Aged 76 and 78 respectively, the renowned artist couple Gilbert and George are of the age supposedly most in need of isolating against the coronavirus. Yet exploring the streets of London has been their life since they met as students in 1967 – taking photographs, picking up unusual objects, observing the people around them. There is no second home for them abroad or in the country – their only residence is the house on Fournier Street in east London where they have lived since the 1960s.
So that is where they are holed up. And this week, they are releasing a series of glimpses into their lockdown life, as they unveil their video diary on White Cube’s Instagram account.
In the first entry on Monday, they revealed what they call in a handwritten title Our New Normal Walk. Wearing their trademark suits, they walk with deliberation around a line of tables in their home studio. First they do a circuit in single file, then they walk past each other from opposite sides of the tables.
In the foreground is an elegant varnished circular wooden table, laid with antique ceramics, twigs and plants. There’s also a photograph of a young friend or relative on it. This picture surely symbolises everyone they feel cut off from. Gilbert and George are nothing if not social artists. Their art works are visceral documents of a changing Britain, from confrontational 1970s scenes of skinhead street life to a recent series that used empty nitrous oxide canisters collected on their urban walks.
They’ve lost the world, but the walk goes on. Gilbert and George find spiritual solace and aesthetic order in the simple ritual of promenading together. For them, London is the only place worth walking in. As students, they used to hike for miles right through the city until they reached the countryside. Now they are isolated in their own house, walking around a table laden with personally significant objects.
In Tuesday’s video diary, they reveal Our New Normal Relaxing. Now there is just one long work table. Gilbert lies on one side of it doing exercises in his suit. George sits on the other side in a rocking chair, equally suited, reading a book. George is an avid reader who has worked his way through most of classic 19th-century British fiction. So his coronavirus reading is probably quite meaty although I can’t make out the volume’s title. It is as if they are enacting the duality of mind and body. While Gilbert exercises his limbs, George prefers a mental workout.
It turns out the funny, sad art of Gilbert and George is perfectly suited to capturing the “new normal”. Formal and disciplined, yet always on the verge of surreal slapstick, their routines resemble a fraught attempt to maintain civilised codes in a chaotic world. Right now that’s what we are all trying to do. Confined to their quarters, Gilbert and George appear to be acting out set routines to stop themselves going mad. Is the spectacle quietly heroic or is it a black farce by Samuel Beckett? That probably depends not only on how their series pans out – will their routines suddenly collapse into a New Abnormal? – but how the history we are experiencing unfolds.
“Ours is essentially a tragic age”, wrote DH Lawrence in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, “so we refuse to take it tragically.” Gilbert and George in their diary of the New Normal act out that defiance. They refuse to pity themselves and don’t even consider giving up. Their stoic adaptation of their habits is quietly moving. Can’t walk through London? They will walk at home. Can’t go out? They can still exercise body and mind. These patriotic artists present their own cheerful manifesto for the coronavirus spirit, the new East End proving as courageous as the old one was in the 1940s. And yet there is a tension to this endurance, an undercutting hint of the absurd. We’re fine, their studied normality insists. Absolutely FINE.
With its brittle poise, their diary is a perfect example of what makes Gilbert and George great artists of our times. They immaculately press on the nerves of this age of polite dread. And they offer the best advice they can in a scrawled final message – “Gilbert and George say: Don’t get it!”