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Interview with British Artists Gilbert and George

Aired July 27, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET



ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: (voiceover): A Hong- Kong welcome for the so-called godfathers of British contemporary art.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I love their work.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They're definitely revolutionaries.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've always been a fan of theirs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's very edgy. It's very controversial.

COREN (voiceover): Meet Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore. Two men who consider themselves one artist. Partners in art and life for the last 40 years, the eccentric couple find their inspiration no further than their east London doorstep.

Their work has shocked, disturbed and fascinated. As the two tackle thorny social issues with [UNCLEAR] images in glaring pop-art pastiche.

Kick starting their careers in the 70s with performances as living sculptures, they quickly moved into photography and found themselves the winners of the coveted Turner Prize. And soon raking in millions of dollars. Just three years ago, the pair made headlines again for a confrontational take on religion and patriotism for with their Jack Freak series.

Their latest and largest collection to date includes 292 works with some pieces valued up to almost $400,000.

This week, Talk Asia's with Gilbert and George as they launch the White Cube Gallery's first exhibition space in Hong Kong to talk about handling their critics and not upsetting their mother.


COREN: Well, Gilbert and George, welcome to "Talk Asia". Lovely to meet you.


COREN: You are two people, but essentially one artist. You share a life, a partnership, a creative process. You have virtually been inseparable for more than 40 years. Tell me about this relationship.

PASSMORE: We believe in the power of the two. That's why most of the people is divided into twos. So it's a great strength for us. We wouldn't be able to do the same thing alone.

GILBERT PROESCH, ARTIST: But we do believe in fate. Because it was extraordinary to go - George coming from Devon - moving afterwards, [UNCLEAR] and then London. And I came from north of Italy from a small village. Moving more and more north. And ending up in St. Martins School of Art in 1967. It was extraordinary. And George being the only one who spoke to me -

PASSMORE: So that's how it started.


COREN: What did you say?

PASSMORE: That would be telling.


COREN: You speak of your background and your childhood. And Gilbert, you are from Italy - from a remote village in the Dolomites.


COREN: You've said that you felt very much cut off from the world. And George, you were raised by a single mother who was a servant - who had to work to raise her children. How do you think your childhoods really shaped your creativity - you path?

PASSMORE: We're very lucky in, in some way, that we're the last generation of war babies. Because we - as small children, we can remember all of the world was damaged. People were damaged, buildings were damaged - everything was wrecked in some way. And one thing we knew was true - everything was going to get better. There's one thing we knew.

And it did get better - the 1950s improved everything. Swinging London in the 60s - it was extraordinary. We feel very privileged to live through that.

COREN: You met at St. Martin's School of Art back in 1967. And from what I've read, it was love at first sight. What attracted you?

PASSMORE: I think we were different from the other students. We realized in later years that the other students were concentrated on becoming artists and thinking how to do it. They thought that maybe a part-time teaching job is very good, because at least you have money to live. And then, maybe, you can also make art.

We thought we were artists anyway. We didn't think we had to become artists. We felt already that we were able to be artists. And we were the most disadvantaged of the students, in fact. But I think that gave us an enormous edge and an enormous advantage over the others.

COREN: Well, what's it like not to fit in?

PASSMORE: We felt that we wanted to believe in tradition, because modernity thought that tradition was wrong. And we wanted to be traditional in order to be modern. We wanted to take account of the past. We wanted to include death, hope and life and fear, sex, money, race -

PROESCH: And religion.

PASSMORE: -- all of the things that are inside everybody wherever they live in the world should be in our pictures, available there.

PROESCH: But our bigger invention was when we left - when, in some way we were expelled from St. Martins School of Art. And we were outsiders and we want to still be artists. But we didn't have a gallery, we didn't have a studio. But then that's when we created our self as the center- point of our art. The living sculpture that can speak a feeling, crying - being emotional. All driven by sex and all the sound - so it became that human sculpture of us.

COREN: You refer to yourselves as living sculptures. You certainly did back in 1969 when you did the singing sculpture and performed for some 8 hours. Talk me through that.

PASSMORE: The singing sculpture introduced us to the art world. Within a six-month period, everybody in the normal art world knew about the singing sculpture. And we still didn't know why we did it like that. Why did we choose a table? Why the stick and the glove? Why that particular song? It's a great mysteries, most of ideas.

PROESCH: And not only that. What we did is the posing sculptures that we did like we - because we wanted to be seen and we wanted to be accepted. So, there was a big show in London of modern art. And we thought they would invite us. But they didn't. So, we went to the opening of the show with our heads made - metallic heads on and suits still for the whole evening. That was it.

PASSMORE: We stole the show. And the leading art dealer of the time, the late Konrad Fischer, came up and invited us to join his gallery. That was an invitation that every student in the world would have cut their legs off for. It was extraordinary.

COREN: Well, tell me about the creative process.

PROESCH: It's very interesting, because we manage to find our - what do you call? Our way of making art that is different than other artists in some way, because in the beginning we did a living sculpture, we did postal (ph) sculpture (ph) we did drawing, we did painting. And then we thought we would do these kind of photo pieces in the beginning. And then we realized they are more powerful, they are more real than painting. Painting is more fake.

COREN: You are known as the godfathers of British contemporary art and your art is very different to your peers. Why is that? Was the idea to be different?

PASSMORE: I think we were the inventors of art for all, in a way - that we wanted to make a general art. We remember a young man coming to an opening of ours in one of the American museums and saying, "I know all about art and artists, because it's always looking down its nose at me. But you guys are different. You speak from the heart". And that was shocking to the museum people standing around. They hadn't seen art and life in that way.

We still don't want to make an art that alienates anybody. There's no reason to willfully do something so obscure that nobody can understand except three people in the world.

COREN: You say that your art is for all - that is your philosophy, although I'm sure some people would disagree. They say it's quite shocking. It's quite confronting. You use images of nudity, sexual acts, your own bodily fluids - feces. Perhaps it's not for everybody.

PROESCH: But it is humanity - that's what it is. I think that's what everybody understands that. Every small child can look at our pictures. And maybe they are horrified, they laugh at it, but it's a small part of reality in an abstract picture.

PASSMORE: I think the media assumes that it's confrontational, shocking, but not the vast general public. They're very - much more understanding, much more gentle in their way of looking at art.


COREN: This is not the first time that you have come to China.

PASSMORE: It's an enormous adventure.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Incredible. A great first start for the gallery to bring these two on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's great. I mean, there's something new. Something, you know, very unusual, but very innovative.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But it's quite provocative, I mean, which is good. That's what art should be.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It challenges perception.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think they're fantastic artists, and they're definitely revolutionary, so it's great to have them in Hong Kong.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's very edgy. It's very controversial. And to think that two 70-year-olds are turning out work that speaks to, sort of, much younger generation. So I think it's definitely there creatively.


COREN: You're here in Hong Kong for your "London Pictures" exhibition's first leg of your global tour. PROESCH: That's right.

COREN: And you are also launching the White Cube Gallery here in Hong Kong. Which is very exciting indeed. Tell us about this exhibition.

PASSMORE: It's a wonderful coincidence that we were beginning to end the process of creating these pictures just as White Cube was planning opening here. So it was - the two things came together in this wonderful way - we're very excited.

PROESCH: Because for the last six year, we build it up to do this whole - 292 pictures. And now it's the beginning of the tsunami that is coming in. They're going to do 13 shows with these pictures. It's full.

PASSMORE: There's pictures in every place.


COREN: You have 22 pictures here, in Hong Kong.


PROESCH: Yes. But there are 292 pictures all together. And divided up in 13 different galleries.

COREN: You say that you are very much focused on where you live, which is in London's East End. And that's where you get your inspiration for your work. You've been quoted as saying that you don't want to be influenced by China or walking up a mountain. But, do you get influenced, do you think, from your travels?

PASSMORE: No, I think just coming out of our front door in the morning is all the inspiration we need. We think that we live roughly in the center of the universe anyway. Anything that happens in Fournier Street is about to happen to the rest of the world. We're amazed at the congestion of people and activity and creativity around us. It's extraordinary in this tiny part of London. It's a typical Planet Earth place, where we live. It's roughly the same as the rest of the world.

COREN: This is not the first time that you have come to China, is it? You were here almost 20 years ago - had exhibitions in Shanghai and Beijing.

PASSMORE: They're huge museum shows in Shanghai and in Beijing as well.

COREN: What brought you up to Asia back then?

PASSMORE: I think 10, 20 years ago, we were still experimenting - as we are today - to take art to places where they've never seen anything of ours. So, even going to Zagreb with the Jack Freak pictures or to Gdansk was extraordinary. I mean, even the idea of two men is something they've never thought about, let alone two men as one artist. It's like pioneering.

PROESCH: Campaigning art. Because we paid for ourselves to go to China. It wasn't like - it cost about 300,000 pounds at that time. To reach not a small show. It was a very big show - 50 big artworks of ours. And not in a private gallery - it was in the museum in Beijing and in Shanghai. And it was an amazing experiment.

PASSMORE: It was an enormous adventure. We always remember that there were two receptions for us. One by the government-supported artists, who toasted us as "Gilbert and George, very good artists". And the dissonant artist group, who also arranged a reception for us. And they toasted us as "Gilbert and George, bad men".

PROESCH: Bad men.

PASSMORE: -- because we too are bad men. Bad men as in progressive and good and -

PROESCH: But the bad man became old famous artists.

COREN: Do you feel that you open up people's minds?

PROESCH: Oh yes.

PASSMORE: That's the whole idea of exhibitions and pictures.

COREN: Tell me about your famous Jack Freak pictures.

PASSMORE: It was the second-largest group of pictures we ever made. It was extraordinary. That was because we did this huge exhibition at Tate Modern, which went to the continent and then to North America. And we weren't able to go to the studio for more than a year. And when we were able to go, suddenly, we went into a sort of mental crazed state, and couldn't stop designing pictures, until 156, I think it was. And then suddenly the shutters came down. Not because of us, something happened to stop it.

PROESCH: But it was quite interesting, because we started to - it started out as "The Freak" first. We did "The Freak". Because we feel it - we're all becoming more and more freakish. Every human being, if you see at an angle, they are quite freakish, no? So we tried with - and horrifying like horticola (ph). It says like two pieces of bullshit falling down from the sky were leftovers. And then we put on a Union Jack and thought it's freaky people. And it became very excited for us because it deals about national - being nationalists or not nationalist. And like a lot of comedian used to run around like with suits made out of Union Jacks.

COREN: Your work is sold for, what, a couple of hundred thousand dollars? Up to $2 million?

PROESCH: Sometimes.

COREN: That's quite extraordinary.

PASSMORE: We were always very keen to control our prices in a way. We never wanted to pump prices as a lot of artists do. But, of course, they have to be a certain price.

COREN: But how do you feel, knowing that your work sells for so much money?

PASSMORE: Very proud. There are pictures that people had to be persuaded to by. Now, they're worth a lot of money.

PROESCH: We are very proud, because we are not oil and canvas pictures.

PASSMORE: They're not expensive because they're oil on canvas, they're expensive because they're Gilbert and George pictures.


COREN: A Sunday Times critic says that, "They call themselves living sculptures, but anyone with eyes in their head could see they're actually two fruity gays in suits". How does it feel to read about that sort of criticism?

PROESCH: I would like to strangle him. But I'm not allowed.





COREN: Gilbert and George, please tell me about your exhibition.

PASSMORE: All of the London pictures are based on the quantity of posters that we stole from outside of news agents over more than a -

PROESCH: six-year period.

PASSMORE: Six years.

PROESCH: Because we tried to ask for the poster, but they were so suspicious that we realized the only way to get them is to steal them.

COREN: So you actually went and stole them.

PROESCH: Yes, it's very -

PASSMORE: 3,712 individual thefts.

COREN: And did you ever get caught?

PROESCH: Only once.

PASSMORE: Only once.

COREN: And what happened?

PASSMORE: Managed to talk my way out of it. It was a young, over- enthusiastic policeman. And I'd just about got the poster into my pocket, and he wanted to know what it was all about. So, I thought very quickly and I said, "Well, you know, at our school" - so immediately establishing myself as a teacher - I said, "We had a debate with the pupils and the staff and we decided that we should all do more to curb this violence and things are on the streets and not leave it to the police alone. We should all be more helpful". And he said, "Oh, sir, if only more people were like you".


PASSMORE: He was very nice.

COREN: If only he knew.

PROESCH: It was very exciting, because we used to - we had to - it's not easy to steal the pictures, because one has to go in and buy the Mars Bar.

COREN: Oh, the decoy.

PROESCH: And at the same time, one is outside stealing.

COREN: So tell me, why did you choose these posters? What is it about them?

PROESCH: So we had these 3,700 poster, and then we divided them up in titles, no?

PASSMORE: And we suddenly realize - is this our world? Is this the world that we really live in? To be held crazy.

COREN: It's all very dark, isn't it?


COREN: It's all very dark -

PASSMORE: Yes, it is the Western World, in a way. It's not just London. It's all the same human subjects. And that's why we were able to use them in this way.

COREN: And what about featuring in your work? I mean, you're actually in every single picture, aren't you?

PASSMORE: It's our invention - it's our invention that we're in the picture like you're in the signature of any letter you write, you can always sign the same name.

We think we've taken it a little bit further than every artist. Van Gogh is in every picture of his. And you say, "Come and see this wonderful Van Gogh over here". You don't say, "Come and see this tree in a bit of old grass". You have to know that it's the artist speaking to you. They're visual love letters from us to the viewer. They're signed with our presence.

We always wanted our art to include the past, present, and future. Be involved with all of those. There was a time when we weren't here. There will be a time when we won't be here. And these pictures will still be there. And we're very excited about that.

COREN: Have you ever wanted to do solo exhibitions as Gilbert, separately? George?

PASSMORE: Certainly not. What, do you think we are weird?

COREN: You have suffered some quite nasty criticism from the - not only the media, but other commentators - social commentators. Feminist Germaine Greer said, "The only way Gilbert and George can complete their work is by dying in unison".

PROESCH: Yes. From a foreign, Australian girl, it's quite harsh.

PASSMORE: When we go to Germany and it's a press conference, there's always one journalist who says, "Do you plan to die together?" You never see that in other cultures.

PROESCH: And your reply is?

PASSMORE: I say, "Are you frightened that you're going to get run over by a bus?" We say, "Fear not, we always cross the road together".

COREN: A Sunday Times critic says that, "They call themselves living sculptures, but anyone with eyes in their head could see they're actually two fruity gays in suits". How does it feel to read about that sort of criticism?

PROESCH: I would like to strangle him. But I'm not allowed. I mean, we nearly could take him to court and win. So extreme. By an art critic - not an ordinary person - not a plumber. For the art critic, it should be - I mean, what about the art world? Well the art world is based - all the arts have been all interested in different kinds of human beings. The art world - more than other people. And why trying to pinpoint us?

COREN: There must come a great satisfaction when you know that you ruffle feathers and get up people's noses, and yet you are selling your work for up to $2 million.

PASSMORE: We didn't set out to offend or disturb anyone. It seems just telling the truth does that. And it doesn't - it only effects the media, not the general public. Taxi drivers are not shocked by our art. Housewives are not shocked by our art. Not at all.

PROESCH: That's why we are dressing -

PASSMORE: It's the media.

PROESCH: We are dressing like good boys, don't you think?

COREN: I do think. You look extremely smart in you tweed suits.

PASSMORE: We never wanted to be the artists that the mother would be upset by.

COREN: And from what I've read, they're very proud. Your mothers are both very proud.

PASSMORE: Absolutely.

COREN: Tell me about your relationship. Because it's an enduring one. You've been together for more than 40 years. And is it true that you recently got married?

PROESCH: We did that.


PASSMORE: A very simple service, yes. We didn't want to do a pretend straight marriage, as some people want to do. It's very important for practical reasons. We don't need it otherwise.

COREN: So, what is the secret of staying together for more than 40 years? Because most marriages -

PROESCH: Don't ask any questions.

PASSMORE: Everyone said, "Very interesting, but of course it won't last". That's what they said in the 60s. And they didn't last. We lasted, they didn't.

COREN: Were you obviously great friends. I mean, that must be the foundation.

PROESCH: I mean, the foundation -

PASSMORE: I think it's very simple. We watch the news every day. We never fail to watch the news. And we are painfully aware of this huge battle out there - country to country, faith to faith, village to village. Everybody's stabbing each other and shooting each other. We don't believe there's such a need for aggression in that way. People could be kinder and more gentle.

PROESCH: If we would stop arguing, we would stop making art immediately.

PASSMORE: we would be like everybody else, then.

COREN: Now, is it true that you eat at the same Turkish restaurant close to your home every single night, when you're in London?

PASSMORE: When we're alone, which is almost every night - when we're not entertaining, we always go to the same Turkish restaurant. We've been going there for 17 years, probably.

COREN: You don't tired of the menu?


PASSMORE: The 20-year-old waiters - we went to their circumcision party all those years ago.

PROESCH: But it's very good. The routine is very important for us. Because we keep the, what you call? Discipline that keeps us fit and nice and slim, we want to be. And so we get up and, what you call - George gets up at five o'clock in the morning, reads dirty books for one hour, and then at six-thirty we go to breakfast, and then we start work at like seven o'clock till four-thirty, then we watch like "Midsomer Murders" for one hour, then we walk to dinner. We always eat the same dish.

PASSMORE: We never read the menu, because we think that's a brain damaging exercise. Why should we think about what we're going to eat? There's no reason. You keep the brain for more interesting things.

COREN: Let me ask you, you are inseparable - you spend all your time together. Do you ever get a little tired of one another?

PASSMORE: Not yet, not yet.

COREN: Not after more than 40 years?

PASSMORE: I think we adore each other.

PROESCH: I think - it's very similar - I would be lost. That's it. Immediately.

COREN: That's a beautiful thing to say. What is the future for Gilbert and George?

PASSMORE: We're still bursting with pictures. We sort of - we always have more pictures inside ourselves than we can actually physically create. And we're very excited by that.

PROESCH: Yes, we're doing more and more picture.

PASSMORE: We do know what's ahead.

PROESCH: And maybe, one day, they will love us.

COREN: I think they already do.

Well, Gilbert and George, an absolute pleasure to meet you both.

PROESCH: Very kind, very kind.

PASSMORE: Thank you.