By Stefanie McIntyre
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Death, hope, life, fear, sex, money, race and religion through Britain's tabloid headlines is the subject of the latest art exhibition from British art duo Gilbert and George, premiering in Hong Kong.
The immaculately dressed Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore, who met at art school in London in the late 1960s and still live, work and eat all their meals together every day, are among Britain's best known artists. They married in 2008.
While their early work aimed to shock the establishment, the illustrious British duo are now considered "godfathers" of the contemporary art scene -- but insist their work remains as subversive as ever despite their new insider status.
"This is why we have two very important cries," Passmore told an audience in Hong Kong, before they chanted in union: "Ban religion! Ban religion! Decriminalise sex!"
Often dark, sometimes humorous, the "London Pictures", which opens in Hong Kong on March 2 and goes through May 5, are made up of 3,712 newspaper posters, "stolen" by the artists over six years from newsstands near their home in east London.
"We believe that everyone understands what is inside everybody which is death," Passmore said before they alternated saying: "hope, life, fear, sex, money, race, religion."
"We're only dealing with the universal elements and we love to do that with people wherever they live," Passmore said.
"And we do believe that these subjects are universal. They are not London," Proesch said.
The headlines range from the shocking "Man Stabbed in Face" to the bizarre "Shooting Victim Brought Back to Life" laid over photographic images of the artists themselves.
The 292 pictures are the largest series of work to date created by the pair, and 22 are being shown in Hong Kong's new White Cube Gallery before going on a global tour.
The couple, who frequently speak in tandem, said that their conservative views, polite behavior and meticulously well-groomed appearance allowed them to explore subversive subject matter without offending.
"We all are interested to de-shock and are very privileged to bring our exhibition of our London pictures to Hong Kong. We love showing our pictures wherever there are people," Passmore said.
"We feel we're not trying to shock anything. This is the reality that we found in London. Because we didn't invent this title. They are there," Proesch said.
Proesch was born in a northern Italian mountain village not far from the Austrian border in 1943, while Passmore was born in Devon in 1942. Together they have participated in many major group and solo exhibitions and were among the first Western artists to exhibit in China at the Shanghai Art Museum and the National Gallery in Beijing in 1993.
"It was such an amazing experience. it was as though the young people were trying to eat the pictures," Passmore said. "They'd never seen one picture of ours before and they were extraordinarily excited. It was thrilling that time."
"And we met all the dissident artists and we went to the studios and they all became enormously famous," Proesch said, who encouraged them to keep fighting against the establishment.
Gilbert & George won the Turner Prize in 1986 and exhibited at the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2005.
They also had a major retrospective at Tate Modern in London in 2007, which, rather than consigning them to art history, inspired them to create new works.
Founded in 1993, White Cube has long been associated with a group called the Young British Artists that emerged in the 1990s including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
The 6,000-square-foot space in a new building in Hong Kong's central business district is its first branch outside Britain.
The gallery chose Gilbert and George for their inaugural exhibition because of their global celebrity.
"They're kind of the godfathers in a way to so much that happened in England and America from the 1970s," said Graham Steele, White Cube Asia director.
Steele said that Hong Kong was a natural choice for their new branch given China's strong economy and thirst for art, and that the Gilbert and George show would resonate particularly well with the people here.
"Because the pictures are difficult, these pictures are unrelenting. These pictures force you to spend time with them and they're about our daily lives," Steele said.
"And what Gilbert and George are asking with these series, 'is this the world that we live in? Is this the world we want to live in?' Because in a way it is."
(Writing by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)