Gilbert & George in conversation with Evan Woodruffe at Auckland Art Gallery

Martin Leach, editor of Ponsonby News, managed a scoop by interviewing famous British artists Gilbert & George during their recent visit to open 21st Century Pictures at Auckland Art Gallery.

Since 1970, Gilbert & George have produced iconoclastic works they describe as “sculptures”, spanning performance, film making, photography and giant printed artworks. Their approach to art has always been anti-elitist, aiming to be relevant beyond the narrow confines of the art world, with their slogan “art for all”. Perhaps this is what attracted them to giving their only print interview to our local magazine rather than an art publication.

Martin managed to determine their address in London’s East End, so sent them a letter and copies of Ponsonby News. He and his partner Jay had met the pair many years ago when they shared a table in a crammed London café and they had some friends in common from Martin’s time there. With the kind assistance from Auckland Art Gallery and filmed by Connor Crawford, he not only organised an interview conducted by local artist Evan Woodruffe, but received a personal tour through the exhibition.

Though all their images come from their Spitalfields surroundings, “we are making a global art”, said Gilbert. “It doesn’t matter if we pick up a cigarette end; we are able to make it global.” George added, that from the beginning, “we thought we were living in the centre of the universe in the Charing Cross Road, we felt extremely privileged.”

At St Martins Art School they realised that “if you take the students’ or teachers’ work out on to the Charing Cross Road, most of it wouldn’t be noticed by anybody”, said George. “We wanted to have a content and a meaning, so we said why not, - and here they see-sawed a word each, back and forth - “hope, death, life, fear, sex, money, race, religion, shitty, naked, human, (then in unison) world! We all have fears and dreads and loves and hates, and we want our art to be part of that.”

“We are trying to make a moral art”, explained Gilbert. “We’re not against immorality, but we’re talking about a moral dimension – don’t change the subject,” laughed George.

“We had amazing luck – we were taken up in 1970 and that was it,” continued Gilbert. “We became the artwork ourselves, and that was our biggest invention, that we were the living sculpture. We invented our own language. Every photograph, every image that is in our pictures, we took.”

Discussing the microscopic images in their Shit & Piss Pictures (1996), George is still amazed: “You’ll find swords and daggers in sweat; there must be a reason for that. There are crucifixes in piss, not in sweat – extraordinary. There are other forces at work.”

Gilbert & George might be heading towards 80 in age but they are making work as fresh as ever, as the latest works in the exhibition show.

“The drug bags are exciting because every morning when we’d get up, walking to get a newspaper, the drug bags from the last evening were on the pavement. And all these different ones. Such an extraordinary subject; you can’t open a newspaper or magazine anywhere in the world where it doesn’t discuss drug addiction or drug problems, drug this and drug that. It’s an amazing subject,” said George. “The nitrous oxide cannisters in the pictures remind everyone of bombs. And once again, it’s a great world-subject of our time.”

Auckland Art Gallery is the first venue for 21st Century Pictures in the world so be sure to see it before 11 September when it travels to the Hayward Gallery in London.

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