Summary of Gillian Wearing
If you have ever logged on to social media and seen an image of someone holding a hand-written sign in front of them, proclaiming a truth or confession about themselves, then you will have seen the influence of Gillian Wearing. Aligned with the YBAs in the 90s in London, she rose to fame by inviting strangers on London streets to hold up a sign saying whatever was on their minds, and then photographing them.
Since Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992 -3) the artist has produced unflinching documents of the masks that constitute our identities, personas and personal histories - often inviting strangers to volunteer their intimate stories to produce affecting, surreal, and emotive portrayals of internal lives.
- Confessional art is a type of contemporary art that focuses on intentional revelations of private lives, often showing controversial and intimate experiences and emotions as a way to provoke similar emotion, shock, or empathy, in a viewer. Unlike the majority of confessional artists (such as Louise Borgoise, Tracey Emin;, and Sophie Calle), Gillian Wearing's work solicits confessions from strangers as the core of her practice.
- Her primary contribution to contemporary photography and filmmaking particularly is in her uneasy relationship with the medium itself - using photography and documentary to critique the claims to truth, authenticity, and memory, which are embedded in these media and processes.
- One type of photograph that she often works with is the family photograph, which is recognisable as a shared personal historical document - often taking on the role of a physical manifestation of memory or experience. She challenges the validity of this document by restaging family photographs of herself as a child and teenager, as well as photographs of other family members, inserting herself into painstakingly realistic bodysuits in order to situate her real living body into these seemingly impenetrable, and safe archives.
- The artist is strongly influenced by the sociology of Erving Goffman, author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956), in which he claims that people adopt "front-stage and backstage personalities, that we perform all the time, when we walk down the street, when we go into a shop. And when we are behind closed doors we go into a bit of a slump". This philosophy informs much of Wearing's work around the public and the private, and 'real' and 'performed' versions of the self, which can be seen in her repeated use of masks, as well as her later dramaturgic strategies.
Important Art by Gillian Wearing
Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say
In Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say, Wearing photographed over 500 strangers that she met on the streets of London, asking each to write on a sheet of paper whatever was on their minds. It was not Wearing's first venture into photography but her first significant collaboration with the public. The artist did not choose the individuals, rather "The idea of Signs is that if you approached anyone they would have something interesting to say".
Wearing was responding to the stereotype of British people as overly reserved and unfriendly towards strangers, by offering these strangers a voice to say something about themselves. Although some individuals responded rudely to the artist's approach, the majority took the project seriously and were keen to collaborate. Wearing was surprised by their generosity in sharing thoughts and stories and later remarked "These early works are a celebration the idiosyncrasies and nuances that make people who they are."
Like many of Wearing's later works, such as Confess All on Video. Don't worry you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian. (1994), Signs series examines the relationship between public image and private identity. The resulting images are surprising and revealing. Notable and most often reproduced are images of the City worker who wrote, "I'm desperate" and the policeman with his sign "Help". Others include an elderly couple in a busy area holding a sign saying "I like to be in the country" and a homeless man with the statement: "I signed on [for unemployment benefits] and they would not give me nothing".
The businessman with the sign "I'm desperate" particularly captured public attention, which Wearing ascribes to the surprise of seeing someone with the appearance of being in control revealing their vulnerability and helplessness. Of taking this photograph, Wearing recalls "I literally had to chase him down the street. He only had time for one photograph and what he scrawled down was really spontaneous. I think he was actually shocked by what he had written, which suggests it must have been true. Then he got a bit angry, handed back the piece of paper, and stormed off."
According to the Tate gallery, the photographs in Signs provide "a fascinating social and historical document" as well as a successful artwork. The series was made against the backdrop of the economic decline in Britain in the early 1990s, represented by such statements as 'Will Britain get through this recession?' and perhaps also the fear visible in the iconic businessman. Of the latter, the artist comments "The beauty of it is that it can speak of different politics over the years. In the 90s it was associated with the recession and now it could be the sense of many people feeling disempowered. That is what a good artwork should do."
C-print photographs - various collections
Confess All On Video. Don't Worry You Will Be in Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian
This work is titled from the advertisement Wearing placed in Time Out magazine to invite volunteers to participate - using a similar method of consensual public participation as in Signs. In this still-controversial and highly original video piece, Wearing invites members of the public to confess something secret to the camera - also providing DIY, cheap props like fake beards, wigs and tape, for individuals to disguise themselves. In the single channel video piece, all of the speakers are shown from their shoulders upward, with harsh lighting casting a strong shadow behind them.
The confessions vary in significance and levels of impropriety, crime, and 'unacceptable' behaviours - ranging from pissing in the street, to soliciting sex workers, even to murder. The unmanned video camera is always installed in a small room with a comfortable couch, to force a further intimacy (and potential collusion) from the viewer faced with these anonymous transgressions. The function of the close-up, front-on camera frame, the anonymous newspaper ad, and the reluctant mannerisms of some of the participants point towards a truth-telling, which is a disarming part of the work - what does it mean to be confided in by a stranger, when there's no action we can take? At the same time, there is nothing to stop the participants from embellishing, performing, or outright lying about their supposed infractions - particularly as they are emboldened by theatrical costumes. Thus, like many of her works, Confess All on Video plays with the relationships between truth, fiction, and the production of identity via speech and acts, as well as the possibilities engendered by masks, by hiding one's "true face" in order to be free to tell other truths.
Confess All on Video is a foundational piece in Wearing's oeuvre as well as in other confessional and participatory art practices, including those of Andrea Fraser, and Tania Bruguera.
Dancing in Peckham
Dancing in Peckham is a 25-minute video of the artist dancing in the middle of a Peckham shopping center, to music that only she could hear. "You don't expect to see something like that in Peckham", says Wearing. She was inspired to make the work by observing a woman dancing with abandon at a jazz concert at the Royal Festival Hall: "She was completely unaware that people were mocking her: either that, or she simply didn't care. Asking her to be in one of my videos would have been patronizing, so I decided to do it myself." Before making the video, Wearing practiced dancing to songs by Nirvana, Queen, and Gloria Gaynor. Through taking on the persona of the anonymous woman at Royal Festival Hall allowed her to overcome her anxiety around public appearances; freeing herself via the act of performance and mimicry.
Dancing in Peckham was made before the ubiquity of YouTube and Facebook videos that feature staged moments such as this one. The curator Daniel Hermann remarks on how the artwork still holds our attention almost 25 years after it was made: "it is still very important even though our social boundaries have changed drastically." It can perhaps be understood as a comment about the private and the public self - a riff perhaps on the phrase "Dance like nobody's watching".
Whilst some critics have suggested that Wearing is revealing her private self in a public place, others argue that she is attempting to become someone else. The art critic Jonathan Jones writes "[the work] has that quality of another person being absolutely there, and at the same time absolutely other, that is characteristic of great portraits." It is, according to Jones, not only a portrait of Wearing but of the unknown woman at the Royal Festival Hall and a universal portrait of a person "lost in a private rhapsody". Common reactions to the work have included laughter, discomfort, admiration, and intrigue.
Video - South London Gallery
60 Minutes Silence
60 Minutes Silence, a video portrait of a group of 26 actors dressed as policemen, is one of two films for which Wearing won the Turner Prize in 1997. The participants are volunteers, as is the case for many of Wearing's works. The sitters appear in uniform and are posed as if for a formal photograph. However as time goes on, this formality dissolves, as the medium of video reveals slight, often involuntary movements such as glancing, scratching, swaying and fiddling.
Speaking to the BBC in 1997, Wearing claimed that early photographic methods influenced the making of this piece, inasmuch as for early photographs, subjects would have to remain still for an extended period. Today, a static photograph of the sitters would not be affected by small movements, however Wearing has chosen to include these signs of her sitters' discomfort and boredom nevertheless. The effect is somehow more human than its static alternative.
The uniform is an important aspect of the piece, as Wearing believes that different costumes provoke different responses in those who wear and encounter them. She notes "Everyone has a relationship with the police" and that they are "loaded with significance ... Simply by using the police, people project much larger issues onto the work such as what's right and wrong, what constitutes acceptable social behavior, and so on." The police in Britain are simultaneously a symbol of tradition, authority, and violence. Playing as a police officer inspired in the volunteers an uncanny desire for self-surveillance and discipline, particularly in front of a camera, adding a layer to the element of control imposed by the photographer's simple command to "keep still".
Furthermore, by using policemen as its subject, 60 Minutes Silence places those generally in a position of power into an uncomfortable situation that the artist controls. The most striking aspect of the work for art historian Richard Dorment is the moment at which this control is lifted. On being told that the sitting had reached his end, one officer lets out a relieved cry of joy. Dorment notes: "The moment is like a dam bursting. His final, cathartic, joyful cry is one of the great moments in the history of recent British art."
Back-projection video - Arts Council Collection
Self Portrait as My Brother Richard Wearing
This photograph is based on an earlier photograph of Wearing's brother Richard getting ready to go clubbing, taken by their mother around the year 1990. Although the reconstruction by Wearing appears entirely realistic, its subject is not Richard but the artist wearing a silicone body suit, mask, and wig. The artist confirms: "it's hard to convince people that the photograph of me as my brother is a mask!", going on to describe the immense amount of work required to create it: "Trying to recreate a snap that originally took a few seconds required about 13 rolls of film and five or six hours."
This is in addition to several months of preparation in order to recreate the clothes and backdrop - right down to the detail of the stained tracksuit bottoms. Describing herself as a perfectionist, the artist has also paid particular attention to the flash effects of the original camera. The photograph was taken in the same house, which had not since been refurbished. On the taking of the photograph itself, Wearing has described the difficult and uncomfortable process: "Wearing the body suit ... was difficult. My brother is not that much taller than me but he is a lot broader, and the suit weighed a ton ... The mouth of the mask was closed, so I was breathing through the nostrils ... I could only last about 10 minutes, even though I had to make it look like a natural hair-brushing session." She has also spoken of the difficulty in directing the photographer whilst wearing the suit.
Wearing's fascination with masks reappears throughout her work, in captivating and unsettling ways. She has created masks of her entire family including herself as a child, resulting in entire family albums where Wearing is the only participant. On looking at the world from inside her disguises, she comments "When you wear such convincing disguises, there is inevitably a change in your personality; partially, it's because your knowledge of the person seeps in, but it's also just the physical difference of looking at yourself as someone entirely different."
While on first glance, this photograph resembles photographic realism engaged with domestic scenes by artists such as Richard Billingham and Nan Goldin, the extensive time and energy put into reproducing and constructing this image radically questions our relation to photography as documentary, truth, or memory. Using an image shot by her mother of her family, Wearing also challenges the value we place in family albums to show us authentic domestic and familial histories.
C-print photograph - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Self Made is Wearing's first venture into narrative film or pseudo documentary. It follows in the spirit of her previous works that ask the public to reveal aspects of their lives, which they might generally keep hidden, including Signs (1992-93) and Confess all on Video (1994). In this case, it is the framework of Method Acting that enables participants to explore the innermost aspects of their identities. The playwright Leo Butler, who collaborated with Wearing and Rumbelow on the film, has commented: "Gillian holds the looking-glass up to human beings - to each and every one of us - and tries to show us who we really are."
The evolution of Self Made began when Wearing placed an advert for non-actors, who "wanted to play themselves or somebody else in a film". She then worked with method coach Sam Rumbelow to record participants exploring their deepest anxieties and re-enacting childhood traumas including bullying and domestic violence in order to construct and perform fictional characters, which would also draw reference from their own experiences. She states, "The film moves a step further when the characters explore their fictional selves, sometimes resolving real life issues, other times using the space as a release. Both participant and audience experience documentary revelations, fictional constructs, and the artifice that goes in to making a movie."
At the outset, she was not sure what the result of this work would entail, and as such, Rumbelow describes the adventure as "risky". The film uses the idea of "crisis" to encourage the participants to reach their creative potential. The loneliness of the actors emerges as a key theme of the film, as well as method acting as a form of therapy. It has been described as "painful" to watch. Although largely well received in the art world, the work has been critiqued for taking advantage of vulnerable people.
Wearing adds "I wanted a 'process' film, in which you see someone become their character through a drama workshop ... Even when they're not creating a self-portrait their fictional character will reveal an element of themselves".
This mode of working with the emotional lives of others as performance practice has been very influential to contemporary artists who see social relations as their core medium, such as Rirkrit Tiravanija (who turns galleries into dining halls) and Tino Sehgal (who filled the Turbine Hall with participants who would tell personal emotional stories about their lives to the unsuspecting audience).
A Real Birmingham Family
The sculpture was made in partnership with Birmingham contemporary art gallery, Ikon, and is one of multiple life-sized sculptures that Wearing has made of families both nationally and internationally, the first being A Typical Trentino Family (2008). It is sited in Centenary Square, just outside the Library of Birmingham. This is the city in which Wearing grew up with her own family, but left when she was seventeen.
The sculpture is intended to represent a "real" Birmingham family and to immortalise them in bronze. In 2011 and 2012, Birmingham residents were asked to nominate families to become the subject of the sculpture. No limits were imposed on the definition of family, and over 350 responses were received from families of friends, extended families and single person families. Shortlisted families were the subject of a 2013 exhibition at the BBC Birmingham Public Space at The Mailbox.
The family that was eventually selected by a panel of community and cultural figures and is shown here are the Jones family: two sisters, single mothers Roma and Emma (who is heavily pregnant) and their two sons, Kyan and Shane. Emma's second son Isaac was born before the sculpture's completion. The family is mixed-race, though as one journalist points out: "racial identity fades under the glaze of the bronze".
On being selected as the subjects of the sculpture, the Jones family commented: "We feel truly amazed and honoured to be chosen to represent what it means to be a family in Birmingham. We feel it highlights that family is an indestructible bond between people that is universal and it doesn't matter how it is made or what it looks like."
Wearing has said: "I really liked how Roma and Emma Jones spoke of their closeness as sisters and how they supported each other. It seemed a very strong bond, one of friendship and family, and the sculpture puts across that connectedness between them. A nuclear family is one reality but it is one of many and this work celebrates the idea that what constitutes a family should not be fixed."
The sculpture, however, has been the subject of some criticism, including from the right wing anti-feminist Fathers For Justice group, for its seeming dismissal of a father figure. An intervention by activist Bobby Smith saw one mother covered in a white sheet and photographs of Smith's two children superimposed on Kyan and Shane's faces. Of this act, one journalist wrote: "the version of "A Real Birmingham Family" that Bobby Smith has improvised is infinitely more radical and emotionally-charged as a work of performance art than the stultified vision of Gillian Wearing."
The Telegraph suggests that the sculpture manages to be both specific and universal, praising the way in which it "seems to represent some genuine idea of the people who make up Birmingham, rather than an abstract idea foisted upon them" and at the same time, bears the universal marks of family, for example the mothers' hands protecting their children. Journalist Bernadette McNulty adds "With the faint outline of a mobile phone in one jean pocket, the statue manages to be both utterly of its time and yet timeless in its simplicity."
Biography of Gillian Wearing
Wearing's childhood was spent in Birmingham, where she lived with her parents and two siblings. She grew up closer to her mother (whom she describes as "loving and supportive") than her father, writing of their relationship: "There was a little bit of separation between my parents, though they didn't divorce until many years later. But I didn't have the upbringing where I got to know [my father] that well."
Wearing's early childhood was also characterized by silence, as she did not feel that she learned to speak properly growing up. This inability to voice her opinions continued throughout Wearing's education and persists in her reluctance to speak publicly today. At 11, she gave up reading books and has generally spoken negatively of her experiences at Dartmouth High School. An exception, however, is the artist's memory of her art teacher praising a mask she had made at the age of 11 or 12.
Nevertheless, Wearing gave up art and left school at 16 without any qualifications and. Shortly afterwards, she departed her home city for London. Here, Wearing lived with two friends in hostels and squats, the artist taking on temping and secretarial work and her friends working as hairdressers. With no television at home, the three would use their evenings to draw.
Education and Early Training
Having already left school, Wearing was encouraged to pursue her art through different avenues. One formative experience took place at an amateur dramatics group, when Wearing was seventeen. "I remember doing a performance ... and Sellotaping my face into a grotesque mask, and feeling very liberated. Everyone loved my performance. I know it was the mask that helped as people were not fixated with who I was, but on the mask."
Further inspiration came in the form of a temporary job at an animation studio in Soho, where she was intrigued by the work of the animators. Learning more about their work, Wearing was encouraged to apply to art school. Having submitted a set of sketches of her housemates, she was surprised to be accepted into Chelsea School of Art for a Foundation course, where tutors recognised her talent as a fine artist and encouraged her to continue her art education.
Wearing continued her art education at Goldsmiths, University of London and so came to be grouped with the Young British Artist (YBA) generation, though she herself feels separate from this group; she did not exhibit in the influential Frieze exhibition, nor was she in their same year at college. Nevertheless, Wearing has noted the way in which the artists of the YBA group drew strength and inspiration from each other and were implicated in a moment of great change to contemporary art. Studying at Goldsmiths was a period of great discovery for Wearing, who notes: "I would walk around a lot of different studios ... and found it exciting to see what people were doing - things I hadn't seen before". She met her now-husband Michael Landy while they were both students together.
During this period, Wearing also began to take regular photographs of her own face, which, have been described as precursors to the selfie and show the changes to Wearing's appearance over time.
Although not keen to develop a public persona, Wearing became well-known when she won the Turner Prize in 1997 - a year in which the shortlist was entirely female and, as Dan Glaister from the Guardian wrote, "confirmed the dominance of Goldsmiths College in the much talked about contemporary British art scene". The works for which the prize was awarded were two films: 60 Minutes Silence and Sacha And Mum - the former showing a group of police officers posing for a group photograph and the latter a mother and daughter enacting a difficult relationship, played in reverse. Having been praised for "emotional force" of her work and its "unexpected insights into human behavior", Wearing notes "[It felt] like a seal of approval, a recognition of the work I have done, which is really wonderful."
"One of my friends lives in Amsterdam," the artist says, "and he told me that the next day, in a Dutch newspaper, they wrote that: 'A very inarticulate person won the Turner prize.'"
In spite of her rising reputation, Wearing remained shy and preferred not to take a starring role in her own work. Where she does appear, for example in Dancing in Peckham (1994), her performances have been described as "both awkward and moving". The artist herself states: "My work forces me to deal with the things I probably lack, like not being an extrovert or being reserved. That doesn't mean I don't want to take risks or experiment with ideas, quite the opposite. So many artists I know are shy but you can't tell by their work".
In other pieces, Wearing conceals her own image, for example in Homage to the woman with the bandaged face who I saw yesterday down Walworth Road (1995), in which the artist's face is covered. Concealing her own identity in favor of adopting that of others has become a recurring theme for Wearing, and is evident in her self-portraits of the early 2000s. Here, she recreated family photos using wax masks, from which the artist's own eyes look out. She began with her late grandmother and went on to produce portraits of her mother, father, brother, sister and herself at various ages. Each took around four months to make.
Wearing currently works from a studio in East London, which she shares with her partner, fellow artist Michael Landy - Wearing working upstairs and Landy downstairs. Describing her day-to-day studio routine, she reveals "My studio is like an office, but it is large enough to make art ... I do spend quite a lot of time doing emails and/or doing drawings of ideas on Photoshop etc." In fact, email is Wearing's preferred way to communicate, and even to participate in interviews, due to her significant shyness. On occasions for which she is required to speak in public, her gallerist Maureen Paley has been known to accompany the artist to the stage for reassurance.
One of the artist's most recent works is her sculpture of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett, sited on London's Parliament Square. Not only is she the first female artist to have created work for this prominent area, but according to BBC arts editor Will Gompertz, the ideal choice for such a project, given that "Wearing has spent most of her life exploring the extraordinary inner lives of outwardly ordinary people." The statue of Fawcett holds a banner reading "Courage Calls To Courage Everywhere" that is both eye-catching and recalls the artist's work Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say And Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say (1992-93).
In 2007 Wearing was elected as lifetime member of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
The Legacy of Gillian Wearing
Critics have commented on the artist's fascination with other people's interior lives compared to her apparent lack of interest in her own, to which she responds "I wouldn't put myself in a work confessing as it is too self conscious. It's also not what I am interested in." In terms of her personality, Wearing is a listener as opposed to a talker: "Around a dinner table I am the least anecdotal of people, and prefer listening; it's my trait, my vocation and what I love." She has been described by journalists as "friendly, slightly awkward".
Speaking to the Guardian in 2009, Wearing gives the high point of her career to date as making "My breakthrough works, Signs That Say, when I approached people and they wrote thoughts down on a piece of paper", whilst her low point was struggling to achieve a likeness in her mask of documentary photographer, Diane Arbus, who was influential to Wearing's work, and of whom there are few source photographs. Wearing had to have the mask remade twice, as she was repeatedly unsatisfied with the likeness.
The influence of Wearing's 1992 Signs that Say can be seen across recent contemporary popular culture and media, particularly social media, wherein a photographic portrait of a stranger holding a handwritten sign in front of them is now a recognized format for truth-telling or confession. Confess all on video. Don't worry you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian... (1994) and a range of the artist's works dealing with the private lives of others have been hugely influential in confessional artworks by artists such as Sophie Calle, and YBA contemporary Tracey Emin (although unlike Wearing, Emin and Calle both predominately use themselves as primary subjects).
Influences and Connections
- Michael Landy
- Sophie Calle
- Tracey Emin
- Tania Bruguera
- Tino Sehgal
- Michael Landy