Lie back and think of England: A conversation with Gilbert & George

During Berlin’s Gallery weekend, Gilbert & George will present their second solo exhibition with ARNDT gallery, featuring the new series “The Urethra Postcard Art”. In 2009, nearly four decades after they first started making Postcard Art, the agents provocateurs returned to the medium with a dazzling 564 new pieces made from London souvenir postcards and flyers advertising sexual services – the kind usually found in phone booths. Each card series forms the shape of the medical symbol for the urethra. Sleek met up with the pair to talk about sex, money, religion and the royal wedding.

sleek: Are you excited about the wedding?
Gilbert: It’s very interesting because now, a year after we’ve shown the works “Jackfreak” here in Berlin, all the street parties in England look like our pictures. The people are all dressed up in the Union Jack – they’re jackfreaks.
George: The pictures became true! Art became life!

sleek: And you find that scary?
George: People ask us if we’ve been invited to the royal wedding and we say “No, but we’re looking forward to being invited to Prince Harry’s coming out party.” (Both laugh)
Gilbert: It’s sad that we won’t be able to watch the wedding because of Gallery Weekend. It’s not nationalistic in any way, everybody wants to watch the wedding.  This is a very rare occasion of glamour that happens only once every 20 years. It’s extraordinary. It allows you to go back to some antiquated tradition.

sleek: Can you imagine Kate Middleton featuring on one of your postcard pictures in the future?
George: Sure, Kate is so glamorous!
Gilbert: Good smile. She doesn’t have to be more than that. (More laughs)

sleek: How did you start working with postcards?
George: We do postcards pictures occasionally. Other artists have pictures and drawings, we have pictures and postcard pictures. We started in 1972, and every few years we do some more.
Gilbert: They’re like auras of the city, or chakras. We use what we can find, we don’t manipulate the postcards. Twenty years ago we were able to find more varied postcards, but now the selection is very limited.

sleek: And why are they all arranged to form the sign of a urethra? Where did this symbol stem from?
Gilbert: They’re arranged like that because the urethra is the beginning of life.
George: We have the urethra of Westminster Abbey, the urethra of the Queen, of the punk. All elements together form the aura of London in some way, of different parts of London. We use the urethra because we’ve always had a big library of religious books, and a special section on theosophy. It’s a religion which sort of died out. Theosophists were very progressive. One of its leading ladies, Annie Besant, was fighting to distribute condoms to poor families who didn’t know anything about family planning. She went to jail for that. And then there’s Charles Leadbeater, who taught that male masturbation was a healthy thing, not a shameful sin. There were teenage suicides in the 19th century because of the shame and guilt attached to masturbation and he fought to change that. That’s how he came up with the sign of the urethra, and that’s what lead to these particular pictures.

Gilbert: Once you see London through the eye of the urethra, you see it in a different way, don’t you think?
George: It’s similar to how the female orgasm was taught almost half a century later in the late 60s and early 70s. In the 19th Century, enjoyment was not a part of intercourse for women, it was a duty. The dutiful wife was supposed to lie back and think of England. Our new motto is: decriminalize sex.

sleek: Is that why sexually transmitted diseases also feature prominently in your work?
That’s a part of the city, too. Tourists who come to London don’t just see St Paul’s cathedral, Big Ben, Tate Modern, the Union flag, but also the sex flyers and cards. Some take advantage of these services and have sex with prostitutes. We’d like to give equal visibility to that as well.

sleek: Some of these flyers seem like relics from a different era. Would you say that the sexual underworld of London has changed over the years?
These cards don’t exist anymore – it all moved to the internet, which is a newer way of approaching people. The flyers are like antiques, and we like the dated graphics and the fonts they use. It’s visually direct.
They come from the golden age of telephone sex!

30 April until 27  August 2011
Gallery ARNDT


Designer watch: Boris Bidjan Saberi

During the last menswear season, we couldn’t overlook the talented Boris Bidjan Saberi, who showcased his autumn-winter 2011/12 collection in Paris. Needless to say that a simple showroom visit wouldn’t have been enough to capture his creative universe, so we met with the designer again to talk about his work.
Boris Bidjan Saberi’s roots are as mystical as his creations: half German and half Persian, living in the countryside just outside Barcelona and making regular stops in Berlin. He launched his eponymous label in 2006 and has been playing with the codes of urban-wear ever since, while adding a dark twist to his collections. Street and skate cultures are his main references, although he always depicts them in a very sophisticated and body-conscious way while experimenting with raw materials, such as self-made leather and unusual finishes with wax or even blood. Sounds a bit creepy to you? Well, put your prejudice aside, there’s more to know about Saberi, and it’s worth it!

sleek: Your last autumn-winter 2011/12 menswear was actually a performance! Skaters were going down the half-pipe while models presented the collection. Is it your very own way of changing the usual catwalk-codes?
Boris Bidjan Saberi:
Not necessarily, it is actually more of a personal statement. In each show I come up with a detail that stands for my cultural background, which has a major influence on my work. For this menswear collection, it was obviously skate-culture. I like the thought of giving life to a collection by showcasing it in its appropriated environment. For each show, I like to provide a detail that relates to my life, or that is somehow more intimate. And indeed I’m still into skating. I regularly skate around my atelier in the countryside of Barcelona.

sleek: How come you established yourself so far away from the fashion madness?
BBS: I never planned to be so far away from the so-called fashion cities. I used to study in Barcelona and I discovered this place and was literally charmed by it. It is a former textile factory in the countryside of Barcelona, it’s actually from 1830, so it has a pretty old and at the same time raw atmosphere. I decided to stay there in order to settle down with my atelier. I know that if you’re relating to business, it might not be the best choice to settle down in the middle of nowhere. But it was out of personal reasons, also creative ones, I feel like there is so much more to get out of this place than out of the common big cities. Of course the production conditions would be easier if I were based in Italy or France, but my private life is also important for me, Barcelona and its surroundings just feel like home.

sleek: How do you proceed for each of your collections? Do you have a particular theme in mind when you start working?
BBS: The fabric research is always my first step into creating a collection. I need to have the fabrics in mind, in order to be able to think about shapes and cuts. Most of the time, I even produce the fabrics myself, as I soon realized that it is hard for me to get the fabrics I imagined at the very beginning of my working process. We produce our own cotton and leather for example; it is therefore easier for me to fulfill my expectations regarding my collection when I also have the control over the fabric production. It also adds a personal touch to the collection, as you can’t buy the same fabrics anywhere else. I like the thought of doing unique pieces, I would never do mass-productions; these are the conditions that destroy any singularity about fashion. After I chose the fabrics, I wait for this special spark that will build up the theme of a collection. Though it is never a forced procedure, I am not relating to trends or ideas of the moment, it’s rather a detail that suddenly rings a bell and transforms itself into what we call “inspiration.” This is something that happens naturally. For my last collection it was blood. I was working at my atelier and I accidentally cut myself. I must have been bored to death at that time, because I found nothing better to do than to watch the wound heal. This was my starting point. I then experimented with fabrics and blood and the different color tones you get out of it. Then it really turned into a more sophisticated concept about the human body, as I really want to make body-conscious clothes. This is also the reason why I fit my collections on myself and not on a mannequin. I also invented this sheer, red transparent leather. It is important to me to have a challenge regarding my creations. I don’t want to wake up and do easy things; I’m really motivated to reinterpret usual fashion codes, to add my personal touch to it.

sleek: do you have any future projects concerning your brand? Any collaborations you care to reveal to us?
BBS: We’re doing some collaborations of course, but let’s be patient. I’m being very careful about my brand. I want to keep the right people around it, and so I don’t accept a lot of propositions regarding collaborations, as it might lead to an image-loss if it is misplaced. I’m not particularly trying to be mysterious, but neither do I want to be commercial. It’s about finding the right balance in the way you showcase your work. I don’t do a lot of interviews, because I feel sick of people who are only fascinated with the designer. In the end, it is about my creations and I want people to appreciate my brand because of what I do and not because of what I represent.

Photos by Morganistik