Can there be a more courteous, if puzzling, pair of gentlemen than George Passmore and Gilbert Proesch? Affable and solicitous, they're like old-fashioned bachelor uncles, the sort who delight in producing gifts from their tailored pockets. In the case of Passmore, who's 70, and Proesch, who's 68, these homemade surprises can be very unexpected, tending- as they do- to depict a colourful combination of blood, semen, urine, faeces and their own private parts. You may have seen such offerings by the two Mr Ps under their better-known stage name: Gilbert & George.
The pair were in town recently for the world premiere of their 'London Pictures' exhibition, which marked the opening of London's White Cube gallery in Hong Kong. Since the beginning, when they met in London, in 1967, at what was then called St Martin's School of Art (now Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design), they've described themselves as sculptors. But what they quickly became were performance artists- a singular 'living sculpture'. These days, all the world's their stage and the rest of us merely the agog audience.
Here they are, then, perched on two chairs in the echoing gallery, the day before the private view, wearing their natty suits and, in George's case, a tiny red flower in his buttonhole. (Asked where he plucked it, he makes a vague gesture but it looks suspiciously like the ones in the floral displays along the Exchange Square walkway.)
Anyone who spent a childhood exposed to British television comedians will recognise them instantly: they're Morecambe and Wise. George, balding and bespectacled, is Eric and Gilbert, shorter and squarer, is Ernie. When this marked likeness is pointed out, a little cloud passes over George's good-natured brow. Comparing his voice to that of Prince Charles' goes down much better: 'You're very kind,' he murmurs.
Given that he was brought up in near-poverty by a single parent in Devon, where did these regal tones come from? 'Blame the mother,' says Gilbert, who's a near-caricature of a lovable Italian, interjecting droll comments with rolling eyes and vowels. 'My mother wanted more for us,' agrees George. 'My brother and I were dressed differently and we weren't allowed to play with other boys. She sent us to elocution lessons from an actor in the village.'
The world knows what happened to George after such an upbringing but his brother, as a career flipside, became a vicar, a detail- like much of the G&G story- so unlikely it must be true.
Gilbert, meanwhile, was buried deep in the Dolomites ('Not Mediterranean Italy,' George emphasises, in case you imagine him sunbathing in Speedos) doing wood carvings of Madonnas and Bambi, and listening to Big Ben- which would feature as a phallus in later work- on the BBC World Service.
'The sound of London so far away,' Gilbert says, nostalgically. Does he miss Italy? 'Never! I didn't care when I had to go! No dreaming of homeland!'
This is just as well because for 45 years- 40 of them in the same house in the East End- London has been his base. A curious symbiosis seems to have sprung up between place and performers. If you input Fournier Street on Google Street View, up pops Gilbert, in his shirt-sleeves, inspecting the railings on the couple's property. In the 1970s, the street used to be a seedy locale that no one with taste would spend time or money on; now it's cutting-edge desirable. Similarly, you wouldn't have bet that a couple of odd chaps in suits and bronze make-up, dancing on a table while singing Underneath the Arches would have gone on - via such exhibitions as 'Dirty Words Pictures' and 'Naked S*** Pictures'- to be subjects of a major 2007 retrospective at Tate Modern.
The odd thing is that while triumphantly recognising this shift ('We didn't move- everyone had to move around us!' says George) they persist in casting themselves as orphans in the storm. Like, say, Vivienne Westwood or Ozzy Osbourne, they're now classified as British national treasures rather than threat; they're almost as much an institution as Gilbert and Sullivan. But it's as if they've never quite got over their student days when George was the only person who could understand Gilbert's English and, despite having a wife and two children- about whom he won't talk - decided that this foreigner was the love of his life.
'We were alone,' George says. 'We had no money. We weren't like the other goody-goody students. We were outsiders. And we still are.' 'We always want to be loved,' sighs Gilbert (a fan of the televised romantic works of Catherine Cookson). 'We always think, maybe next time they'll love us.'
'London Pictures' is a consummation of both this lonely yearning and of many years pilfering 3,712 newspaper posters. These have been sorted into 292 recurring words- from ACCUSED to YOUTH, by way of BOMB, DEATH PLUNGE and SEX BEAST- and assembled into the familiar Gilbert & George grids, with Queen Elizabeth II's profile on the bottom right-hand corners. Perhaps this is a tribute to Her Majesty's forthcoming diamond jubilee: a previous exhibition, 'London E1', featured pubic lice in the corners.
The faces of George & Gilbert, of course, hover behind these headlines like anguished ectoplasm. The Dickensian-wraith effect is entirely intentional: they want to convey the sense of themselves as London spirits. White Cube is showing 22 of the pictures. How ghostly apparitions, and headlines blaring such words as CEMETERY, KNIFED, BEATEN TO DEATH, play in Hong Kong, will certainly be interesting to see.
Amazingly enough, it's almost two decades since their first exhibition in China: in 1993, they had shows in both Beijing's National Gallery and Shanghai's Art Museum. On that trip, they visited Beijing's East Village, then an artists' colony, and a young, androgynous man called Ma Liuming- later famous in his own right - poured a red pigment over himself in the hope that Gilbert & George would step out of character and give a few tips about performance art. (They didn't.) They did, however, meet another young man, Yu Yigang, from Shanghai who has been their assistant for the past 15 years and who could be seen in a matching Gilbert & George suit at the Hong Kong private view.
'We love Hong Kong films,' offers George. 'In the 1970s, we used to see them in clubs in Chinatown. We identified with the idea of the moral battle. We like to see things that agree with us.'
Have they seen The Iron Lady? 'Oh, we've stopped going to the cinema now,' says George. 'But we do like Margaret Thatcher. We still don't understand why people hate us because of that. The art world is very, very intolerant. It's ridiculous. It's Us and Them.'
As they're going to give a talk that evening at the British Council, however, it must be nice for them to feel appreciated? 'The British Council were enemies for many, many years,' states George, briskly. 'They tried to block our shows in Russia and China,' agrees Gilbert, and George adds, 'They said to the organisers, 'Why would you want to show fascist homosexuals?' We went to the Council for Civil Liberties about it, we were going to take the British Council to court, but the Russians wouldn't sign an affidavit.'
When did relations approve? 'The Venice Biennale,' says George. That was in 2005 when the pair cheerfully promised 'to do our very worst' for the British pavilion, and created their 'Ginkgo Pictures'. They were delighted to discover that the gingko leaf smells of dog faeces.
None of this unpleasantness is mentioned at the British Council event. The pair, Turner Prize winners in 1986, are as gracious before an audience of several hundred as they had been, in White Cube, to an audience of one. The themes sound similar too although if you hadn't already heard it once, you wouldn't know it's the patter of the double act. 'We're in the middle of everybody but we're still alone,' says Gilbert, plaintively. 'We protect ourselves from the enemy outside.'
Do they ever switch off? They are not going to say, in the same way they're not going to discuss what it is they discuss (or not) when they're working. However the performance started, all those years ago, they're stuck with it now. George says- as he has in the gallery, as apparently pleased as if it's a blessing, not a curse- 'The other day, a lorry driver stuck his head out the window and shouted, 'Oy, guys! My life's a f****** moment- your art's an eternity!''
Gilbert & George's London Pictures, White Cube, 50 Connaught Rd, Central. Ends May 5