A PRESENTATION OF BRITISH CONCEPTUAL ARTIST GILLIAN WEARING
BY MIKAYLA GAUTHIER
Gillian Wearing was born in 1963 in Birmingham, England. She received her BFA in 1990 and it is notable that she graduated at Goldsmiths College where she became one of the Young British Artists (YBAs).
Wearing was 21 when she first acted on her interest in art. She became intrigued by animators painting film cells at her job at an animation studio in Soho’s Golden Square. Upon the animator’s suggestion, Wearing applied to a foundation course at Chelsea where she eventually went on to studying at Goldsmiths.
Wearing is considered lucky for the timing in which she decided to practice art, as her generation overturned the idea that it was next to impossible to have a job as a practising working artist. Gillian Wearing found herself as a part of the YBAs, a famous group of young artists who graduated from Goldsmiths in the late 1980’s that exhibited art together. Soon after her graduation in 1997, she won the Turner Prize for her work, which is an annual prize presented to a British visual artist under the age of 50, organized by the Tate Gallery.
Gillian Wearing is linked to artists of the YBA including Damien Hirst and Tracy Emins. However, when compared to these artists who often use shock factor in their works Wearing is noted for taking a more subtle approach to her themes.
Damien Hirst, “A Thousand Years”, 1990 = not so subtle
It is said that Wearing has never really conformed to the YBA stereotype; she is modest and polite. Through the use of subtle photographs and films, Wearing examines ordinary people and how they present themselves in public and private spaces.
Gillian Wearing explores the nature of identity and the complexities of personality. She uses interview and documentary as apparatuses for her work. After she graduated from Goldsmiths, Wearing started creating portraits of individuals that revealed their innermost thoughts. She believes that everyone has a secret and her works aim to expose them without necessarily exposing the individual. I wonder if Wearing’s intent is to emphasize the quirks of humanity that are often hidden by embarrassment or fear of confrontation.
Wearing’s work tends to focus on the lives of others. When she steps into the frame, her presence is described to be entirely elusive. The sense of Wearing being there and not there became a theme of hers. Another theme of Wearing is “masks” –literal and metaphorical.
A subject wearing a mask from her “Confess all on video. Don’t worry you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian…” series, 1994.
She uses masks as a central theme in her videos and photographs which range from silicone mask disguises to voice dubbing. These masks conceal the identity of her subjects and allow them to reveal their most intimate secrets.
Wearing’s breakthrough work was a series of around 600 photographs called “Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say” (1992, 1993).
In this piece, passers-by hold up messages they wrote on sheets of paper. Participants include a black policeman who holds up a sign saying “Help”, and a man dressed for a white-collar job holding up the words, “I’m desperate”. These signs allowed for a deep connection to strangers in Britain who would not normally expose their secrets and thoughts so openly to other strangers. This work became highly influential as it was produced before the likes of Facebook and Twitter, which have now made it common and socially acceptable to express personal feelings and comments to the world.
The curator of her Whitechapel exhibition Daniel Herrmann comments, “Gillian coined a number of aesthetics during the Nineties that are mainstream now. She was 20 years ahead of her time.” Gillian’s themes are intriguing to individuals and artists who seek a sense of greater identity.
“Dancing in Peckham”, 1994 is one of my personal favourites by Wearing. In this video piece, Wearing dances aggressively in a south London shopping mall, by herself, while shoppers pass her by without intervening. Although Wearing is in a public space, her dance moves are outrageous and remind me of the saying “Dance like no one is watching” despite the fact that she is in a public space.
She dances for 25 minutes in total confidence, to music in her head, while the audio track of the video is of shoppers conversing, vehicle engines starting, and store music clashing together. It becomes clear that Wearing is completely disengaged with the space she is physically in, and completely involved in the space she created in her head.
Wearing found inspiration for this piece when she was wandering around a jazz show and came across a woman madly dancing by herself.
“This woman caught my eye. She was completely separate. She was dancing not in sync with the music at all. She was caught in the moment.” –Gillian Wearing
Wearing characterises her art as a “type of portraiture” which is evident in her work “2 into 1”, 1997. In this piece, Wearing collaborated with a mother and her twin sons to create an unsettling documentary about their relationships. Wearing filmed the mother and children separately and asked them to talk about each other.
She then asks the children to lip sync the audio of their mother, and asks the mother to lip sync the audio of her children, dubbing the voices over each clip. The result is an intense interaction between a mother and her sons who reveal a very raw view of each other. It is intriguing that the family members had to listen to the harsh criticism and comments of their family about themselves, and then participate in lip syncing those comments while being recorded. This work is said to have dramatically changed documentary practices that long for objective truths.
Wearing’s education during her foundation program at Chelsea inspired her appreciation for Old Masters of art. This has been commented on as a surprise, since she belongs to the generation of YBAs who have “shocked their way to prominence during the Nineties”.
She loved Rembrandt because she sensed there was something far richer going on underneath the surface of the oils, that there was somebody really there.
Wearing was also influenced by film such as Michael Apted’s ongoing series of documentaries that began in 1964 called “Seven Up”. Apted followed a group of seven year old British children from widely ranging background who are interviewed in seven year intervals to reveal how their lives have progressed. Wearing has described her method as “editing life”. Her photographs and videos target ordinary people and explore dualities such as the individual and society, voyeurism and exhibitionism, fiction and fact, and public and private life.