As an artist, Gillian Wearing is fascinated by the private self & the public persona as she considers there is a discrepancy between the inner self and the outer façade. Her current retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery not only showcases this, but it also shows how versatile, anew and refreshing Wearing explores the central theme of her work.
‘Dancing in Peckham’ (1984) is a 25 minute film wherein Wearing dances in a shopping mall to a soundtrack she imagined in her head. In this work, that was never meant to be done with real music, she explores her theme in a funny way whereby she blurs the boundaries between public space and private expression.
In her most renowned work, ‘Signs that say what you want to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say’ (1992-93) she explores her theme ranging from light-hearted to heartfelt. For this work, Wearing asked people on the street to write down on a cardboard what they were thinking at that moment and photographed them. It resulted in a revealing series of photographs of a cross section of British society; a young city-worker wrote “I’m desparate”; a police man wrote down “Help”, a gay man wrote “Queer + Happy” and an old lady “Hello Sailor”.
In an artistic way, Wearing investigates her theme by a series of self-portraits of her photographic idols who were interested in notions of staging and identity such as Robert Mapplethorpe, August Sander and Andy Warhol. Wearing photographed herself wearing constructed silicone masks of her idols’ faces where only her eyes were visible.
The videos in her work ‘10-16’ (1997) are moving, yet disconcerting. Wearing made audio recordings of children inbetween the ages of 10-16, talking about their anxieties and concerns. Wearing then filmed adult actors lip-synching their words, which resulted in an alienating and intriguing effect. By delivering these revelations through adults she reminds us that inside every adult there remains a child.
In an interview with ACNE Paper, Wearing answered to the question ‘if there is a particular work of yours that comes closest to revealing the ‘real’ Gillian Wearing’: “No… we all have multiple selves and complex characters, there is no such thing as one defined real self, so no work can wholly represent me in its exclusivity”.
Her answer also provides an insight to as to why she approaches her central theme from multiple angles. As human beings are all different, have complex and sometimes colourful charaters, she highlights this in various ways in her work. By doing that she keeps her work fresh, vivid and full of surprise, both for herself and for her audience.
“It works on many different levels, and there is not just one thing that you can get out of her work,” says Daniel Herrmann, Curatorial Programme Manager of Whitechapel Gallery who has curated Wearing’s retrospective. We talked with him what it was like working with Wearing on her exhibition.
200%: Can you recall what was your first encounter with Wearing’s work?
DH: I was still studying art history in 1997 and it was ‘Dancing in Peckham’. It was in the pre-YouTube era, before Facebook, before people video taped themselves on their mobiles in public all the time. I found that private moment in a public space very striking and fascinating. When seeing that work again, about three years ago, I was fascinated by how ‘fresh’ and enticing it still is to see a lone person dancing to an audio-track that is only audible to herself.
200%: There have been a number of exhibitions of Gillian Wearing’s work before, including an excellent show at the Serpentine Gallery in 2000. What is it that you wanted to provide with this show?
DH: There hasn’t been a major international survey on Gillian’s work and that’s what we wanted to provide. We wanted to show a number of recurring themes in her work such as identity, family, love, the mode of the documentary, mass observation, questions of reality TV. All of these are incredibly rich veins to mine for anyone who is interested in art.
When talking to Gillian she told me that she was fascinated by a book by the American sociologist Erving Goffman ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’. Goffman formulated this theory that we are basically playing roles in our everyday life all the time. That is not a judgmental opinion, but a sociological fact of how human society works. The question is as to how these differentiations between the public and the private, between the front stage and the back stage, are made? How are they negotiated, how are they changed over time? That is interesting to an artist who has been exploring exactly that threshold for the past 25 years.
Also, I believe it is important to see what the legacy of British artists of her generation and to take stock of how these artistic strategies, which she pioneered, how these work and operate now – how they have changed, how they have held up.
200%: How do you expect that Wearing’s work will resonate to the visitors of the show?
DH: What’s so interesting about her work is how she explores everyday lives and how the themes that she unearths in dealing with her volunteers and her collaborators, how they relate to universal experiences. When she works with people who hold up signs that tell an intimate thought in a public space, that’s the experience of not holding back, the experience of making something overt, the experience of showing a public your true inner self. That is something I think to which many of us can relate – whether we have done it ourselves or not; either way there is a touching, intimate moment and to see that in art is very illuminating.
At the same time, her explorations of different notions of identity, when she makes elaborate masks to inhibit the likenesses of her own family and idols, this exploration of becoming more truly yourself when you wear the face of another is something that we all know from our own experience, from our own everyday life. I think, at that moment, things become very poignant.
200%: Thus, the public can take from this shows that it is good to show your true identity and that it can even enrich your life?
DH: I think you can take that from the exhibition. I hope that we also show that there are different ways to look at Gillian’s work; that there is not just one thing to take from her work as it resonates on many different levels.
200%: The self portraits of Gillian Wearing as her family members and photographic idols series have colourful frames like pink, turquoise and maples yellow. What can you tell us about the colours of the frames?
DH: The frames had the colours whenever the pictures were made, with some being made in the 2000s. Gillian has worked with colour for a long time – something that I, as a curator, felt was interesting. Artists who work in the mode of documentary aesthetics often have black and white works that eschew any decorative moment in their work. In contrast to this, Gillian’s frames use this moment to introduce a deliberate dissonance with the traditional aesthetics of the documentary. To have something that at first looks like traditional portrait photography and give it a colourful frame is unusual, strange, and makes you take a second glance. This second glance is very important to Gillian’s work.
She then introduces this moment of colour to her confession boxes upstairs in the gallery, which she did not want to be displayed in a white box or black box or a neutral colour. She wanted them to be yellow, pink and lavender, which relates to the frames of the self portraits exhibited in the adjacent room.
200%: Did Gillian Wearing find it easy to relinquish some control over her work when she put it into your hands for exhibiting?
DH: She is a delightful person with whom to work. One of the most striking aspects of working with Gillian is how curious she is about other people’s opinions and hearing your interpretation of her work. Her work is made from a very personal point of view, but she is really interested in what people make of it and get out of the work that she perhaps hasn’t thought of but the work allows for them to project into.
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers
Pictures: close up of ‘Me as Sander’, 2012; ‘Signs that say what you want to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say’, I’m Desperate and HELP, 1992-93, C-type print, Dimensions variable, © the artist, Courtesy Maureen Paley, London.
Gillian Wearing, Whitechapel Gallery, 28 March – 17 June 2012.
Forthcoming: An interview with Gillian Wearing on her Whitechapel exhibition

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