Eccentric, fascinating, repulsive, entertaining and full of symbols: “The World of Gilbert & George” is a collage about the artifice of everyday life in 1980s London.
What a gross heap of food the camera slides past sideways in “The World of Gilbert & George” and all the while a solemn off-camera voice extols the virtues of the greasy altar: “Here the magnificent beauty of our daily meals: Rashers of pork, those revolting sausages that tastes so delicious, chops, little balls of fat with puddings of fat.” Even back in 1981, Gilbert and George celebrated subversive food porn.
From the very outset, their avant-garde mashups of artists’ self-portraits and the elevation of everyday objects to the status of art involved a sideways movement – with a church bell ringing, the camera feels its way unhurriedly across London’s roofs as they brush the skies until eventually a church tower comes into view. What follows is shots of plants, a garbled Our Father, people, city. From this trinity of religion, man and nature the two artists put together a collage on the suitability for art of everyday things, in this case the everyday world of Margret Thatcher’s 1980s London. This collage, which at times appears fraught with meaning and at others crazily subversive, is also about art in general.
“I believe in art, beauty and the life of the artist, who is an eccentric person and has something to say about himself. Beauty is my art,” is one statement reeled off by Gilbert & George, one after the other in their sweeping, unemotional cadences. What is beauty, what is art? The answer is evidenced by the work of the two artists who have been working together since they met at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London in 1967: With everything, what is important is how you look at it. The entire film is, in a manner of speaking, one of the “living sculptures” in which Gilbert & George are simultaneously the subject of and the protagonists in their art which, moreover, they take out onto the streets for debate.
We are unhealthy, middle-aged, dirty-minded, depressed, cynical, empty, tired-brained, seedy, rotten, dreaming, badly behaved, ill-mannered, arrogant, intellectual, self-pitying, honest, successful, hard-working, thoughtful, artistic, religious, fascistic, blood-thirsty, teasing, destructive, ambitious, colorful, damned, stubborn, perverted and good. We are artists.
As a contemporary historical document, “The World of Gilbert & George”, shot between 1980 and 1981, shows a dismal British capital. Everything is gray and gloomy as the handheld camera wobbles through the streets, capturing scraps of graffiti daubed on the walls of shabby buildings. When the Union Jack, which the two also looked at in one of their most extensive series, their 2008 “Jack Freak Pictures”, starts fluttering gloomily in the wind viewers are automatically reminded of the present-day phenomenon that is BREXIT.
The film shows a dismal British capital
Even the young people that the duo interview do not exactly exude the joys of spring. They have been captured in portraits that are so close up that their faces, sometimes youthful and chubby, sometimes emaciated, tell entire stories in a single facial expression. As their answers reveal, (“meeting friends”, “hanging out”, “playing soccer”), they have been asked about their interests and hobbies. Another time, the camera zooms slowly from a medium shot to the face of a naked young man. “I am a young man” the latter says three times, while smoking at the same time. The words assume the scale of a mantra. Does he believe this himself? For how much longer will he remain young?
A whole cabinet of curiosities, of moods and feelings, is revealed in these scenes, some of which appear spontaneous and documentary, others evidently staged: The poetry of everyday life. At the same time, they reveal the absurdity of human existence, complete with entertaining nonsense. You can imagine that the French existentialists would have enjoyed the film. From time to time but repeatedly the two return to the wood-paneled apartment in the Spitalfields district of London’s East End where they have lived for over five decades and from which they look out over their hometown as if from a command center.
Everything in the service of art
It goes without saying that drinking is something that “Gilbert & George” do, after all, intoxication has always been a topic favored by the duo. Once, the camera captures glasses being emptied and refilled by a shaking hand – the two – their heads are not visible – are surrounded by a pub atmosphere. Another time they get drunk in front of a white, brightly lit background. They lurch, slur their speech, gesticulate. George, as is so often the case, has a cigarette in his hand. Boozing for the sake of their art.
What the pair gets through in “The World of Gilbert & George” is many things – eccentric, fascinating, repugnant, entertaining, full of symbols and it touches on a whole range of topics. These might not be easily accessible in their associative montage, but they are always worthwhile. In the end what we are confronted with is a vitamin-packed, never-ending orgasm where fruit and vegetables rub up against each other. As they once put it, “we are the slaves of beauty”. And it is their own, altogether idiosyncratic beauty that Gilbert & George are celebrating within their own world.