Are artists particularly creative when it comes to cooking? This time with Gilbert & George, who can hardly wait to hug their favorite waiters again.
Alice Waters, chef and co-founder of the famous Californian slow food restaurant Chez Panisse, summed up the close connection between art and cooking: “...they are both reactive and creative, imitating and adapting to each other.” So is there a connection between what happens in the studios of artists and what happens in their kitchens? Are there references to their work and personality? Are artists particularly creative when it comes to the everyday act of cooking? With the help of anecdotes and photos about their kitchens and eating habits, we provide insights into the culinary worlds of well-known artists.
Ever since restaurants in London were forced to close their doors until further notice last year, Gilbert & George’s everyday culinary existence has been feeling like one long, endless picnic. Before the pandemic the British art duo used to eat all three of their daily meals in a restaurant. However, the current exceptional circumstances have completely disrupted their routines. Nevertheless, neither of them has any intention of putting an end to their quarrel with cooking, which has been going on for almost half a century now, at the current juncture, of all times. Instead, for now they are just making do with cold fare from the supermarket, consuming menus consisting of sausages, cheese, salmon, salad and a little fruit, “picnic food”, as they call it because it is not difficult to prepare or warm up. However, they do not consume all these things out in the garden, but, slightly less idyllically, at the long countertop in their studio. These notorious suit wearers are hoping for one thing from this abstinence cure – to be able, at least, to cut a finer figure than they did earlier once the lockdown comes to an end.
When, in the middle of the 1960s, Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore, who were at the time still studying Sculpture at Saint Martin’s School of Art, moved into the ground floor of an unrenovated building on Fournier Street in the East End of London, they had use neither of an indoor toilet, nor of a kitchen. And now, 50 years later, they still live there, admittedly in conditions that are anything but Spartan, albeit still without cooking facilities. It is one of the smallest rooms in the house, equipped with a kitchen sink and a kettle, that bears any resemblance to a kitchen, however, this fails to boast a cooker. There are a few packets of instant coffee and a milk carton on the sideboard, the rest of the room is stuffed with dozens of ceramic vases, a small part of a collection comprising more than 5,000 items and dating from the 19th century. Nobody has ever cooked here, they assure us, not even an egg. Too great is their loathing of the smell of hot meals in their home.
Gilbert & George consider cooking as a waste of time
To tell the truth, Gilbert & George consider everything to do with cooking a complete waste of time. Shopping, snipping, cleaning, using up leftovers – all these activities would only distract them from their real vocation, that of producing art. All the more surprising then is the fact that the simple kitchenette is one of the places that have been central to their artistic career. For almost ten years, the room was their studio and some of their best work was produced around its little sink, including the series “Dirty Words Pictures”, which dates from 1977. Due to lack of space, at the time they had no other option for producing their large-format photographic works than to divide it up into panels. They now have a spacious studio in the neighboring building, but the grid-shaped structure of these works has since become their trademark.
When the “Living Sculpture”, as they call themselves, finds a restaurant that appeals to them they go there consistently for years, often several times a day. They then order the same dish repeatedly over a period of months, “until it almost makes us throw up,” says Gilbert. This may sound somewhat quirky but there is practical reasoning behind it. After all, the fewer decisions they have to make in their daily lives, the more energy they have left to think about their work. The two have become real creatures of habit because this allows their creativity as much scope as possible.
The fewer decisions in everyday life, the more energy they have for their work
Constant repetition also plays an important role in their work processes. During the research phase for new pictures, they take thousands of photos of the same seemingly banal motifs, be these graffiti, spat out chewing gum, trees, architectural details, or the dishes they eat. From this permanent recording of their immediate surroundings Gilbert & George infer the universal topics that are the subject of their tableaus, topics such as religion, sex, money, illness and hope. They are never at a loss for sources of inspiration, something that could be explained by the fact that for decades now they have been leaving their house to eat out at least three times a day.
When the two are asked about their favorite places to eat, the conversation rapidly turns away from the food itself. Although, even today, they still rave about the oxtail and the “spotted Dick” – a dessert containing dried fruit – at the “Market Café” which they patronized daily for more than 30 years until it closed down, they would much rather talk about the people behind the bar. They know countless waiters and chefs by name, greet them with kisses and ask them about their families. In fact, they followed Ali Dirik, the proprietor of “Mangal II” in Dalston, to two restaurants and even attended his sons’ circumcision ceremonies. This practice of nurturing relationships over a period of years has paid dividends – the art duo always has the best dishes served up to them and is granted any special requests they might have.
The artist duo is always served the best food
To just what extent the culinary and the social are intertwined in the lives of this art duo becomes clear when they reveal that at the beginning of the second lockdown the owner of the pub around the corner, “The Golden Arm”, started sending them weekly Fortnum & Mason hampers filled with delicious treats and that their neighbor diagonally opposite them comes around every Sunday evening, bringing them a hot meal. Incidentally, Gilbert & George are still seeing their favorite waiters every day. They recently hung the portraits of Mustafa, Arkan, Tolga and Wasel on the walls of their studio on the spur of the moment.