By Stephen Coates / AFP
British artists Gilbert and George have never shied away from looking the brutal truths of life directly in the eye, and their latest collection, which debuted in Hong Kong this week, is no different.
“London Pictures” is a disturbing examination of sex, violence, power and death through the medium of Britain’s tabloid billboards, collected over six years from newsstands near the artists’ home in East London.
From the shocking (“Suicide Gang’s Terror War on Britain”) to the banal (“Cat Is Killed in Park Dog Attack”) and the bizarre (“Big Bummed Burglar Banged Up”), the headlines are a morbid narrative on society’s grim obsessions.
But the artists — Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore — are the first to defend the tabloids from calls for greater regulation in light of the hacking scandal that has gripped the News of the World and the Sun, despite saying they were bugged themselves.
“It seems very, very difficult. Regulation is going to interfere with a lot of freedoms if we’re not careful,” George told AFP in an interview at the new White Cube gallery in Hong Kong, surrounded by panels of tabloid headlines laid over photographic images of the artists themselves.
“As least rules as possible is the best, we think. We don’t need ideas. Writers and artists and poets and musicians have the ideas. Governments shouldn’t have brainwaves for us.”
Both artists agree that until the scandal over Milly Dowler, a young murder victim whose voicemail was allegedly hacked by the media, no one would have been shocked to hear that journalists eavesdropped on private conversations.
“We never thought there was anything wrong with that,” Gilbert says, wearing the tweed suit and tie that have become the artists’ trademark.
“They were always trying to snoop on us for many, many years but in some way we accepted that, and we still accept that. I think it’s a kind of freedom that has to be there… We were bugged, we know that.”
Dowler’s name appears in “London Pictures,” but hers is just one of the countless personal tragedies the work forces the viewer to confront.
“It’s a very simple poster just for one day, but it’s a nightmare of everlasting consequences for the people (behind the headlines) and the people around them,” George explains.
He says the artists “began to feel almost ill” as they assembled more than 3,700 billboard posters into groups according to their often gruesome subjects — murder, rape, suicide, money, killing, knife and so on.
“It made us think, is this the world we live in? How responsible are we? We began to think, is this the price of freedom, is this the price of democracy?” he says.
Gilbert points out the artists’ ghost-like presence in the pictures. They became “very involved” in spiritualism during the creative process after watching a movie about Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the hero of the Battle of Britain who claimed to communicate with the ghosts of dead airmen.
“In some strange way we still think that we are in conversation with Dickens, or we are still in some way in touch with Shakespeare, and we would like the figures in these pictures to be like that,” George says.
Gilbert and George met at art school in London in the late 1960s and have been inseparable ever since. They still live in East London, never go out to the theatre or the movies, do not have a kitchen at home and only entertain at restaurants.
Their profanity-laced early works were designed to shock and confuse establishment critics, but now the pair sit comfortably in the pantheon of modern British art, a reflection, they say, of how times have changed.
Even so, the “illustrious British duo,” to borrow from White Cube’s promotional blurb, insist their work remains as subversive as ever despite their new insider status.
They chuckle at the likely reaction of some critics to the image of Queen Elizabeth that appears in all 292 pieces of the collection, which eventually will be exhibited in major galleries around the world.
“I think we are still outsiders enough. As a friend said when he first saw these pictures and the queen in the corner: ‘There goes your knighthood’,” laughs George.
The tabloid headlines needed “something to preside over them,” he says. At first the artists considered a policeman in a helmet, but then they seized on images of the queen’s head taken from various coins.
Enlarged in panel-sized clarity, complete with the nicks and cuts of everyday use, the coin heads lend the monarch a Dorian Gray-like quality, as if, the artists say, she is ravaged by her reign over the mayhem they depict.
“In a way we’re all complicit in the society, in the Western world, it’s the society that we’ve all made together. None of us is without responsibility or guilt,” says George.
“We think it’s the city we live in, but it’s more so the Western world, or the world so far… Sex, money, religion.”