Gillian Wearing

OCA students outside The Whitechapel Gallery for Gillian Wearing

The OCA blog of the day is here …

What follows is my blog which starts before the study day begins …

The OCA is due to visit the Whitechapel Gallery again after a week at the end of April to see the Gillian Wearing exhibition. I did hear a review of this exhibition on Radio 4 (Front Row in which her work interviewing people is discussed by Sarah Crompton ( Art editor for The Daily Telegraph. She mentions that Wearing won the Turner Prize (in 1997) and explores the masks people wear (no pun intended) often through video interviews as well as still photography. A large collection of Gillian Wearing’s work is in The Whitechapel Gallery exhibition; she deserves to be better known. She has compassion in wanting to see the world through other’s eyes. What is the mask, what is the real person? Wearing is a listener. Some of her work is hard to take such as that of mother abusing her daughter yet her work is also inspiring.

A short talk by the curator of the exhibition is available on YouTube; he sees the discrepancy between the public and the private as an important aspect of her work …

One review can be seen here; it is a fairly brief one from the Daily Telegraph by Alaister Smart who mentions her ability to penetrate and unravel the people she portrays; her work is transportive, the sign of art …

The OCA sends us a link to another interview with Gillian Wearing in The Guardian …

This interview sems to be more about her than her work and as a result, I do not find it very interesting – the artist becomes celebrity – it is her work I want to see and experience. She is clearly an artist who uses photography rather than a straight photographer. I do not relate very easily to her as a person but surely the subject of the exhibition is her work not her; will knowing about her help me to understand her work? The interviewer asks her about her parents, fishing it seems for some personal meaning to her work and accepts he is projecting.

The interviewer, Tim Adams, however does make an interesting point by saying that Gillian Wearing has a talent for drawing people out and enabling them to say or write things that are perhaps truthful; this seems to be her role as an artist rather than being a photographer.

A video of her work I find eerie yet this is probably my reaction to the music rather than her work …

another video, shows clips of her work and is quite amusing while also being interesting …

Receiving a copy of the monograph that accompanies the exhibition, I start to see what Gillian Wearing is about – playing with masks and a sense of identity is something other artists have done (one thinks of the American photographer Cindy Sherman who has been photographing herself in different guises for many years) yet Wearing still manages to make something new and different out of it.

Doris Krystof writes that Wearing’s work is about “communication as an act of (self-) realisation”.

One in the eye for Gareth - a rain drop had fallen from above!

                          One in the eye for Gareth Dent – he removes the falling water drop with a finger 

Her work does not seem easy to understand and so reading the essays at then beginning of the gallery guide in an attempt to gain some insight into what it is all about. The images are cleverly constructed and obviously require a lot of work to put together; for instance, the prosthetic masks for the series where GW plays the role of her immediate family members took a mask maker four months each to complete.

Personally, I am not sure I like the work and this might be because GW is probing, looking beyond the public self to a less well defined one. As she says, “what people project as the human mask they are is obviously is very different to what goes on inside. There is always a disparity and I am interested in that.” Dan Cameron writing in 2004 (Parkett, no. 70, page 100) notices the recurrent theme of awkwardness in her work, saying that it can “provoke a marked degree of discomfort in the viewer, by creating perspectives that produce in us a feeling of unexpected intimacy with her subjects.”

Daniel F. Herrman notes that Wearing’s work presents a “dramaturgic dissonance” between the public and the private space. I see something very seminal in her works since she uses “signs” and “masks”. She also appears to be playing with the fraught nature of photographic truth where faction and fiction are hard to identify.

As I approach the gallery, I find myself wondering that makes Gillian Wearing stand out as an artist. It has been mentioned that she presented a certain interpersonal reality before it became popularised on TV. Is her work the celebration of the beautiful woman she apparently is!?

She certainly has the hallmark of a great artist in that she presents her work in a way that looks simple. Her themes relate to the personality and we all have one of some kind; this makes her work quite universal and something that anyone can relate to.

GW succeeds in communicating her message.

GW explores sensitive issues that are relevant to all of us, whether we like it or not.

Herrmann suggests that GW is exploring her own identity and in doing so, asking us to explore our identity.

Gillian says she is not a photographer or a video artist; so what is she doing and where is she coming from? Finally, I have made it to the exhibition and meet up with other OCA students; now is the time to rally understand the work.

The first piece of work we see is a video installation of GW dancing in a Peckham shopping arcade …

This is the only chance we get to see GW the person without a mask although it is not easy to really see what she looks like: her movements are wild and spontaneous yet she does not look like the world’s greatest dancer. The fact she is dancing in the middle of a public place might attract undue attention yet the presence of a camera probably deters people from responding as they might have done.

Her work is about how we interact with the world!

Prelude is the first video installation we are advised to see. It shows grainy black and white footage of a woman talking; however, the voice we hear is that of her twin sister for Lindsey, the worm in the video, has since died. The entrance hall of the exhibition contains a number of booths with different videos.

our OCA group at the Gilian Wearing exhibition

At the end of the entrance hall is a self-portrait of Gillian Wearing; it is characteristically awkward revealing a face that seems expressionless and makes her look like some kind of spacewoman. She wears a green top.

One piece of work that strikes me is a recreation of a Durer painting showing a group of reeds in fine detail. As with much of her work, it is painstakingly reconstructed; being in a lightbox, the illumination is brilliant. It is only later that I find out that this is a video installation and that one can see ants moving up and down the stems of plants! This is a wonderful recreation not just a modern copy.

In the same room, are a large number of photographs of people holding up cards on which they have written their inner thoughts. These photographs are not well constructed (feet are often cut off) and GW admits she is certainly not a photographer (a photographer would pay much more attention to what is and what is not included in the frame). GW does not need to be a photographer to do what she is doing.

One OCA student, Keith Greenoulgh, now at Level 3, remarks with a laugh that in art photography, no one ever smiles! I can not help but agree with this observation; perhaps it is a reaction to the false smiles we often wear in our everyday lives.

Another room is full of large portrait photographs. I wonder how much GW has to do with the actual production of these prints; presumably she uses a lab to have them made. We are told that she uses a team to construct the prosthetic masks and no doubt the team make the photographs too.

As seems to be the vogue at present, the photographs have no captions but one can find them together on a sign to one side. I like this effect because it encourages us to view the photograph rather than treat it as a referent.

One image in this room strikes me in particular. It is a black and white print of a woman. The pose is very stylised and the woman holds a mask of Gillian Wearing that hangs down from one hand. Small hearts are painted on her face, the dark lips are perfectly pursed, the hair is carefully arranged. By chance, Helen, another OCA student, knows who the woman pictured is; her name was Claude Cahun, a lesbian French resistance worker during the war in the Channel Islands who got arrested by the Germans and was due to be put to death but was in the end spared. One wonders what draws Gillian Wearing to this particular person.

Goffman points out that there can be a difference between what one says and the kind of body language one is using, GW is reflecting this kind of two-faced behaviour not in a judgemental way rather with understanding.

Another video installation is called “2 into 1” and is about a mother and her two twin boys. The humorous aspect here is partly the the two twins boys who seems very mischievous and yet endearing but also the way that the mother speaks the boys voice while the boys speak with their mother’s voice; this is a device that Wearing uses in other video installations.

Seeing GW’s work in a gallery space is much more striking than seeing it between the pages of the exhibition catalogue. It starts to assume a worth of it’s own and one no longer needs to think about it so much, one can just enjoy it. new nuances of meaning are discovered.

10 to 16 is a series of videos revealing the experiences of teenagers spoken through the bodies of older people who lip-sync the teenagers words (GW’s standard device again).

10 is of a ten year old boy who has a tree house and likes to sit up there, reading; his words are mouthed by a late middle-aged man lying on a sofa.

11 is the voice of a truant boy who has attacked others and talks of killing someone one day; his words are spoken by a couple of women having a picnic in the park.

12 is the voice of a totally unphased boy who seems happy with life although he is concerned about the possible loss of the tiger; he speaks through a middle-aged woman.

13 is the voice of a boy who wants to kill his mother for being a lesbian; this is spoken through the body of a naked dwarf who first lies in a bath then sits on the edge and finally puts a towel around himself and closes the bathroom door. There is laughter in the room as the boy says how he plans to kill his mother by preparing a pea soup.

14 a boy says how he steals money not just from his mother but also people in the street; talks through the body of a man in jeans seated on a fence.

15 a boy talks about buses through the body of a black man at a bus stop.

16 a fat person talks about the experience of being obese through a late middle-aged man in a suit.

One of the tutor’s present, describes GW as a fine artist rather than a photographer. Her approach is conceptual with a lot of effort spent in communicating what she wants to say. She has found her own theme and sticks to it doggedly.

More innovative than Cindy Sherman who tends to repeat the same idea; GW is progressing.

Talks about the need to develop one’s own narrative approach. Align interests with what one is doing; narrative may develop as one works; a body of work can develop out of this. Alex Soth who did a book about the Mississipi did not plan to do such a book; it merely arose out of pictures he was taking for no particular reason.

Another video in the downstairs hall is of what appears to be a mother and a grown up daughter who is dressed only in pants and bra. At times, the mother and daughter seem very close but very now and then the mother starts pushing her daughter down to the floor; this seems to be about the sometimes tempestuous nature of intimacy and the way a parent can abuse it.

Another video is called Bully Boy and shows, in a staged act, the way bullying can take place; I come in half way through and get the impression that although not real, this is some kind of encounter group, in which the participants are playing out fantasies. This is very disturbing so I am relieved to learn that they are actually playing assigned roles that they have been asked to undertake. The act is to help someone who is watching and has been bullied in the past; he then shouts at the people who have been play acting the bullying to tell them how he feels. This does seem confrontational even though it is in jest. Reminds me of the encounter groups that used to take place in the 1970’s.

The day ends with some of us lunching together after which most leave; I decide to stay a little longer as there is still much to see.

The confessions are a series of videos that play in booths, not unlike in Catholic confessionals. Those talking wear masks so one can not see who they are although one can see their eyes moving.

There is the confession of a man who has had a violent background; he was sent to prison for killing someone who he met by chance. He now holds down a good job and is liked but suffers from deep depression. I can’t help but find myself questioning his attitude which is so confidently negative.

A woman talks of how she stabbed her husband in self-defence; he had been violent towards her many times and when the case eventually comes to court, she is acquitted. It takes her another 6 months to get her children back from the care they have been placed in. She is still coming to terms with what she is doing and racked with guilt although she never intended any harm and was acting in self defence.

A 57 year old man talks about still being a virgin.

Another man talks abut how he wants to have his penis surgically removed but does not want to have a sex change. Still wants to be a man – frankly, I find this somewhat amusing although it is obvious that the man feels isolated.

One of the last images I see is a huge, incredibly well made black and white photograph of a flower arrangement- it is called People (2011). The concept is Wearing’s but I suspect someone else did the flower arrangement and someone else made the photograph.

It is good to know that Gillian Wearing does not claim to be a photographer and is rather a fine artist artist who uses the photographic medium because I do not see the photographs she makes as real examples of photography. What might these be? A subject for another day perhaps.

On reflection, I wonder whether the Gillian Wearing exhibition succeeds as a whole and feel it suffers because it is a collection of different bodies of work, all of which need to be understood in their own way. For instance, just taking the time to watch and listen to the confessionals would have been enough; as it was, I only found time to listen to a few.

This exhibition was more about the artist, presenting different bodies of work to say what a great artist she is. Overall, there seems to be nothing to take away except a feeling of unease about the human psyche.

BLOGS from other students who also attended the day …

(considers the ethics behind what Wearing is doing).

3 thoughts on “Gillian Wearing

  1. Wow you have written so much Amaano. What most resonates for me in your post, is where you say that while her work appears simple it is actually very complex. It can be read on many levels and so is quite accessible to everyone.

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