Since they started out in 1968, celebrated artist duo Gilbert & George have situated themselves “outside,” challenging taboos and moralism in the art world and society alike. Here, they talk to pro skater and multi-hyphenate Blondey McCoy about Britishness, religion, the monarchy, happiness, drugs, gentrification, and how to stay normal and weird.
INTERVIEW BY BLONDEY MCCOY PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRIS RHODES
BLONDEYWhat did you you mean when you described your art as “free speech art?”
GEORGE PASSMOREWe’re very privileged because we are safe and free. We can do what we like; travel where we want, say what we want. And that wasn’t arranged by religion or politics, but by people thinking, feeling, writing poems, painting pictures, and composing plays. Culture made us safe and free.
BMYes, we are very privileged. It could be argued that, contrary to what sometimes seems like popular opinion, there has never been a better time to be a human being. Every single day, hundreds of thousands of people get access to piped water for the first time, over 90 percent of the world aged between 15 and 23 can read and write (compared to just 15 percent for most of previous recorded history), and prior to the pandemic, poverty in the world had been steadily declining for twenty years.
GEORGEIt is true. You’re all spoilt brats. Do you know how lucky you are?
BMI do. Do you not think that politics and culture are intrinsically linked, and therefore somewhat to thank for our shared luckiness?
GEORGEWe really believe in the force of culture.
GILBERT PROUSCHWhen we started to become artists in 1968, the world was completely different. It’s been quite an extraordinary evolution in terms of religion, sexuality, race, and class. We believe that this evolution has been a product of artists, writers, and thinkers being agents of change—not the vicar. Fuck the vicar.
BMWell, I’m glad you brought him up. You seem to see art as more than just a medium through which to reflect change, but also as an agent of it—and also of revenge. Scrawled in handwriting on your Scapegoating Pictures are catchy slogans like “toss off in the temple,” “shit in the pulpit,” “punch a preacher,” “castrate the clergy,” “padre is a poof,” etc. Is that work as much of a “fuck you” to the church as it seems?
GEORGEYes. We will be fine with religion, the institutions organizing this mystique, and the buildings that represent it, the day they apologize, just once. They have never, ever apologized for all the wicked things they did. The history of wickedness in the hands of the church is extraordinary. During the Inquisition they were cutting people up, pulling out their eyes, and removing their hearts whilst the people were alive.
GILBERTThey told us that we were going to burn in hell if we wouldn’t behave like they wanted. All those slogans in our works are just a friendly way of reminding them that they are wrong in many different ways.
BMI think that Pope John Paul II did apologize, didn’t he? But yes, their past and present behavior does make me wonder whether or not they actually believe in God, and whether or not I’ve misunderstood the whole thing.
GEORGEIndeed. And they can only be dealt with very, very brutally. You can’t be subtle against them. Fuck them all.
BMSo you say fuck the vicar. Some would consider you liberals for that, but you are famously staunch defenders of other institutions which much of your audience consider positively anti-liberal.
BMLike the monarchy.
GILBERTYes. That’s something above politics, a cloud above politics. And that’s fantastic. It has that extraordinary image. It’s very old fashioned to be anti-monarchy.
BMI’m not sure about that. I think that it’s actually quite old fashioned to be pro-monarchy. I am. And you two are. Would you ever admit to being contrarian for the sake of it?
GEORGEWe are never part of the crowd. In fact, when we first started out, they didn’t want us. And then we discovered the freedom in being outside.
BMI read in one of your old interviews that you knew very early on that you didn’t want to be normal, because everyone is normal. But you didn’t want to be weird either, because all artists are weird, so you decided to be both normal and weird—somewhere in between. And I’m not ashamed to admit that I really, really related to that!
GEORGESo you think you’re in between weird and normal?
BMI am aware that people think that they know what they are in for, when they are told that they are going to meet someone who skateboards and designs clothes for a living, and I love letting them down. It never ceases to amaze me that, for much of my audience— which I think is not altogether dissimilar from your own—the weirdest thing one can possibly do is to be what is generally deemed “normal.” Take liking the Queen, for example, or liking Churchill. It’s a relatively “normal” thing to do. The majority of the population likes him, or at least they don’t dislike him. But as far as much of my audience is concerned, if you like Churchill, you’re a Nazi. When I started my skateboard company, THAMES, I wanted it to be different from other British skateboard brands. Those other brands are still completely obsessed with working class culture, a culture which they don’t belong to themselves. So the first clothes I made were based on Prince George’s school uniform.
“It only matters if you are able to feel the world, to understand the world that is in front of you. In our pictures we say whatever we want. Nobody can check or control anything.”—Gilbert & George
GEORGEA lot of people think that skateboarders are idiots who’ve never even voted or heard of Labor, Liberal, Conservative, or anything—just completely uneducated twits. What do you think about that?
BMI think that it’s ignorant and wrong. But I think that it’s ignorant and wrong to think that of any other large group of people. The skateboarding community no longer consists of a dozen people practicing surfing in a drained swimming pool in California. The community is millions of people, some of whom are educated and politically engaged, some of whom aren’t.
GEORGEWho invented skateboarding?
BMSurfers, I suppose. I don’t know who it was that first put a wheel on a surfboard. A few people could have invented skateboarding at around the same time, like the television. I suppose I have a lot to thank them for.
GEORGEDo you remember when you first got on a skateboard?
BMI was 10, I think. I don’t remember. I don’t really remember life before skateboarding but I know that I was skateboarding at 10 and that I’m 23 now.
GEORGEWhy have you been so unpleasant to us and not skateboarded on one of our skateboards?
BMWell, George, assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups. I have actually skated two of your boards, neither of which were my preferred size. Like it or not, I actually rather like you! I’ll show you some footage of me skating your boards tomorrow when we see each other.
GEORGEWe would love to see that.
BMLet’s move on. I have a friend who believes that the only art that’s any good is that which is born of frustration and tragedy. I refuse to agree with her. I think that art can be a celebration of that which we love, not just an antidote for that which we don’t. What is your perspective on that?
GEORGEWould you trust a happy artist?
BMNo less than I’d trust an unhappy one.
GEORGEDo you know any happy artists?
BMI believe that Mark Gonzales is generally cheery.
GILBERTIt doesn’t matter if you’re happy or not happy. It only matters if you are able to feel the world, to understand the world that is in front of you. When we open our door on Fournier Street, that’s it. That’s where it starts. All the life is there—misery, happiness, drugs, and whatever.
BMYou mentioned drugs. Some of your artworks, such as the works from 1984, look like LSD trips. Or, at least, what an LSD trip is often portrayed to look like. I’ve never taken LSD. Have many people told you that? Do you ever take drugs?
GEORGENo we don’t, we are good boys. I think people get this impression because when we create our pictures, when we’re in the studio coming up with new pictures, we are on a kind of high. It is like when you’re suddenly attracted romantically or sexually towards another person. You feel elevated, life seems improved, food tastes better, and the sky looks brighter. So we are sort of drugged up on excitement and creativity.
BMI used to be drugged up with actual drugs, all the time, and now I never am. I can relate to what you just said. I have often felt far “higher” and far closer to heaven at work than I ever did on drugs. Is it just the two of you, in your studio?
GILBERTWe only have one assistant who takes care of some stuff, but we do all the art ourselves. In the last 15 months, we’ve made 85 new pictures. And that’s quite exciting. To be able to be alone in there making art, making what you believe in.
“I refuse to believe that good art can only be born of frustration and tragedy. I think that art can be a celebration of that which we love, not just an antidote for that which we don’t.”—Blondey
GEORGEIt’s an amazing privilege, we believe, to go into our studio in the morning, and in our pictures say whatever we want. Nobody can check or control anything.
BMYou say that you get all the inspiration you need from the streets you walk up and down every day. Do you ever watch TV? Do you ever go to other artist’s exhibitions?
GEORGEWe watch television to check on the enemy. We buy a newspaper every day to check on the enemy. We can’t have an effect on the world if we’re not informed. But when we walk outside of the house, onto the street, it really is walking to the world past, present, and future. We’re not inspired by what’s on the street in that way. It’s the whole world that is passed through the life of these streets.
BMI’ve been asked to ask you about gentrification. Now seems like an appropriate time.
GEORGEIt comes across as this horrifically bad thing, but to us, it seems very strange that if somebody works hard, saves up enough money to buy a house and repair it, that there’s something negative about that. No poor person would think like that, and no upper class would think like that. Gentrification is an obsession of the middle class.
GILBERTWe saved Fournier Street, because before we came along, the street was just cheap shoe and clothing factories in the most beautiful houses. They were totally run down and were going to be demolished. We were the first ones, with very little money, to buy and restore one, in 1971. It had been run down for 300 years, and so we wanted to make it ready for the next 300 years.
GEORGEWe remember some people saying to us, “What’s your game? What are you up to?” They were deeply suspicious of why we should do something so absurd as restore something on this street. And for years living on Fournier street and taking taxis back from the West End, the driver used to pull up in front of our house, look out the window and say, “When’s this lot coming down then?” Not will it come down, but when.
BMBut you weren’t angry about new, uglier buildings going up. You are acceptors, if not embracers, of change.
GILBERTYeah, we are not anti-modernism, we like old and new at the same time.
GEORGEWe go out in the morning to buy a newspaper and have breakfast; we walk out of a French house, onto a street off Brick Lane that was built on a Roman cemetery, where Oscar Wilde went to the Chinese opium den and the Russian Vapour Baths. When we were students here, Yiddish was spoken on Brick Lane. We believe in the past, present, and future being rolled up into one big thing. There is no just present, or just past, or just future. It’s one whole thing that lies inside of everyone.
BMWell, I think that’s time. Is there anything you’d like to say before we leave each other?
GEORGEYes, fuck all skateboarders. You?
BMFuck all scapegoaters.
Gilbert Proesch (Italian, b. 1943) and George Passmore (English, b. 1942) have worked together as the artist duo Gilbert & George since 1968.
Blondey McCoy (English, b. 1997, lives and works in London) is an artist, designer, skateboarder, and founder of the brand Thames.