Gilbert & George: The Urethra Postcard Pictures

The art world's most celebrated double act talk about their latest exhibition, their gripes with religion and their undying love of postcards

Photography Benjamin Westoby

Gilbert and George first exhibited their taste for postcards way back in 1972 with their seminal POSTCARD ART exhibition, and now they are exhibiting a whole new series of works that wryly celebrate what the most popular and affordable medium for highbrow art, seaside sunsets and the solicitation of personal services. True to form, THE URETHRA POSTCARD PICTURES at White Cube playfully subverts the iconography of the establishment while raising the status of society's marginalised figures to heroic proportions – referencing one of society's most controversial outsiders, the one-time theosophist C.W Leadbetter, and creating a libertarian level playing field where class, sexuality and gender exist in a state of equality.

What is perhaps most interesting about the pair's ironic foray into the form, both back in the day and now, is that it is one of the rare instances where the artists do not place themselves within the frame. I caught up with them at the opening to discuss the emotional language of postcards, the dangers of religious fundamentalism and the liberation of thought.

Dazed Digital: One of the things I think is really interesting about postcards is that they are such an emotional form of communication…
George: It’s an extraordinary form of communication.
Gilbert: It’s so universal, even.
George: All the famous modern art is mostly only seen through postcards. Think about how many Van Gogh postcards there are… just hundreds of thousands.

Dazed Digital: When you write on the back of a postcard you generally hope to engender an emotional response. Is that one of the things you find attractive about them?
Gilbert: I think everyone has an emotional incident in their lives related to postcards, just as everyone has something related to the telephone.
George: They are not so personal any more, though. They are more abstract. The early postcard piece that we did more than 35 years ago were done with old postcards that are very emotional and nostalgic, and there were more subjects in some ways than now.
Gilbert: One hundred years ago, every street in London had its own postcard – you could buy postcards of Brick Lane.

Dazed Digital: Really?
George: Very good ones in fact.
Gilbert: And of things like ‘Whitehall From The South’ and ‘Whitehall From The North’ – they don’t exist anymore. The Cenotaph was a very commonly purchased postcard a hundred years ago.
George: There were even close-ups of soldiers fighting in the wars – amazing postcards of bombs and tanks… and actors.
Gilbert: Every popular singer had his own postcard. Extraordinary.
George: It’s quite interesting because they are becoming more abstract in some ways and combined with the sexual ones they cause the right kind of irritation.

Dazed Digital: With the sexual ones in the show… Do you try to give them heroic status so that everything is seen on one level?
Gilbert: Sure… celebrating them – we want to be inclusive. Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square and Westminster Abbey are not London – you need the other bit as well. It’s amazing that within such a limited range of subjects – any postcard that has a Union Jack in it was one criteria, any telephone box card that wasn’t boring was another one – there is still an amazing range of stuff. There are underpants, there are horses, there are churches, government buildings, telephone boxes...
George: One postcard wouldn’t mean anything on its own but together they created this idea of the urethra, the piss-hole.

Dazed Digital: What is the significance of the urethra symbolism and the nod to Charles Leadbeater?
Gilbert: First of all, it’s the beginning of life. It’s where the spunk comes out to make you – women have urethras as well, but it only does one job. The boy’s does two jobs.
George: And Leadbetter taught masturbation.
Gilbert: Yes, he taught masturbation at a time when some teenagers were committing suicide.

Dazed Digital: Committing suicide because they weren’t allowed to masturbate?
Gilbert: The shame. Can you imagine that? There were medical devices to put on to your son, so that if he got a hard-on he would be in pain.

Dazed Digital: Jesus… really?
Gilbert: Jesus. He arranged it. It was religion and the law together that did that. Teaching male masturbation was incredibly progressive at that time. Leadbeater nearly went to prison.

Dazed Digital: Did he?
Gilbert: Not quite.
George: (Laughs) He was caught in too many toilets. He did this book that is very important for the modern artist as well: Thought Forms.
Gilbert: It’s by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater. It’s the beginning of modern art.
George: The visuals of this exhibition are Thought Form-like. To create this cloud of thought, no, mood, is part of it.

Dazed Digital: Do you think the artist has a duty to challenge the viewer and to challenge society?
Gilbert: We think the artists and the writers and the editors and so on do have a duty. Every person has a gaping hole inside of them that can only be filled by music or poetry or philosophy, or exhibitions or something.
George: Art is quite limited but it is part of change and finding out a way to live – liberating ourselves from all these conventions that we learned.
Gilbert: We all have 2000 years of chains that we can only get rid of a little bit at a time with reading this book or that book, or having a conversation. But nobody is free of these chains – we can’t be.
George: We think that all the editors now are all closet vicars in some ways, especially at The Telegraph. They are all becoming very religious and we are appalled by it.

Dazed Digital: Well, we’re living in more religious times than we were even a decade ago…
George: Oh yes. Much more. Twenty years ago nobody mentioned religion now all the newspapers are full of it.
Gilbert: Since we were teenagers everything went forward, never stopped. Year after year there was more and more pop music and thinking and originality, and now there is somebody trying to turn all of that backwards.
George: I think it’s because Islam arrived in Europe
Gilbert: And the Christians thought, ‘If they can have advantages and opt out, maybe we can have some as well.’
George: Because we artists liberated ourselves over the last 300 years, but now the infallible Islam is in the middle of us and it’s quite difficult.
Gilbert: There’s danger out there. Big danger.
George: As long as God is man-made, it’s fine. But when they tell you that it is not? Then we don’t like it.
Gilbert: We think that if religion came under the umbrella of the trade description act then it would be fine. But they’ve got too many exemptions, eh? They’re allowed to lie. Manufacturers of marmalade are not allowed to lie.
George:  It is lies! Fabrications. In America being a non-believer is not allowed. The president is not religious? Impossible. The president is gay? Can you imagine?
Gilbert: All of our friends were so amazed that a black person got the presidency. That’s nothing. Try a non-believer.

Dazed Digital: So you think that it's all gone full circle, and that homophobia and so on are worse than they used to be?
George: In a big way because in some ways you can say that homophobia is in 85 per cent of the people, and that’s only here in little Europe. If you go to Africa, it’s totally homophobic. You go to a Muslim country? Totally. You go to China? Totally. You go to India, Russia, Poland, South America… Totally.

Dazed Digital: Do you think people are going back to religion because they think there is going to be some dreadful cataclysm?
George: (Laughs) Just before they die they have to become Christian…

Dazed Digital: The gambler Doc Holiday was confirmed as a Catholic on his deathbed...
Gilbert: Even Oscar Wilde did that.

Dazed Digital: Did he?
George: Did he? How disappointing.

Dazed Digital: Have your attitudes to mortality changed much as you have gotten older?
George: I don’t think too much about that.
Gilbert: According to the recent figures more and more people are going to live to be 110 years old.

Dazed Digital: That’s pretty scary isn’t it,
Gilbert: Unbelievable. There’s going to be buildings filled with people dribbling.

Dazed Digital: (Laughs) My ex-girlfriend is French and she always got the words drooling and dribbling mixed up. She saw a man looking at this girl once and said, “He’s dribbling all over her!”
Gilbert: (Laughs) Oh Yes. That’s very good.

Dazed Digital: Do you think that over the years your identities have merged into one?
George:  One monster.
Gilbert: Two people, one artist – very simple.

Dazed Digital: Has the artistic power between you got stronger the whole time?
Gilbert: It’s an enormous power. Two people. That’s why the world is roughly divided into two – self-doubt is removed, yes? As long as the relationship is equal. That’s why a lot of straight couples are jealous because there is the bank manager and the little wife. It doesn’t work in the end, right? It’s just not equal enough.

The Urethra Postcard Pictures exhibits at White Cube, Mason's Yard, January 14 – February 19

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