British artists Gilbert & George’s latest works to make world premiere here

British artists Gilbert & George's Utopian Pictures comprises works made up of stickers and posters taken from the streets

Not sketch pads but lighter fluid; that is what iconic British artists Gilbert & George carry on walks around their East London neighbourhood to take down things that catch their eye.

Gilbert Proesch, 71, and George Passmore, 73, who dispensed with their last names and began working as one artist after meeting at London's Saint Martin's School of Art in 1967, are not arsonists.

They may have a reputation for provoking viewers with their art, which tends towards hot-button issues such as sex and violence, but they use the flammable liquid purely as a solvent to remove stickers and posters from the streets. They have been doing so for many years to pinch graffiti that pique their interest, one of many sources of inspiration for their work.

Over a cup of tea last month in their immaculate studio in London's gentrified Spitalfields neighbourhood, George tells Life!: "Traditionally, the artist says, 'I was out all morning sketching.' We say we've been out all morning with the lighter fluid."

He demonstrates, clutching a small can in his palm and sticking it under the coat of his dusty rose bespoke tweed suit. "Fits in my pocket perfectly, you see. You squirt it on the stickers and then you peel them off."

He adds: "It's like scraping the streets of the Western world and seeing what's underneath your fingernails."

Gilbert, in a matching moss green suit, finishes the thought. "They tell amazing modern stories."

"They" refers to the signs and stickers which the artists have been collecting for years. But it is only in their newest body of work, Utopian Pictures, that their image library of thousands of posters and graffiti was put to use. The series of 26 photo pieces by the artists, who represented Britain at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 2005, makes its world premiere at the gallery Arndt in Gillman Barracks on Jan 20.

The large, stylised photomontages with a palette of red, yellow, blue and green include royal emblems, masked figures and pithy slogans - for example, "Life After Death Proved" - and warnings from notices. One that reads, "Please do not use this corner for urinating as this is a sacred place i.e. mosque. Thank you", came from a handwritten cardboard sign at the end of Fournier Street, where the artists live and work.

The pieces, layered with text and images, are direct in the statements they make, yet their meaning is ambiguous. They speak to each viewer in a personal way that uncovers his bias and feelings on issues such as religion, politics, sex and crime.

This body of work, however, almost never came to be.

The artists, who spent two years working on 123 works for their last show, Scapegoating Pictures, thought they could not cap that magnum opus, which opened last September in galleries in London and Paris.

"We thought, 'That's it, you can't go beyond that,'" says George.

"You have to leave and die," jokes Gilbert.

Then the artists, George says, had a "strange experience", one he explains as being like "finding a key in a drawer in your house and you think, 'What is this key? Maybe it's for that strange room you never went in'".

"And you go and open it and there you find something. We found the Utopian Pictures," he says.

In form, the pictures are similar to their previous photo pieces - multi-panelled, grid-like compositions that remind one of stained glass windows. The artists also appear in the pictures, albeit in this series with their faces sometimes obscured behind masks or under hoods.

The cosmos of their creation continues to be London's East End as well. They have lived in the area since the 1960s, witnessing its transformation from a poor, scruffy immigrant enclave into a hip neighbourhood.

George says: "When I first went to art school, I remember the teacher said, 'Whatever's around you, draw that.' You didn't have to find something special."

Neither is Utopian Pictures the first time they are incorporating material from the streets of East London in their work. They pilfered sandwich-board posters of newspaper headlines displayed at newsstands for London Pictures (2012) and bribed street cleaners to help them collect nitrous oxide gas containers that partygoers use to get high - which resemble mini bombshells - for Scapegoating Pictures.

Yet, Utopian Pictures is distinct because it uses the raw, visual and textual language of signs and graffiti in London's East End to present a fresh understanding of modern urban life and utopia.

George says: "Utopia, in the dictionary sense, means the unattainable perfect, but we say that it's here."

Gilbert explains: "London is utopia, we think, because there is an extraordinary amount of liberalism going on here. You can do roughly whatever you want."

The street signs point them to their belief; notices that assert control and authority co-exist with graffiti and stickers that push for rebellion and civil disobedience.

The influx of people from all over the world to London, especially its East End, as observed by the artists, also makes the place utopia, they say.

George cites how on their hour-long walks to dinner in Dalston in north-east London - they are regulars at the Turkish restaurant Mangal II - "all the people we pass and all the people that overtake us are speaking another language. It's a huge, huge melting pot like it never was".

But he is adamant that they are not reflecting life in their pictures.

Referring to single-sheet prototypes taped to a wall in their studio, which sits behind the married duo's 18th-century home, he says: "We don't think we're reflecting life or showing life. If you take one of these little pictures out, there's no way you can find that... It's a very particular vision."

But they do not deny that their art deeply engages the life of the times.

"More and more, we are doing an art that is based on analysing humanity, being alive as humans," says Gilbert. "A lot of artists do this looking into the universe like some abstract idea, but we prefer to involve ourselves with humans because we have to live here together."

And while their oeuvre - which includes bodies of work such as The Naked Sh** Pictures (1994), with images of their defecation, and New Horny Pictures (2001), which features advertisements for sex by male prostitutes - may come across as offensive to some, they say they have no intention of shocking viewers.

"We want to make the images powerful, but also to de-shock them," says George.

The works in Utopian Pictures are priced between $110,000 and $265,000.

As for the likely response to their work in Singapore, which the duo visited briefly in 1973, George recounts a recent joke he shared with a friend. "He said, 'Would this be a selling show?' And we said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'How much would you get for something like this?' I said, 'Maybe eight years.'"

lijie@sph.com.sg