Gilbert and George are always a trip – good and bad – but that’s the whole point maybe. Scapegoating, an exhibition showcasing their latest work is currently running at the White Cube gallery in Bermondsey, south London until 28 September. While themselves (as usual) and nitrous oxide bottles dominate this time, these self-confessed urbanites have often turned to plants for inspiration. Perhaps with Gilbert originating from the Dolomites and George born in Devon, they just can’t help themselves.
A case in point: In 2005 Gilbert & George were invited to represent Great Britain at the Venice Biennale, for which they produced 25 pictures inspired by the Ginkgo tree. It apparently sold out, with buyers that included the Tate who purchased the largest artwork on display. Following this, in 2006 Gilbert and George were interviewed by Martin Gayford for the daily Telegraph where they discussed the use of the Ginkgo leaf. Below is an excerpt from the entertaining interview along with two of the art works from the Ginkgo series.
Ginkgo biloba or Chinese Maidenhair Tree can grow to 35m and is dioecious, meaning it has separate male and female plants. Often planted as a street tree they are not too hard to locate, but if you are having trouble, Kew Gardens has quite a few, with one in particular, referred to as the ‘Old Lion’, dating back to 1762 – it can be found near the Princess of Wales Conservatory.
Ginkgo biloba is the only living species and the last survivor of a group of plants called ginkgophyta that originated over 250 million years ago (ie even older than dinosaurs). With no close living relatives, fossils of similar looking species have helped scientists tell the story of Ginkgo. What this all means is that it’s a really old tree, perhaps the oldest on earth, that hasn’t really changed that much over time – a reason for it’s ‘living fossil’ status. Now cultivated all over the world, it is believed to originate from South West China, yet its exact wild distribution is disputed, complicated by its long history of human distribution.
Excerpt from interview from telegraph, 2006:
Martin Gayford: So, you’ve made it to Venice at last! About 10 years ago we were talking about how much you would like to do it. When it was announced last year that you would be the British representative, you said, “We will do our worst.”
George: That’s right. Delighted to accept. We will do our worst.
MG: And your worst has turned out to involve the leaves of the Ginkgo biloba tree.
Gilbert: Entirely by accident. We had a big show in New York, probably the most successful show we have ever done, with 36 enormous pictures. We were going back to our hotel after the private view and we saw these strange leaves on the pavement. At first we thought it was dog shit, but the female ginkgo leaf simply smells like that.
George: We took the leaves back to London, but it wasn’t until we were designing the pictures that we discovered that everybody knows about the ginkgo tree.
Gilbert: We even went to Kew Gardens to buy books about the ginkgo. Then we discovered this Viennese doctor in St Etienne who cures with ginkgo therapy.
George: We asked him what illness he most commonly uses it to treat. He answered that it was cases of celibate priests who have sexual dreams and are tortured by the conflict with their profession.
Gilbert: It is the leaf of the memory tree; that’s what it’s called in China. It opens your arteries and allows the blood to stream through your brain.
George: Mao was against the ginkgo because it was revered in a semi-religious way.
Gilbert: We found ginkgo leaves in English fossils.
MG: So suddenly you became ginkgo-conscious?
George: Yes. But fortunately not until after we’d designed the pictures.