British Conceptual artist, Filmmaker, Photographer, and Sculptor
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- One type of photograph that she often works with is the family photograph, which is recognisable as a shared personal historical document - often taking on the role of a physical manifestation of memory or experience.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.
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."
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 (1992-1993)
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."
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 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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Gillian Wearing
- Gillian WearingBy Daniel Herrmann, Doris Krystof and Bernhart Schwenk
- Gillian WearingBy Michael Apted, Russell Ferguson and John Slyce
- Gillian Wearing: Mass ObservationBy Dominic Molon and Barry Schwabsky
- Gillian Wearing: 'I've always been a bit of a listener'By Tim Adams / The Observer / March 4, 2012
- Gillian WearingFloorr Magazine / September 28, 2017
- Gillian Wearing: 'Having to talk to a group makes me very uncomfortable'October 30, 2015
- 20 Q&As: Gillian WearingBy William Oliver / Dazed / September 21, 2011
- Gillian Wearing: The Art of Everyday IlluminationBy Robert Enright / September 2011