Sometimes life really does seem to imitate art. When Nick Clegg and David Cameron appeared for that first joint press conference last May, more than one sketch writer came up with the same comparison: Gilbert & George.
What’s more, G&G noticed too. “It was very amusing. We were flattered, of course,” says George in an interview at their new exhibition “The Urethra Postcard Pictures” in White Cube, Mason’s Yard, London. “It was like a marriage,” adds Gilbert. G&G themselves contracted a civil partnership in 2008, after four decades of life together as a single artistic personality.
Like G&G, Cameron & Clegg often wear coordinated, though not identical suits (the former were sporting brown and green versions of the same natty tweed on the day we talked). G&G always have claimed to be two men, but one artist. Now we in Britain have government by two parties with -- more or less -- a single set of policies. Are G&G supporters?
In the past, they professed loyalty to the Conservative Party, especially under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher (it was, among other things, a good way to rebel against the left- leaning art world). Do they now support the coalition?
“Oh, yes,” they say in chorus. Both parties equally? “We have to be fair,” George states firmly. “We think they are doing a good job under very difficult circumstances.”
“We were brought up with the motto: Neither a lender nor a borrower be,” says George. “We never borrow money,” Gilbert chimes in. As so often with G&G, there’s a twist to this thought. “They have made cuts, but we say they should only be in Labour constituencies, because Labour incurred the debt. Fair’s fair.”
It’s the same with this new show. At first glance, it might seem innocuous enough. Each work consists of 13 postcards arranged in an oblong, with one in the middle. This was the symbol of the urethra, G&G say, used as a signature by Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854-1934), who was associated with fringe religions. “He taught masturbation,” George says, “by post.”
Many of the postcards are the sort tourists send home, bearing images of the Union Jack flag plus the Houses of Parliament or the London Eye. Others, on closer examination, are not. They’re the sorts of postcards that those offering specialized services leave in telephone booths. “Sensual Massage: Clean Discreet Surroundings” one advertises, “Trans- Sexual Pre Op: Home or Hotel Visits,” and so on. Some have photos attached, not the sort tourists usually send to Mom.
The cards took G&G quite a time to accumulate. They have been working on the collection, they say, for 21 years. The telephone-booth items were particularly hard to collect in the necessary quantity. “It’s very good exercise,” George says. “Sometimes, it takes days.” They describe these cards as social history. “They are beautiful and they only exist now in our artworks, all the others are destroyed and lost.”
Of course, telephone booths and postcards now come into the category of old technology. And, though avant-garde in some ways, G&G are reluctant to enter the online age. “Our assistants have an e-mail address,” says Gilbert, “but we don’t use it.”
“We don’t want to,” George adds, “we want to leave our lives empty for our art.”
Do they have a message for the world today? “Come here and be stimulated,” says Gilbert, “and buy a catalog.”
“The Complete Postcard Art of Gilbert & George” by Michael Bracewell is published by Prestel as two volumes in a carrying case, priced at 40 pounds.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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