‘I’m always trying to find ways to discover things about people, and in the process to discover more things about myself’- Gillian Wearing
The Whitechapel Gallery presents the first major international survey of the work of Turner Prize winning British artist, Gillian Wearing in an exhibition showcasing her work in film, photography and sculpture over a period of 20 years. Wearing has long been fascinated by the staging of the self, the dichotomy between our public and private personas and the relationship between the artist and the viewer as something inherently voyeuristic.
Central to Wearing’s work is the concept of spectatorship as involved in a face-to-face exchange. The face, our principle vehicle of social interaction, is a privileged signifier of interiority and a symbol of subjectivity. Feminist film theorist Mary Ann Doane makes the interesting point that the face, inaccessible to the subject’s own gaze except as a reflection in the mirror, is ostensibly for the other, mediating our physical and psychical interactions and bridging the gap between experience and expression.
Such is the peculiar intimacy of the face-to-face encounter, an encounter which is at once physical, (physiognomical) psychological and highly personal that is only when masked, as in Wearing’s 1994 film piece, ‘Confess all on Video. Don’t worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian…’, and under the cover of anonymity that the artist’s subjects willingly disclose their deepest, darkest secrets, performing to an unknown and unknowing audience a thrillingly explicit, self-ish and often sobering spontaneous soliloquy.
Also on display at Wearing’s Whitechapel’s retrospective is the artist’s 1997 masterpiece, ’10-16’, the product of recorded interviews with 7 children/young adults between the ages of 10 and 16 about life’s trials and tribulations. Their words are then acted out by adults who replicate too each individual’s/child’s behavioural idiosyncrasies, ingeniously subverting expectations and providing an amusing visual, aural dichotomy between voice and face. Subjects discussed include friendship, abortion, the extinction of wild animals, lesbianism and an underage penchant for beer.
‘2 into 1’ (1997) a film piece featuring as its protagonists a mother and her two twin sons. Lip synching each other’s candid descriptions of the other plays on a similar premise and is at once amusing, affectionate and mildly antagonistic, love and hate proving the essence of many familial and romantic relationships.
‘Dancing in Peckham’ (1994) depicts the artist in the middle of a shopping centre, moving freely to music seemingly only she can hear in a performance of the self that over the years has become increasingly and elaborately imaginative resulting in a surreal series of self-portraits which see Wearing photographed in a variety of uncannily realistic and yet deliberately ill-fitting silicone masks. Those on display include her most recent, ‘Self Portrait of Me Now in Mask’ (2011), ‘Self Portrait at Three Years Old’ (2004), ‘Self Portrait at 17 Years Old’ (2003), ‘Self Portrait as my Brother Richard Wearing’ (2003), self-portraits of the artist as her mother, father, sister and uncle as well as iconic images of the foursome, forming if you like her ‘spiritual family’, artist members of which include Diane Arbus camera in hand, looking characteristically and androgynously nonchalant, a rather terrifying, glaringly intense Robert Mapplethorpe gripping a skull headed stick, Andy Warhol, cognoscenti of all things incognito and mistress of disguise, Claude Cahun, and German photographer August Sander. Possessive of their public personas, all four played with the concept of selfhood, of self-ish reinvention for the camera.
Another highlight includes Wearing’s iconic 1992 series, ‘Signs that say what you want them to say, and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say’, a project involving photographing members of the public on the street holding up personal, poignant and often perturbing written revelations, such as ‘Help’, ‘I’m Desperate’, ‘I have been certified as mildly insane’, ‘Does he like me?’, and perhaps most significantly, ‘What is Gillian Wearing?’ An insightful if rather insistent exploration of what it is to be me, to be you, to be alive, to be human.
The exhibition runs until 17th June so make sure you check it out.