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'We didn't want our mothers to be ashamed of us'

The artists have no time for snobbery, especially when they're selling a book of sex ads

The first thing that greets you as you walk into Gilbert and George's East End studio are three huge, blowsy, just-past-their-prime bunches of lilies.

"For the smell," says Gilbert, the shorter, Italian one.

"It's our second favourite smell in the world," says George, the well-spoken English one.

What's your favourite? I ask, and he raises his eyebrows and smiles.

You're being coy, I say – really?

"You can just imagine what you want this way."

Still, it's a better welcome than the last time I went to visit an artist's studio and Jake Chapman physically threatened me and threw me out.

"We'd never do that!" says George. "That's just inexperience. We never wanted to be the kind of artists our mothers would be ashamed of. Although it didn't precisely work out like that."

Gilbert and George actively like engaging with the world. In order to promote their new show, and book, Urethra Postcard Art, they'd been capering about on The One Show the night before, something I say, that a lot of artists would be far too grand to do.

"Oh no," says George. "It's horribly snobbish to be above promoting your show."

They've been collecting the postcards, and flyers, of the sort you find in telephone boxes advertising sexual services, for years, and they've framed 564 of them, all in the same shape, which they say is the symbol of the urethra as used by the Victorian writer Charles Leadbeater.

Are any of the ads still current, I ask?

"Oh yes," says George.

Shall we call one, I say, and tell them they're art?

"Why not?" he says and flicks through the accompanying catalogue, the massive two-volume The Complete Postcard Art of Gilbert & George. "What do you want? Spanking delights? Half boy, half girl? Tie & Tease: Bound to please? Yes, let's try that."

I dial the number and a woman picks up. She sounds oriental and doesn't seem to understand my question. "That'll be her, all right!" says George.

But why the urethra? "We like Charles Leadbeater. He was very into masturbation. A true progressive. It had been forbidden for 300 years. Look at this book." And he plucks an antiquarian book off the shelf, a 1905 edition of Thought Forms by CW Leadbeater and Annie Besant.

"Look. Isn't it wonderful? Look at those pictures – it's like they've been created by a computer. All the modern artists had this book. Now look at this page and pick the first colour you think of. And then the second one." I pick, and then he shows me the legend. "That means your character is… true affection. And anger."

Uh-oh, I say.

"No, it's good. Most journalists are this one… deceit. And we know it's true because they always go, 'Oh no, I didn't really pick that one'. And 90% of the women choose jealousy."

What are you?

"Oh no. You don't think we're going to do silly tricks like that, do you?" © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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