Gilbert and George Discuss Memory and Art

During the Serpentine Gallery’s Memory Marathon, I conducted an interview with the artistic duo, Gilbert and George. Moments before they had just finished presenting The Singing Sculpture which encapsulates for them the past, present and future.  Here is our discussion on memory and art.


George, Gilbert and Hans-Ulrich Obrist at the Serpentine Gallery


Vigo: I wanted to ask you about this connection between memory and art.  Various theorists have discussed how memory is a combination of the past and present, that memory impedes us from forgiveness, and various other theories. But now that we can record memory digitally, there is a sense of immediacy that by the time a work of art is produced by tomorrow it becomes already something else.  How does your installation ‘London Pictures’ address this notion that what is news today is forgotten by next week?

Gilbert: But we don’t believe in that.  Every picture is still there, nothing disappears, it becomes more visible.  It depends how you do it.

George: We still  have Shakespeare on stage all over the world and we have been reading books of people long dead .

Gilbert: In the new expressions of modern art, it is sometimes this art which is more dismissive of the past.

Vigo:  Yet we still have this cultural desire to see the new–from Star Academy to X Factor–whereby people desire to see the new constantly supplied to us, renovated over and over.  So it would seem that in our society especially, that we do have an obsession with the new.

George:  Some French philosopher said that we paved the way for reality television.

Gilbert:  Certain things stay in your mind forever where other things disappear.  We only believe in the permanence.

Vigo: Like the song you sang earlier that you still remember after–

George: –forty years.

Gilbert:  More than forty years.

Vigo: Certain customs are lost, for instance, I can no longer write by hand because of having spent so much of my life on a keyboard.  So memory is not only cerebral but it is muscular, it involves the entire body.

Gilbert: Amazing.

George:  The same thing happened with typewriters before that.

Gilbert: And for us the computer is fantastic–we can use the computer to do things so easily and manipulate things how you want it. And we don’t have to go through the smelly chemicals.  It is like the modern brush for us.

George: It is not new–it is a continuation.  We had been practicing for twenty-five years for that preparation for a computer.  If you were to give a young artist a computer today it is not the same.

Gilbert:  We knew exactly what we wanted to do.

George:  The language is the same–the layers and the coloring.  Exactly. The move from the darkroom to the digital space, nobody can see which pictures were produced in which way.

Gilbert:  The end result is that there is a big picture, a frozen sort, like a medieval picture.

It is a different thing to understand, but we know from people speaking with us that it is a totally different experience to stand in front of an artwork from some long dead person. It is like reading a book from a living novelist–it is different from reading a text from someone who is long dead. We don’t why but people feel it in a different way.

Vigo:  A narrative techniques have changed in literature,  perhaps similarly artistic techniques have changed.  Perhaps people perceive this and the different styles and form which inflect themselves differently upon the viewer?  For instance, when you discussed how you moved from one form of mechanical photography and composition to Photoshop, this necessitated a change in form based on the change in technology.

Gilbert:  When you see the movies from the 1930s they are extraordinary and you think, “How did they do it?”  But they didn’t have digital and still did extraordinary stuff.

Vigo:  But along with these technologies in cinema the editing techniques set the style.  To what degree did your use of technology effect your style?

Gilbert: It is an amazing machine to make art so in the end the developments of technology develop the images through time.

Vigo:  I attended the week of Abramović’s ‘Seven Easy Pieces’ at the Guggenheim in 2005 and one critique leveled at her during this time was that she was accused of re-creating and appropriated other artists’ piece. Many people felt this was fraudulent.  Is archiving one’s own work a reconstruction of the art, is it an appropriation or a recording of work?

George: I think it is very honest.  We are not appropriating them.

Gilbert:  No, we don’t do that.  But we photograph our original works for the books–for history.

George:  We are just looking for the best examples from each period.

Vigo:  But how will your be performances be regarded once photographed or videotaped?  Or left not to be.

George: They will be in the book.  And there are videos as well.

Gilbert: We even leave instructions as a blueprint.  It is written down.  It’s not random.

George:  Even someone else can do it based on our instructions–how many minutes is this and that.

Gilbert:  It is like a play and you can do it again and again and again. It is the same construction.  But it is the same construction.

Vigo: When you talk about victims of crime, this installation shows this.   I noticed your piece in New York’s Chelsea:  it remembers history in the poster, commemorating memory in plastic.

George: How privileged we all are.

Gilbert:  Nobody remembers the the poster because it disappears the next day.  Forever!

George: Unless it says John Lennon.  The rest is useless.

Vigo: So this makes the space of art a place of remembering.

George: It is a huge modern cemetery.

Gilbert: Art is always that. You remember the feelings–even the Renaissance. You remember that period. You you don’t remember  your memories or the pope. You only see the leftover picture.

George:  Why do couples find cemeteries quaint? Courting couples love cemeteries–it is extraordinary. You don’t think, ‘What a horrible place with dead bodies.’  You just don’t think that.   There is a certain beauty in the cemetery.

Vigo:  There is a certain sense of closure in the cemetery:  it is like art in the sense that it is finished.  It is a place to which you can return; it is real.

Gilbert:  That is why art is extraordinary because they are freezing time.  We only know most of what we know from medieval time from pictures and books.  There is nothing else, except for the fact that there are decomposed bodies.

George:  And then you must put the facts, thoughts or feelings down somewhere.