Gillian Wearing finally gets the major survey exhibition she deserves
It was long ago that Gillian Wearing won the Turner Prize (1997). And a major survey of her work – like the exhibition opening this week at the Whitechapel Gallery – is equally long overdue. Having arrived, this exhibition demonstrates the enduring concern of the artist over nearly 20 years of practice; namely, the multifarious mess of public masks and private identities that make up humans, alone and in interaction.
The first visible work, Dancing in Peckham (1994), sets the tone; a video piece in which Wearing, surrounded by busy shoppers, gets her freak on with all the daddy-grooving cringe of a private hairbrush moment, this work investigates the specificity of human identity via a jarring collision of private self-abandonment with public space.
What is behind the public facade, and how can that inner self find legitimate expression?, Wearing asks unrelentingly. An entire room is devoted to her iconic series of photographs bluntly addressing these questions – ‘Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say’ (1992-3) –, whereby members of the public were given the chance to express what they were really feeling/thinking on handwritten signage. This is an exciting collection of images thanks to the often major disjuncture between our expectations of a person’s internal state (approximated from dress, expression etc), and the actual confessions on paper.
A policeman holds up the word ‘Help’, undercutting our reliance upon his abilities to protect us, the agent of public help in sorely need of private aid. An elderly man holds up the words ‘what a lovely girl’, creating a clash between the sexless paternal role that we ascribe to him and his persistent erotic desire. ‘I hate this world!!’, says a cheerful-looking teen. And a man, eyes shaded by a baseball cap, scowls menacingly at the camera but reassuringly asserts that ‘The political situation in England is stable’.
From vintage Wearing, we are catapulted into a gallery of her more recent works – a series of self-portraits in prosthetic masks. At first these are indiscernible as anything other than the people that that they ostensibly depict – including the whole of Wearing’s family, and a number of her key influences, from Diane Arbus to Andy Warhol (where is Cindy Sherman?). But closer inspection reveals the artifice of each one, signposted especially by the eyes that appear, unsettlingly, to have two set of eyelids.
But perhaps the most powerful works in the exhibition are those that deploy this expression of one identity through the external identity of another but do so in video format. One such work sits at the finale of show, is onomatopoeically (?) named ‘Confess All on Video. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian…’ (1994), and sees volunteers reveal their innermost secrets from behind life-like but inanimate masks. Another kicks of proceedings, in which recorded interviews with 10 to 16 year-olds are lip-sync mimed by adult actors: ‘One thing I feel anxious about is my mother’, admits one identity hybrid; ‘And I’d love to kill her very much as I found out that she is a lesbian.’
These works are often confusing and distressing; but they represent the apex of Wearing’s achievement, and the resolution of works such as Dancing in Peckham. Instead of sacrificing public stature to personal expression (a la DiP), Wearing has here constructed a working remedy to the problem of the dislocation of inner/outer identities; by sharing out private experiences – making confession a public activity undertaken by two individuals, the face and the voice – she gives ordinary people that invaluable outlet of self but without negating the dignity of their social being. Words: Thomas Keane © 2012 ArtLyst