We wanted to make an art that everybody would be able to understand. If a child comes into a gallery he should be able to understand us. If a grandmother comes into a gallery she should be able to understand us, and every other person, black or white or yellow, they should be able to enter inside our body, to feel our feelings. We came to realize the absurdity of much twentieth century art: that the artist was choosing a language which spoke to only a particular class of person coming from a particular city, from a particular country, and if you took those words outside the context it would be immediately nil. It wouldn't actually be a work of art anymore. We want art we can exhibit anywhere to any kinds of people.
It has to be based on life. "Democratic" we call it more and more now. We don't like the idea of the artist saying: "I do what I do because I like doing it. If you get it, good, if not, bad luck". We think that's selfish, decadent, and it's not serving people, because even our "art for all" idea developed in our minds to become an idea of service in a way that the artist has to have a sense of purpose and know and manipulate and arrange what he is saying to the people; that he should be responsible in fact, that he has a duty towards the future of cultural progress. We are changing the morality of tomorrow. It is morality art has to be.
How we are now is how our grandmothers read books or didn't read books, or what music they did or didn't listen to. That's our heritage but we want to advance things. We knew there is only one statement you can make everybody sign and that is: There is room for progress. Everyone will initial that statement if you ask them on the street. If you make half a suggestion you'll be divided of course. But the basic premise that things should be advanced is generally believed in. I think our art is a battle and we're trying to find out why we are here. I think that's what an artist .
And we are trying to arrange an artificial idea of how to live. Everything is artificial, so we have to create new ideas because we don't believe in the ones that are here today. What we knew was that if all goes well the individual will become enormously important in the future. We think the idea of the individual has hardly been discovered. We would like more and more people to rise out of their beds in the morning feeling entirely themselves, not that they rise out of bed thinking they're a teacher or a this or a that, or an Austrian person or an English person. But they should accept and come to terms with all the complexities inside of themselves ., become more human, more loved in fact. But to become that you have to become very tolerant and that is very difficult. And that's a cultural question in that moment, we believe. If you have a health problem there are obviously doctors to go to. If you have a legal problem you can telephone the police. But there are huge areas of human concern within this single person which can only be addressed in cultural terms, by reading a novel and finding out some strange comparison with your life in chapter three or going to an exhibition and realizing a possibility of thought that hadn't occurred to you before or something you didn't want to dwell on before. The cultural force is, we believe, going to become much, much more important in the future.
The world becomes more and more narrow-minded in some ways, and the order is all based on clichés that you are supporting or not supporting. Instead you should look in a totally different way. More in a kind of chaotic society where everything is accepted, where the whole is important, the good and evil, they have to be the same because we are all that. So it's all based on tolerance; to arrange more and more privileges for people and fewer and fewer rules, in a way; fewer and fewer rules like sexual rules, racial rules and behaviour and all that stuff one has to get rid of.

WJ: So your art is about understanding the world as a whole and understanding the human being as a whole?

G & G: . trying to understand it, trying to be tolerant, trying not to separate so much the evil and the good; trying to let it all live in some way. We don't like to be divisive or choosy – we think it's rude to choose. We don't like to be against the down and out and pro the other person. I think that everything plays its part – it's very important. That's why we are .like, even towards criticism. I think that you have everything, you have pro and against – it's very important. Like inside every person you have almost certainly a killer, a sad person, a happy person, a lover, a hater . All of those things exist inside every single person. We all have all potentials. And more and more we think it's becoming a kind of brain art, it has nothing to do with what is actually seen. It's all, what you see, what you feel, what is inside your brain. Because what about the world if we don't know. It's only the brain who arranges what you see.

WJ: Then, what strikes also is that a lot of these works deal also with death or other destructive themes. Is there a special interest in these themes?

G & G: We have very acute awareness, we believe, of morality. We think it's very important to be miserable, we think it's very important to come to terms with death, with either oneself in the future or with other people. We don't like to shy away from anything that's inside ourselves. Anything human is worthwhile and valuable. Death is the most terrifying thing. And a lot of people try to stop thinking about death. But we believe very much that it's very interesting to look into death.
None of our pictures could actually exist in the real world. There is nowhere you can go in the city and find scenes like you have seen in our pictures. They are artificial, they are not taken from life in that way, they are not everyday images.

WJ: So, it's not a reflection of what happens in the world you picture?

G & G: We're not interested to reflect life in any way whatsoever. Life can be left as it is if that was the case. We would like to form the tomorrows. We rather prefer brainstorms than reflecting life.

WJ: So, can one say that your works are a kind of Utopia which means the place which is not yet, which will be?

G & G: No, because I don't believe in Utopia, I only believe in an evolution of us. I never believed in a Utopia, just a kind of evolution: trying to understand tomorrow; and bringing our pictures in a very practical way before people; to discuss life, not art. We think the world will be more and more like our pictures. We believe that, yes. We believe that our pictures can penetrate the person. Certainly we believe that. We believe that living with culture changes the person. They will go home from the exhibition speaking slightly different things to the people they knew from before. They will want to be different in some way, we want that. We want change in the person very much. Because we know that we are artificially arranged. It's all artificial, how we behave and what we speak about other people, it's all artificially arranged. It doesn't have to be like that. We know that very well, because, in the end, we are emotional beings. So we are trying to penetrate the emotions of human persons . everyday he's changing and we don't even know why. Trying to understand that is very important for us. And we believe that everyone is doing that in some way. We always realize that late at night in a bar just before closing time people become very philosophical and start asking themselves what they are doing here and becoming rather serious. And we, as artists, are rather privileged because we can do that as a job – full-time, all the time.

W J.: How is your daily life?

G & G: It depends on which day we're thinking of, really – sometimes appalling, sometimes splendid, always busy, sometimes a little destructive. We try to be quite ordered in our life, quite methodical and quite practical.

WJ: What is your definition of an artist, of a modern artist, if you have to describe him in words?

G & G: We would say that a true artist is one with an overdeveloped sense of purpose, really, an over-enthusiasm for the future. And understanding life. I think the word "art" should be eliminated – it doesn't mean anything.

WJ: Are you interested in politics?

G & G: We are only interested in the politician following us . because we believe very much in that culture . we are interested in culture . and culture is more important than politics. In an ideal society the politicians have to implement the cultural wishes of the people. So it's very important that we concentrate on people. Sixty years after Dickens wrote one of his famous books about horrible factories filled with children legislation was arranged to stop that happening, but it's always the artifice first and then when the public is involved in the cultural thought, then the politicians have to follow. They can never invent things happening. They have to follow the people who are going to vote them in or out.

(Vienna, April 1992)