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Friday, 1 June, 2001, 22:24 GMT 23:24 UK
Gilbert and George prostitute their wares
Gilbert and George
The size of the tableaux create an impact
By BBC News Online's Rebecca Thomas

Hold on to your sensibilities, shock art double act Gilbert and George are back with their first UK exhibition of new work for more than five years.

The duo - who famously focus on the most base and taboo human functions such as defecation and sex - have this time turned their attentions to the thorny issue of male prostitution.

The 16 pieces in their show New Horny Pictures at London's White CubeČ gallery, are constructed from blown up photos of individual ads from men offering themselves for gay sex.

The language is unashamedly graphic. Three of the tableaux are Gargantuan in size and truly hit you full in the face.

And staring oddly out from the sea of lewd language are the starched, besuited images of the gentlemanly Gilbert and George.

Gilbert and George
Gilbert (left) and George: "Living sculptures"

The pair's longstanding manifesto is to drag from the closet issues demonised by society.

And New Horny Pictures, says Gilbert, aims to confront viewers with the underworld of sexual activity seething beneath their noses.

"This is an amazing urban landscape which is not visible for many people but you only have to look in the small ads to know it is going on," says Gilbert.

"We want to make the invisible visible because this subject is in the back of every person's mind.

"Everyone is fascinated by prostitutes even if they don't admit it."

Fascination

Gilbert and George, who dress in matching double breasted tweed suits and clover motif ties, have been working and living together since they met in 1967.

Though they dismiss direct questions about their sexuality, the general assumption is that they are gay partners.

George says sexual ads began to fascinate them 15 years ago, which is when they began to collect them from magazines and newspapers.

All the ads in their tableaux are therefore genuine. However, if you are tempted to phone some of numbers you may be disappointed to find they are no longer valid.

Gilbert and George laugh heartily when informed of this fact.

That anyone should try to contact one of the men is no doubt a perfect illustration of their point.

George says they always felt they might be able to put their collection to good use - and the moment finally came.

"London suddenly became awash with sexual advertisements. Phone boxes are now stuffed with them.

"Even the Daily Telegraph, the most Christian and conservative of papers, carries a half page spread. We knew then that this was an issue to explore."

Debate

Their own attitude to prostitution is that it should be legalised. But that does not mean they seek to be bombastic or force their opinion on anyone else.

More importantly, they deny trying to shock.

Instead, their aim here - as with all their work - is to open up a debate and perhaps affect change with regard to issues that are part of human life.

Gilbert and George
Gilbert and George become part of their art

And the effect of the pieces will certainly start many people thinking.

Not unexpected feelings of shock, titillation and amusement are all likely to be experienced in response. But creeping in behind comes a surprising sense of regret and poignancy.

The act of reading the potted portraits within the ads draws you into the picture and into the lives of each human being described.

Gilbert and George nod their heads at this observation.

Their polished double act involves never interrupting each other. So, eventually Gilbert says: "There is a strong moral issue underlying these pictures.

"We have immortalised these people. And have dignified these ads because the pieces look like war memorials.

"These people have all lived and they will die and whatever you may think of prostitution, they, and we, are all human beings."

Public

Still, for all their high-minded intentions, Gilbert and George have not, over the years, escaped scorn.

Much of the art establishment, such as the Tate Gallery and London's National Gallery, have accepted them as important artists.

But many art critics still write them off as "self-obsessed" and their work as "filth".

The partners however purport not to give two hoots about art critics. "They are all hypocrites," huffs Gilbert.

Their concern, he adds, has always been to appeal to the general public, who are overall a much more receptive bunch.

Gilbert and George say they cannot separate their art from any aspect of their lives. As a result, they have made themselves "living sculptures".

This explains the matching suits and quirky mannerisms. It also makes clear why the duo often put themselves in their pictures.

The contrast between their austere appearance and their explicit images gives their work just that bit of extra bite.

Gilbert and George conclude with a smile: "Our whole lives must be about creating an impact and making our mark. Otherwise there would be no point."

New Horny Pictures is showing at the White CubeČ in London from 2 June to 15 July. Entrance free.

See also:

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