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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, November 19, 2008
    Face to face with a living sculpture
     
    On a tour of the independent bookshops of East London yesterday, an unexpected encounter with a living work of art. After a fruitful half-hour in the Freedom Press bookshop, out of Angel Alley and heading up Brick Lane for lunch and a browse at Rough Trade East, I turned my head at the junction of Fournier Street (for a back view of the awesome Christ Church Spitalfields) and there, approaching me in tweed, was George. George, that is, of the noted art collaborators Gilbert and George. Not the short one, no - George, the one with the specs.

    Now, I'm no great fan of Gilbert and George's work. The garish photomontages don't do much for me. That the duo themselves are at the centre of most of their artworks bugs me a little, and as for their other imagery, if I want to look at poo and wee and graffiti then I can visit the gents in the Ten Bells, Commercial Street, anytime. I guess I just don't get it, in the same way as Billy Bragg doesn't get it when he sings, "Gilbert and George are taking the piss aren’t they?" So I was surprised at my reaction when all of a sudden there was the unmistakable George, feet away. I felt a warmness in my recognition of him. And so, involuntarily, gave a friendly nod and 'hello' as we passed.

    Why the warmness for a man who in his pictures has revealed to me way more of himself than I care to see (Bragg's line refers to G&G's recurrent use of bodily fluids in their scatalogical self-portraits)? Maybe I was pleased it was George and not Gilbert, as I can't help seeing George as the jovial Eric to Gilbert's sterner Ernie. Perhaps I intuited that I was in the presence of a National Treasure, affirmed as such by The Art World and Those In The Know, and regardless of my former reservations about the man and his work I couldn't help acknowledging the contribution he's made to my life, in a small but poignant way, like the equally trivial-but-meaningful contributions made by the likes of Madonna, Alan Shearer and The Queen.

    But I think what warmed me to George yesterday was that when I saw him there I wasn't surprised to see him there. It's well known (I've soaked it in) that Gilbert and George are two of Brick Lane's most contented residents, of thirty years and more. They're always walking these streets, to and from the shops. No big deal. It's also well known that their art and their everyday lives go together. On the one hand they draw a lot of their inspiration from their environment (realistically, let's face it, turds and all) and on the other hand they insist that everything they do is art. They talk of themselves as "living sculptures". So the walk to the shops is an art statement. It's conscious. It could be anywhere but it's in E1. It couldn't be anywhere because it's in E1. I like that too.

    So yesterday I encountered an international presence but I greeted a very rooted man. Good to see you there, George.