Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Gilbert and George

This is the first time that I have ever introduced a documentary film, and since the object of a documentary is to present its subject with that measure of clarity and directness that comes with moving images and sound, I imagine you may feel, as I do, that in talking about the same subject beforehand I run the risk of making myself entirely redundant! For Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore, Gilbert and George—two people, one artist—are far better able to introduce themselves to you than I am. Indeed the body of work that they have built together over the past forty years is completely inseparable from who they are, and how they make their curiously private public appearances—dressed conservatively and alike, pursuing a stately if at times weird choreography, apparently improvising a scriptless performance not necessarily directed only to each other, but somehow at the same time suggesting that if there happened to be an audience, we would be welcome either to eavesdrop, or to take no notice of them at all.

In this respect they hearken back to the strong and enduring English tradition in which the work of art and the manner of living are so closely interwoven that they are totally indivisible. That line that extends from William Blake, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Samuel Palmer and the so-called Ancients, through John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Aesthetic Movement of the 1880s and 1890s, down through Bloomsbury, with its strong emphasis on memoir and written recollection, and onward into the bleak urban loneliness of Francis Bacon. To some degree, along this meandering English tradition, the carefully-crafted, jealously-guarded self-identity of the artist as crank is as central to his work as the product of his labor, and in this respect Gilbert and George are their own project, and have been ever since they discovered one another in London in 1967 at the St. Martin’s School of Art.

Their work has until recently been so determinedly unconventional that against the background noise of everything that has happened in British art since the late 1960s, the pace and style of their output has successfully evaded any process of categorization, any assertive or clear set of agenda, and even at times make you wonder whether they are not some kind of devious Tory plot designed to deflate the burgeoning, at times overreaching aspirations of contemporary art especially during the ghastly 1980s. Are they for real? What are they doing? How do we weigh up their inherent contradictions? Did they detest or actually admire Mrs. Thatcher? Who is Gilbert and George?

The substantial eighteenth-century hermitage they have occupied for years in Spitalfields in East London is an especially important theater for Gilbert and George, and its recent history runs exactly parallel with their rise to prominence. In that monkish seclusion the more they have radiated a kind of passive-aggressive tea-time un-fashionability, the more fashionable and hugely successful they have become. But they have also had an uncanny knack of putting their finger on all sorts of taboo, and make those seem not just quietly reasonable but, for example, at one hilarious moment in this film, also lure the late former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath into a bright discussion as to the significance of tongues in art. The other point when Gilbert and George seem most animated in the film, and perhaps least elfin, is when they flank the influential art dealer Ileana Sonnabend at a dinner held in their honour a few years ago at the Venice Biennale. It is not hard to understand why given a choice between the bleakness of their early obscurity and later success, Gilbert and George have no difficulty embracing the full measure of their fame and fortune, and who can possibly blame them?

Even so, at home Gilbert and George still sustain a quiet self-containment and austerity which to some extent rubs against their occasionally startling interest in beautiful young men, realized in radiantly vivid color, while at the same time they are also careful to make their enormous collection of smutty literature seem as dignified as the reference section of the London Library. And this is not even to scratch the scarifying surface of that portion of their later work which is dedicated to their own bodily fluids, and a certain unmistakably proctological preoccupation. There is more than a hint of time-honored English misogyny and lavatorial humor in all of this—one thinks of Hogarth and Rowlandson, and the eighteenth century generally—and one is also at times also reminded of the cruel remark once made by an exasperated Frenchman to the effect that all Englishmen are to varying degrees homosexual. That is not an assessment that has gone unchallenged, I am glad to say, but Gilbert and George obviously play their most elaborate games with matters of sexual identity, and in doing so refuse to conform to any even vaguely current notion of what that identity might mean, or how their work might be construed in other political or social terms.

Without question at times they aim to shock, as in their hair-raising remarks late in the film about tagging, graffiti, and Bengali and Arabic script—which by any measure are pretty hard to take, either at face value, or at any other level—while elsewhere they aim not so much to soothe and cajole, but to decline to allow their audience to assume any certain posture in respect of the chilly Englishness they profess to embody, but continually undercut.

It is no accident that the so-called Singing Sculpture, with which Gilbert and George made their reputation in 1969, takes as its musical backdrop the old Flanagan and Allen number “Underneath the Arches.” By joining their performance in this way to the old English music hall tradition and tossing in the totem-like movements, the bronzy metallic make-up which predates David Bowie by at least five years, the matching suits—more Marks and Spencer than Savile Row, but often cut with a stylish second small change pocket above the right hip, yet buttoned firmly and most unfashionably up the middle—and throwing in a rubber glove for good measure, they absolutely decline to stir in their audience any uncomplicated response to the gloomy idea of sleeping rough in Central London, which is what that otherwise cheerful old song is all about. In my experience few if any Londoners today feel terribly inclined to talk about that—though the issue of persistent grinding poverty more than hits you over the head in the middle of one of the wealthiest and expensive cities on earth.

Here I should declare an interest, and indulge in a personal anecdote if you will permit me. There is in this film a brief sequence of The Singing Sculpture shot in 1973 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in its stunning position overlooking Farm Cove and Woolloomooloo in Sydney. Gilbert and George were invited there by my dear friend and senior colleague Daniel Thomas and that visit was made possible by the support of John Kaldor, the same man who a few years earlier financed the wrapping of a million square feet of rocky coastline southeast of Central Sydney by Christo. John is today on the International Council of MoMA.

I was actually present at that performance of The Singing Sculpture, aged eight, because it so happened that having decided to take me on my first visit to Sydney during the school holidays, purely by chance my parents and I collided with Gilbert and George on that same morning. There were lots of other kids present, as is indeed obvious in that section of footage. All of us were encouraged to sit quietly in a long row at the front, while grown-ups stood at the back, somewhat perplexed, I’d have to say, because Australia in that period was only just beginning to emerge from a seemingly endless period of cultural philistinism.

I cannot say that The Singing Sculpture so struck me that from that moment on nothing but a career in art museums would do, but I remember feeling a strong and not unreasonable sense that Gilbert and George were exceedingly strange, and I also developed from that day a brief but passionate interest in rubber gloves. I recall asking my mother afterwards “what does the glove mean?” To which my mother replied, “Dear, I don’t know.” Soon afterwards, back in Melbourne, I inscribed my first love letter on a rather attractive bright yellow rubber kitchen glove. It was courageously addressed to Miss Cameron, our grade four teacher, and I believe it read “Dear Miss Cameron, I love you. Yours sincerely, Angus Trumble.”

It was not until recently, when I saw this film for the first time, that those episodes returned to me with all the vividness of childhood memory, because somehow in the interim I had forgotten all about them, and at length I have wondered about a child’s capacity to absorb the strange tenderness with which I now think that work was imbued. Love, I suspect, is a dangerous topic to broach with Gilbert and George, but I’m tempted to suggest that someone ought to go ahead and ask them about it in any event, and see what happens.

In the weeks since I first saw the film, to my astonishment I have discovered further that the person who in 2002 succeeded me as curator of European art at the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, my Australian colleague Adam Free, was also present on that morning in Sydney in 1973, aged five. (His mother, Renée Free, was a pioneering curator of Victorian paintings at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney.) Since then it has fallen to both of us on several occasions to hang major early works by Gilbert and George which came to our respective institutions from the Contemporary Art Society in London, both belonging to the drunk series—more shades of Hogarth—and to consider, as I hope you will, the unusual complexities of their evolving artistic persona. Unlike me, however, Adam says he has never at any point forgotten The Singing Sculpture, which may explain why his area of expertise is contemporary art, and why mine is not!

One may regret the rise of information technology which has evidently superseded Gilbert and George’s formerly intense, almost myopic method of trawling through tens of thousands of black and white frames on mountains of contact sheets and constructing their works by that laborious method of close editing, cutting, drawing, accumulation and fabrication, but it is of considerable interest that while the essence of their performance has proved remarkably stable—in many respects Gilbert and George speak, move, and are exactly the same as they were thirty years ago—their creative processes have evolved with succeeding generations of powerful computers, without which it would not be possible to create the range and scale of work you see on display in their fine exhibition on the other side of this building.

I congratulate Lynn Hanke and everyone associated with the making of this film, and I commend it to you and its fascinating subject with all the warmth I can muster. I thank you.

This is the slightly amended text of an introductory lecture delivered at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York City before a screening of the new documentary film, Gilbert and George, on Saturday afternoon, November 8, 2008.

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