Question: if Gilbert and George post a letter is that a work of art? Have they, through their success at marketing their lives and foibles, founded a cult in which everything they do is significant? Drinking, performing their bodily functions, walking. How do you fix cash value?
The photographer Marc Atkins, who worked around the corner from the Living Sculptures' base in Fournier Street (in the now fashionable East London district of Spitalfields), spotted the notorious pair stepping out. He followed them, snapping away. He was fascinated to know where, if anywhere, performance art diverged from the banality of everyday existence. They marched, step for step, in the style they had perfected: customised embarrassment. George the Gent keeping to the outside, protecting the curb. They crossed Liverpool Street into Broad Street, placed a single letter in the box, and returned to base. Synchronised drifting.
George, the balding, bespectacled West Countryman, is more visible. He's the one who takes an afternoon constitutional to Hampstead and back. "In three hours," as Gilbert boasts with justifiable pride, "I did half - because I have flat feet." George in photographs is rarely without a silver pen in his breast pocket. Gilbert, the shorter of the pair, the shrink- wrapped matinee idol, is more casual. George has the wife who has been airbrushed out of the story. Even in their forthcoming biography - whose author, Daniel Farson, they liked and admired - details of the marriage could not be disclosed. "Not telling! Not telling!" is George's response to impertinent questions. "Not part of the G & G story." Gilbert backs him up. It's clear that G & G operate two modes, both equally valid. There's Living Sculptures - with strict rules and Zen discipline. And there is the book buying, pottery collecting, restaurant visiting, chatting up waiters, off-duty existence of unexceptional Spitalfields millionaires. According to official doctrine, they never go to art shows. But locals still speak about the opening of an exhibition of Stephen Harwood's "East End Paintings" in the Art East Gallery in Spitalfields Market. Peter Ackroyd and Dan Farson also attended. And the evening climaxed, riotously, in a tapas bar brawl. They are supposed not to read, but George, in our short conversation, quoted from the Old Testament, declaimed a fable by Olive Schreiner, expressed admiration for Ackroyd's Hawksmoor, and signalled his familiarity with the poet Lee Harwood. He liked William Burroughs for speaking so well of Denton Welch. They claim to be apolitical, post-sexual, without opinions. What did Gilbert think about the recent transformation of Spitalfields? "We don't have views," he replied. "It's our motto." Yet, within moments, both of them were gleefully slagging off the public art - the Richard Serra, the Barry Flanagan, the Jim Dine - of the Bishopsgate redevelopment. "Appalling stuff," said George. "The art is invisible," said Gilbert. It's strategic. Having no opinions is an opinion. Owning a block of houses in Fournier Street, in the shadow of Nicholas Hawksmoor's Christ Church, is a privilege. While I stood on the doorstep in the dusk, I felt a flutter of unease. It was like being taken into the attic to have a conversation with the picture of Dorian Gray. "Picture." That word is very important to Gilbert and George. The great rectangles that they compose from boxes of preliminary photographs, taxonomies of chewing gum, bird shit, urine stains, piss crystals, street signs, are always "picture". They love the term for its sense of tradition, its links with the Aesthetic Movement. "We wanted to call them something normal," George said. Normal. That's another of their favourite words, along with "sweet", "loving" and "beauty". Everything should be so normal that it's terrifying. Invasion of the Body Snatchers normality. Pod person normality. They admire John Major for his surreal normality. …