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Gillian Wearing - Biography and Legacy

British Conceptual artist, Filmmaker, Photographer, and Sculptor

Born: December 10, 1963 - Birmingham, England

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.

Mature Period

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.

Current Work

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).

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Content compiled and written by Dawn Kanter

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Gillian Wearing Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Dawn Kanter
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 30 Nov 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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