Ultra Vie collaborated with Secret Rendez-Vous, the first East London designers/artists cultural club for an interview with the contemporary British art duo Gilbert and George.
Gilbert and George are the guardian spirits of the East End, forefathers to the Brit Art scene and the generations of artists, musicians and designers that followed. They first moved into the area in the 1960s, renting a property on Fournier Street, just off Brick Lane, and there they have remained, in a Georgian terrace filled with high Victorian furniture, leather-bound books and an unmatched collection of Dresser pottery. These charming gents, fastidiously dressed in matching worsted suits, somehow manage to merge into the surroundings. They surface like apparitions on the corner of Brick Lane in the middle of the day, or frequent their favourite institutions, like the Market Cafe, now sadly closed, which they visited with clockwork-like regularity, every day, for 30 years.
Why did you originally move into the East End?
George: We moved to the East End in the 1960s because it was the only place we could afford to live.
Gilbert: You were able to rent a room, and to live there and work there…which was quite unusual.
George: Any other part of London you’d have to have a bedsit and a studio somewhere else.
Gilbert: They were all Jewish immigrants who were here, they used to let out a room and they didn’t care what you did with it
George: They were Yiddish speaking, it was extraordinary.
Gilbert: There was an extraordinary atmosphere around here, you really felt like you were walking into a Dickens book.
You’ve often embraced your position as being slightly anti-establishment, on the outside of the art world. By moving here, were you consolidating that position?
George: No. We just felt it was the centre of the universe then, and we still think it’s the centre of the universe now. You cannot go into a restaurant anywhere in the world or sit on any aeroplane without hearing the word Brick Lane within two minutes. It’s extraordinary. You can go to the grandest dinners with 500 trustees in a very grand museum and the lady next to you will say “My niece lives on Whitechapel Road.”
Gilbert: What is extraordinary is in 1967 or 1968, Brick Lane had only two curry houses, two restaurants. And we were the only white people in those restaurants.
George: They were for the Bangladeshi men who had arrived without families and who couldn’t cook. Working men’s cafés. One of them was so poor and so run-down that not infrequently a tramp would run in to the restaurant, grab a handful of your dinner, and run out again eating it. 60 per cent of the population were tramps at that time. There were three gigantic hostels filled with hundreds and hundreds of damaged men. Many damaged because of war, including the First World War, the older tramps.
Gilbert: There’s a fantastic film about this part of London called The London Nobody Knows and James Mason is in it, in the Goswell Arms, talking to tramps, and then he’s knocking on number 12, on our house, and you see all the tramps we used to know in the film.
And how did you fit in with your very beautiful tailored suits?
George: The art world dressed differently then. All the men had platform heels, flares, and very, very bushy sideburns and moustaches.
Gilbert: It’s very interesting because if you look at the photos of that period, we are the only people who still look normal.
George: If you put a suit from every decade of the 20th century into a computer and press the average button, you’ll roughly get the suits on us. And you could go anywhere in the world you wanted, any restaurant of your choice… You were never searched at airports, luckily.
So where do you go now?
George: Our last Jewish tailor was in Hackney Road. When he retired, I said why don’t you hand over the business to your sons, who were 25 years old at the time. It was a very successful business, founded in 1905. And he said: “What do you call the son of a Jewish tailor?” “I don’t know,” I said. “A brain surgeon.” Far too clever to be a tailor. I found a very nice Greek Cypriot, but we don’t recommend him to anyone because he’s so slow. It takes months to get a suit.
Gilbert: And it’s very amusing because when he says, “Come back on Tuesday,” you hear the wife in the background saying, “Liar, liar.”
One of your most famous haunts was the Market Cafe on Fournier Street.
Gilbert: We went there for 30 years, twice a day.
George: We started to go there in the market porter days, when the market porters used it not as café but as a canteen… They were owners, they played cards and they shouted and they drank their tea from the saucers like they did 100 years ago – nobody does that anymore – and they didn’t welcome us, they tried to get us out, they made jokes and wolf whistles. But Phyllis who ran the café with her brother, she wanted us to stay there so she fought them off until they began to accept us.
Gilbert: Then we became the centre of the café. We actually restored it twice. The cook, the brother, and his sister, they were extraordinary people. He taught himself to do cooking and made some of the best food ever. They opened every day at twelve o’ clock at night and closed at two in the afternoon the following day. Wonderful. He’s 95 now. He still telephones me once a year, before Christmas.
Do you feel you draw from the East End?
George: Well we never feel like we have go anywhere, travel anywhere for inspiration…
Gilbert: All philosophy was in front of us, every drop of… Everything on the street is universal. Every house is universal. Every drop of water is universal. We never felt like we had to go anywhere or being inspired by other art, never look towards other art, only be alive today and feel what is inside of us.
George: And it changes every day. If we go away for a week, when we come back everything’s different.
Gilbert: The houses were quite cheap, so artists designers and writers started moving in. They liked the atmosphere, this looking back, the 17th century, 18th century atmosphere. It was still there, untouched, so they all stated to buy houses and do them up. And now it’s changing again because it’s too expensive so they’re moving to the other area where we go all the time, Dalston.
George: It’s very strange, we know people moving to Dalston not because they can just afford it. They can afford to live in Kensington, but because they want to live there, hoping to get slightly mugged
Gilbert: For the last twenty years we have been walking up to Dalston every night because we need a walk in the evening, to leave the house. We always find a place for having dinner and Dalston happened to be it. For 10 years it was the Courier restaurant in Angel. Then it was Dalston and that is changing so fast.
How do you find the graffiti in the East End?
George: It’s because of the middle classes. If you come from a small town or village in Spain where you see the priest everyday and the grandmother, you cannot write on the wall and you cannot sit in the gutter. Here you can do that so you can stick your two fingers up at the rest of the world and do what you like.
Gilbert: That’s why the middle classes like to take photographs. Because they don’t have any graffiti in their villages. People think that all the street art is the trendy edgy thing. It’s not. It’s just a treat for the middle classes. They’d call the police if they did it in their street.
About Secret Rendez-Vou & Meihui Liu
Secret Rendez-Vous was originally a young culture secret party for East-London-based artists, designers and musicians gathering together simply for fun, organized by fashion designer in the late 90s. Now, Secret Rendez-Vous has been organising art-fashion exhibitions across Europe and Asia, promoting the most demanding, decadent and disobedient spirit of East London designs. Their first book featuring 30 established East-London artists and designers will be launched this summer, following with pop-ups and exhibitions.