Whitechapel Gallery, London
28 March – 17 June 2012
Gillian Wearing, Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say, And Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say,1992
Born in Birmingham in 1963, Gillian Wearing shot to fame in Britain in the 90’s with the rising profile of the YBA’s. Having attended Goldsmiths with Damien Hirst, throughout the artist’s 20 years of practice to follow, it seems that that the inevitable comparison with our favourite formaldehyde loving celebrity artist has left Wearing increasingly overshadowed by the formers blinding, inescapable, loud, and controversial artistic statements.
Wearing’s practice is on another level altogether: quieter, subdued, and frankly more effective in engaging with the British public, Gillian Wearing is not an artist for collectors or the market (not saying any names), but rather an artist for the people. To my great pleasure, the Whitechapel Gallery brings Wearing’s array of photographs, works on video, and sculpture to light for the artist’s first and much deserved retrospective.
Wearing’s most effective tool is the video camera, and she uses it to peel back the façade of the individual in the public sphere, to reveal truths behind outward appearance. Wearing films children dubbed with the voices of adults, invites people to reveal their darkest secrets on camera whilst wearing a disguise, and tells members of the public to write down what they are really feeling, to present to the world in a photograph. Wearing’s work is essentially the traditional portrait inverted. Members of the public are encouraged to do the opposite of pose, to exude importance. Instead they are stripped, and invited to reveal truth.
Wearing’s work is all about paradox: given the chance to disguise oneself behind a mask, the individual is liberated and their character is in fact de-masked. Her aim: to question what is true, what is performed or real, to ask WHAT ARE ORDINARY MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC ACTUALLY THINKING? She cleverly and often heartrenderingly highlights the discrepancy between what exists in our minds and how we present ourselves in the public sphere, drawing attention to the large gap between the two.
The exhibition begins with Wearing’s 1994 video piece Dancing in Peckham. Wearing invites the viewer to watch her dance for 25 minutes in a shopping mall. Contemporary art cynics: give it a chance and allow me to jump to Wearing’s defence. (Many of my friends would be relentlessly shouting “THIS ISN’T ART!!!” If I had taken them to see it). Perhaps the most puzzling piece in the exhibition (why is she dancing like an idiot to no music outside a curries in Peckham for 25 minutes?), I think the piece sums up Wearing’s aims as an artist perfectly. Unaware of passers by, Wearing dances like nobody is watching acting out self-abandonment within a public space to highlight the gap between accepted social norms and what is really going on inside our heads.
Wearing’s now iconic series of photographs, Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say, And Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say makes this point explicitly. In 1992, the artist invited strangers to write down what they were thinking on paper and hold it to the camera. The effect is humorous, sad, and shocking. A personal favourite is an elderly man holding up a sign saying “what a lovely girl”, showing the discrepancy between our expectations of character judged by external appearance. Seeing the elderly man in public, one would assign to him sexless and paternal characteristics. Given the chance to express all, we discover that the truth is far from the expected: the elderly man reveals his inappropriate sexual and erotic desire.
Similarly, a smiley, handsome, and seemingly happy young man holds up a sign declaring: “I am depressed at the moment”. Wearing captures the truth behind the British public, suggesting that our public “face” is in fact a façade. It is something we can all relate to as members of the British public. Last week on the tube, a well dressed suited business man sat next to me. In his lap lay a letter for probation and a leaflet to alcoholics anonymous. Getting on the tube in the morning, we all appear the same: same “work” clothes, same miserable face, same relentless march to the office, but in our private lives we are different people altogether. Wearing creates her work out of a desire to explore this; to turn it inside out: to turn the private into the public.
My favourite parts of the exhibition are Wearing’s works on video:Confess All OnVideo. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian… (1994), Trauma (2000), and Secrets and Lies (2000). Through the medium of video, Wearing explores the difference between ones public persona and private life with a darker, more macabre tone. The retrospective leads us to modern day confessional booths; an enclosed space within which we, put in the position of confidante, are presented with a screen. On the screen anonymous members of the public, masked with latex faces and wigs, reveal emotional and traumatic secrets involving rape, murder, incest, and violence.
Wearing asks to consider which is really the mask: our public “face” or the latex face that hides the confessor. Which is fake? Paradoxically, by masking the confessors, they become de-masked. Their true identity is revealed. With her works on video, Wearing captures the truth behind our public personas. And the truth is depressing. This is Britain today, says Wearing. Lies, secrets, and fake smiles.
I really hope the man on the tube is ok.