Gilbert & George
Prologue by David Neuman, director Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall
East London, sex, shit, death interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator and editor, London, Paris, Berlin (1996).
Exhibition catalogue no 17. ISBN 91-972986-1-1
91 pages, color, illustrated. Designed by the artists. Texts in Swedish/English.
Published 1997 by Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall.
Price: 150 SEK (approx. 16 EUR)
Interview by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Fournier Street, London, August 1995
The East End is a place where you would bring people to show Earth.
George: Yes, we would say that around here is one of the most actual places. The look in people’s eyes, the variety of expression, is very up-to-date.
Gilbert: Because we studied here and then moved to the East End of London, we made a big decision that to be artists we didn’t want to go anywhere else. A lot of artists, to become successful artists, had to move to Berlin or to Paris or to New York because it felt like being here was not the right place to be. But we said we will stick our shoes in the mud and be firm. We wanted to become artists here, and that became very important for us.
George: The East End is as multi-racial as any other place on Earth. We always say that our pictures are not involved in London, and not involved in our immediate surroundings. When others say ‘But you use the Church from the end of your street’, we say ‘That’s the church inside of you, inside the viewer’. You can live in Sydney or Johannesburg or New York and you will find very similar Christian symbols.
The East End is also Jack the Ripper.
George: Even Jack the Ripper exists everywhere.
Gilbert: Everywhere, even in Switzerland, in Hanover.
You once told me that this church at the end of your street, Christchurch Spitalfields, is built on strange foundations.
George: It was a brilliant idea. Hawksmoor first built the foundations and then, by finding an excuse to sack the builders, he secretly had seven horrors built into the foundations and cemented over: one strangled prostitute, one baby cut into three pieces-magical horrors. When it was all covered up, he rehired the builders and the church rose on top of that evil. He said that to defeat evil you have to do evil, which in medical terms is of course perfectly reasonable. It is the vaccination theory, isn’t it? They have to give you a little bit of the illness to make you immune to it.
What about Fournier Street, the street where you live?
George: It changes always.
Gilbert: The Huguenots had to leave France, so they moved to the East End of London. All of the streets around here are French streets.
George: Constant change. The Huguenots had to leave here too because English law was against them.
Gilbert: They were weavers, silk weavers. They became rich so they had to leave this part of London for tax reasons.
George: Complicated reasons. Then this area was inhabited by German people. There were still two German churches in the district. Then it became Russian, Jewish.
George: It is constantly in flux. Even during our time, it has changed so many times. The Jewish people left and Maltese people came, and then people from Somali land came, then the Bangladesh people arrived, and now it’s more mixed.
Gilbert: Eccentric people arrived.
George: It became very queer for a while. Even now I am sure it is changing in some strange way that we don’t really see. Now it’s becoming more hippie and macrobiotic, more artistic in a way. There are galleries here for the first time. There are probably four or five galleries within two minutes’ walk.
Spitalfields Market has changed a lot.
George: We like that change.
Gilbert: In some way it is a very extreme district. It is on the edge all the time.
George: Yiddish was very commonly spoken here when we first came.
Gilbert: Now it is a mixture always moving from Cockney to Jewish to Indian. But it is all quite extreme, the mixture of cultures, and that is very exciting.
George: The man at the string shop used to add up the bill to himself. He spoke while adding it up in Yiddish and had to translate it for himself into pounds, shillings and pence. Then he had to translate it from the decimal. Extraordinary.
I often observe in the streets in the East End these crashes, shocks of differences. It is not about different communities becoming homogeneous. It is about crashes of differences, in a Victor Segalen kind of way.
Gilbert: What is exciting is that in some way they all know us. George always says hello to all of England. We are totally protected.
Like last night with the taxi driver; you didn’t even have to tell him the address. He said, ‘Fournier Street?’
George: They are life-long friends.
George: We already know many middle-aged, or say 40-year-old Asians who speak to us who we can remember from when they were very glamorous teenagers. That’s interesting.
The coexistence of elements from the past and the present is also apparent in your house, such as your collection of Christopher Dresser vases.
George: That’s what Christopher Dresser said was modern for him. Modern was the steam-ship travel, so he could encompass the world easily for the first time. It didn’t take months to travel to Japan or to San Francisco. The depth of history was just becoming available. They were digging up the pyramids. They were digging up Mayan temples. For the first time you could have a total grasp of history and of the world. Dresser thought that together past and present was very modern.
Gilbert: We believe very much that we are trying to accept the modern and the old at the same time. We don’t want to say that only what is modern is right.
George: All history together with today is what is modern, not just the now modern.
George: The complication of it, we believe, is so good. (…)
Excerpt from the catalogue text by Hans Ulrich Obrist, 1996.