Text by Daniel Barnes
Before the mundane and grotesque content of anybody’s life could be accessed at a mere click, there was Gillian Wearing, who made subtle, engaging art about people. Her early investigations of public faces and private lives predate Big Brotherand Twitter, and in this Whitechapel survey the work appears both pioneering and slightly archaic. The Whitechapel gives a welcome glimpse at the work of an artist who is often overlooked because her work no longer seems shocking, since technology has eclipsed the initial surprise.
Wearing was never shocking in the sensationalist sense of bullet wounds, dead sharks or menstrual blood, but she did enter the scene with a bag full of surprises. Firstly, she made art about ordinary people, while her contemporaries were obsessed with serial killers, themselves or with art itself. Secondly, Wearing made her art with restraint and delicacy so that she teased out of people their secrets without ostentatious interventions into their lives. This Whitechapel show reminds us that the real human drama is always simmering below the surface of a person’s face, which is the central strength of Wearing’s work.
The iconic series, Signs that say what you want them to say, and not Signs that say what other people want you to say(1992-93), remains Wearing’s strongest work. She stopped people in the street and demanded they have a thought to share, with the result that a person’s consciousness spills over a movement frozen in time, captured in the midst of doing something else and always with a tantalising disparity between the look on their faces and the thoughts written on their cards. She is currently repeating it through Facebook, but it lacks the magic because it is trading on the illusion of immediacy that the internet perpetuates, whereas in reality everything in social media is hopelessly convoluted.
This immediacy of human drama is present in all Wearing’s work, and as you walk around the exhibition you begin to feel nostalgic for the sincerity of that bygone age. There is something arrestingly sincere and captivatingly earnest in Wearing, from the way she made these works by walking around with a clumpy video or 35mm camera to the way she is able to coax people into sharing themselves with her. Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian…(1994) still evokes Wearing’s sincerity in her attempt to both charm and protect her subjects and in turn the subjects’ earnest desire to relieve themselves of their secrets as a purging exercise rather than a lunge at fame.
Dancing in Peckham(1994) evokes the pre-YouTube world with real seriousness. It’s just Gillian gleefully dancing by herself, to music only she can hear, in the middle of a shopping centre with onlookers pouring on their scorn and derision. Again, it is a sign of the times that at the time there would have been something surprising about the sight of a young woman filming herself doing something ludicrous in public. The piece still speaks of abandon, liberation and more than a little frenzy as Wearing shows us the bodily expression of her innermost self. It is, however, a lamentable shame that the Whitechapel has decided to show it on a small screen suspended high in the ceiling. It is such a bold statement that it should be capitalised on and projected big onto the wall as you walk in.
The larger ground floor gallery has been divided up into cinema booths for the exhibition of a comprehensive range of Wearing’s film work. Prelude (2000) tells the heartbreaking story of a girl Wearing wanted to work with but who died after an initial screentest, and Bully (2010) uses a community drama group to restage an incident that unleashes inner fears and torments. A chilling collision between the worlds of children and adults appears in 10 – 16(1997), which shows Wearing’s ability to simultaneously conceal and reveal an individual.
For the last decade or so, Wearing has been making self-portraits in which she wears an eerily real latex mask: her eyes protrude from the sockets of her mother, brother, grandmother, Warhol, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, so that Gillian Wearing is staring at you from the comfort of someone else’s body. These works are terrifying in their Gestalt quality as your perspective switches between the two personalities, wondering if Wearing is trying to escape from herself or trying to make a broad statement about the ultimate sameness of people. This is a constant theme in her work – sameness versus difference in groups of people – which is not fully represented by the glaring omission of her Turner prize winning 60 Minutes Silence (1997).
Wearing’s work is all about identity in the public and personal realms, where is it constantly constructed, questioned, analysed and exposed. The exhibition is nostalgic for a time when identity was personal by default and public by choice without the affectations of social media or even high-tech equipment. Consequently the aesthetic now looks rather rough, even dated, since at the back of your mind you know it looks like that not because she intended it to but because it was the best she could do. This fact makes the work entirely charming in its emphasis on immediacy; it is at once archaic in form and yet contemporary in content.
Gillian Wearing, 28/03/2012 – 17/06/2012, Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London, E1 7QX. www.whitechapelgallery.org
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Posted on 10 April 2012