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?
George: 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?
Gilbert: 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.
George: They come from the golden age of telephone sex!
THE URETHRA POSTCARD ART OF GILBERT & GEORGE
30 April until 27 August 2011