On Monday evening I went to see Gilbert & George in conversation with curator and writer, Marco Livingstone at the White Cube. It was for the re-launch of their 1971 publication, Side By Side and I was filled with admiration for their love of books and printing but also for their incredible powers of self-promotion.
As a marketeer, with a particular focus on digital marketing, it was fascinating to hear about how they promoted themselves before technology; spreading the word about their work through their postal art works, publicising where they would be eating every night and putting all their details in the telephone directory (although they claim no-one has ever contacted them).
At the end of their talk I got an opportunity to ask them about their thoughts on social media, but they informed me that they were totally anti-technology: “We walk past people on their mobile phones and all they are talking about is what they are going to have for dinner.” Then it makes sense, to Gilbert & George, technology, mobile phones, social media: all of these things are so momentary, ephemeral and at odds with the printed material, with real books.
It was incredible to hear them talk; passion and humour. Living sculptures. Living legends.
Here’s an article I wrote for CAN on their passion for the printed book.
On Monday 10th December Gilbert & George launched an edition and re-print of the now incredibly rare ‘contemporary sculpture novel’, Side By Side, at White Cube, Bermondsey. Gilbert & George were in conversation with writer and curator, Marco Livingstone talking above all about their passion for books and printed materials.
Each of the 2000 copies of Side By Side are bound in a hand-marbled, unique linen cloth cover. With perhaps more than a hundred copies laid out on a table draped in black cloth at the White Cube the psychological seductiveness of the edition becomes clear. I find myself in a turmoil of indecisiveness; which cover will I choose? Do I want gilt letters on the binding or black embossed letters? But this is really the most minor of details when compared with the choice between marbled covers: a red Mars-dust swirl? or an earthy pattern of mustard-highlighted land-masses? or a pale, delicate wash of charcoal greys and rain marks? Each have an inexplicably diverse appeal. I see people leaving the table with four copies in their arms and yet somebody suggests that there is really no difficulty in the decision at all – people are drawn to one single book.
Gilbert & George talk about the collaborative process of marbling the linen, the two artists switching between choosing colours, dropping them in the liquid and dipping the linen to be marbled. George explains that in some ways this is an automatic process and yet each cover also represents something of what they were thinking and feeling at the time. Your choice, he confirms, says something about your personality.
What Gilbert & George present is something of a polemic on the book as object. Side By Side’s new marbled covers take inspiration from the marbled end papers of old bindings; the designs are looser, unstructured when compared with the precision of existing designs and bindings, a random product of moments of thinking and feeling. But there is a homage within them nevertheless which expresses a bibliophilic passion.
In 1971 Side By Side was published in an edition of 600 by the Koenig Brothers but it quickly became a rare and valuable item and Gilbert & George were disappointed to discover that copies were not to be found in art libraries and public collections, they had slipped out of common reach. This re-printing is a testament to their belief in books as ‘democratic’ objects, “you can buy them, borrow them and lend them”, explains George.
They have always designed and published their own books, hefty tomes of the complete pictures, but Side By Side was their first publication. They recall sitting in the Wimpy Bar at London Liverpool Street station with their photographic plates propped up at the end of the table as they composed the texts for their pages. Something of that life is re-printed here, 70s Wimpy bars and a lingering vision of east London as experienced by two young artists, in this ‘facsimile’ edition.
Side By Side is “divided into three chapters as sequences of double page spreads linking the typographically elegant texts with a single image, each page complementing and informing the other. The first chapter, ‘With Us in the Nature’, is a celebration of being alone – together – in the countryside, with strong overtones of Romanticism. For Chapter Two, ‘A Glimpse into the Abstract World’, brief but poetically ornate texts are teamed with hand-drawn, very abstracted, imagery. The final chapter, ‘The Reality in Our Living’, provides the gritty urban flipside to the bucolic idyll of Chapter One, the black-and-white images fleshing out the words of the Flanagan & Allen music hall song, ‘Underneath the Arches’, the soundtrack to the celebrated Singing Sculpture that they had first presented in 1969.”
And yet, the 2012 edition is also something entirely new, packaged in those tempting and disorienting marbled linen covers. This Side By Side is a very contemporary and poetic ode to the book as object. Watching all these people poring over covers and leafing through pages I wonder why more people aren’t making books like Gilbert & George, books to fall in love with for their touch, their feel, their absolute aesthetic luxury.