Gillian Wearing, Self Portrait at 17 Years Old, framed c-type print, 115.5 x 92 cm, 2003
Gillian Wearing, Me As Mapplethorpe, 2009
(based upon the Robert Mapplethorpe work: Self Portrait, 1988. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation) framed bromide print, unframed: 159 x 131 cm
Gillian Wearing, Me as Arbus, Framed bromide print, 156 x 133 cm, 2008
It is impossible to say if there is something of an identity crisis in Wearing’s work. What is evident is that she is a master of exploring the fragile states of others – of teasing out their darkest secrets, fears, inner natures, and uncensored thoughts.
The first piece I saw by Gillian Wearing was Drunk (1999). Screened as a life-sized triptych in a darkened room, I recall feeling like a slightly giddy voyeur to a scene I knew well. One I recognized from the warmth of subway stations in the winter and public parks in the summer å- groups of drunks gathered and finding companionship through their shared addiction. It was never something I had the chance to truly observe. Observing had the potential to call unwanted attention to myself. Yet, there I was, alone in the room, feeling like I should look away, knowing I didn’t have to. The drunks mumbled, embraced, argued, threw clumsy punches, stumbled, shouted, and passed out. There was, without question, something spellbinding about this display. True to Wearing’s oeuvre, Drunk is confessional yet less engineered than other forms of documentary. Like many of her works it revealed the surreptitious side of the familiar. There is no judgment or objective, if anything, her art is imbued with sense of compassion for her subjects. While her photo and video work mainly focuses on others, on occasion she will also don the guise of someone she has found particularly remarkable. She is notoriously shy, which makes some of her very public works, such as Dancing in Peckham (1994) which she silently dances with wild abandon in the middle of a shopping mall, or Homage to the Woman with the bandaged face I saw yesterday down Walworth Road (1996), all the more extraordinary. The pieces become not only her observations and mimicry of others, but a form of self-provocation and a subversion of social conventions. In an interview published in The Observer in 2000, Miranda Sawyer smartly comments, “Gillian’s art is other people.”
Gillian Wearing was born in 1963 in Birmingham as the middle of three children – she has an older sister and younger brother — her dad was a television salesman and her mother was a butcher. Wearing’s lackluster performance in school combined with her rebellious nature caused her to drop out when she was 16. Thereafter she moved to London and worked tedious temp jobs to make her rent. From the age of 14 she journeyed through alternative music scenes, slipping into the looks of these movements, transforming herself with each phase: punk, ska, rude boy, new romantic, and Goth. Gillian was a master of them all. When, at age 22, she was accepted into to the art program at B-Tech in Chelsea, and later to Goldsmiths in 1987, she aimed her talents of transformation at her artistic endeavors. Less than a decade after graduating from Goldsmiths, she was awarded with the Turner Prize in 1997, one of the U.K.’ s highest artistic accolades.
Both her work and disposition are at odds with many of her YBA brethren. In comparison to the likes of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, or even her long time partner Michael Landy, she radiates an aura of quietude and gives the impression of someone who would shy away from conflict. Nevertheless, there is a palpable element of confrontation in her work, especially when the secrets of others are revealed. In one early series she asked strangers to write something, anything, on a piece of paper and hold it up for the camera. The first person she asked, a woman walking in the park, simply wrote, “I really love Regent’s Park.” Others, such as one of the most famous images in the 600 images series Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992 — 1993) are more revealing. In this particular photograph a suit and tie clad young man looks like he’s been stopped on his morning commute to a financial institution, his sign, clashing with his successful appearance, simply reads “I’m Desperate.” Two years after the Signs series Wearing placed a candid ad in Time Out London reading Confess all on video. Don’t worry, you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian. (1994) She filmed the respondents wearing masks of their choosing from her collection. Their admissions are alternately mundane, disturbing, and riddled with anxiety. The short film is a manifestation of something in between religious confession and modern day psychoanalysis. Wearing lets others do the talking and offers it up on a visual platter.
Her ongoing photographic portrait series “Me as” … (including Me as Arbus, 2008, Me as Warhol in Drag with a Scar, 2010, Me as Mapplethorpe, 2009) reveals her art world influences, all of whom also in some way worked with masks. Equally revealing is Album (2008), a series in which she wears carefully crafted masks and sometimes body suits in the likeness of her mother, father, brother, sister, uncle, and herself at different ages. Both unnerving and unnatural, these photographic images function dually as a self-portrait and a homage in which she is both anonymous and overly present. The masks and bodysuits took months to create by Madame Tussauds trained specialists. One of the uncanniest of these images is Self Portrait as my brother Richard Wearing (2003). In the image a young man stands shirtless in a disordered room, he brushes his long ash brown hair. His wrists are encircled in stacks of leather bracelets. A slender fragment of his red underwear peaks out of sweatpants dotted with grease or water spots. In the image the figure looks directly into the camera not the least bit surprised, and if anything, a bit annoyed. The image is as unflattering as it is intimate; it is simultaneously Wearing, her brother, and the artist as her brother. Wearing points out“ (…) the suit weighed a ton. It was sculpted in that fixed position, so I couldn’t move. The mouth of the mask was closed, so I was breathing through the nostrils (…) I got a photographer friend to take the pictures, while I directed him by mumbling or writing things down.” If only momentarily, Wearing was almost literally trapped in her brother’s body.
She’s not the first artist to masquerade as others, artists Cindy Sherman, Ryan Trecartin, and Man Ray have followed similar impulses yet they are rarely achieve the intimacy of Gillian Wearing. Her dramaturgic images trace the confines of age, gender, and class as well as the boundaries between public and private. Her works, imbued with a subtle sense of empathy and humor, take on the form of a documentary both honest and troubling as they explore the inner trauma and psyche of her subjects, and by default, her audience and herself.
It is impossible to say if there is something of an identity crisis in Wearing’s work. What is evident is that she is a master of exploring the fragile states of others of teasing out their darkest secrets, fears, inner natures, and uncensored thoughts.
PEOPLE, STRANGERS IN PARTICULAR, REVEAL THEIR DEEPEST SECRETS TO YOU, WHY DO YOU THINK THIS IS?
Everyone has secrets and it is easier to speak anonymously about these than to someone you know. There is an act of catharsis when people speak about things they sometimes cannot speak about in a conversation with someone they know who might interrupt or even judge.
WHAT HAVE YOU DISCOVERED THROUGH YOUR EXPLORATION OF PEOPLE’S FRAGILE STATES: THEIR CONFESSIONS, DRUNKEN BEHAVIOR, AND UNCENSORED THOUGHTS ON THOSE CLOSE TO THEM?
To me the work I make is about hearing voices that are often not heard, in many cases to relate and understand ourselves. What I have learnt is that everyone needs to be listened to and everyone wants to be heard. The worst thing is when people aren’t allowed to speak.
THIS ISSUE OF I LOVE YOU FOCUSES ON THE THEMES CRISIS/HORROR/PARANOID, RANGING FROM IDENTITY CRISIS TO THE FEAR OF AGING. HOW DO YOU RELATE TO THESE THEMES IN YOUR WORK?
Your reading of it is, of course, a personal reading and I leave that up to the audience to come to their own conclusion. The woman is always pathologically the same in her behavior over the course of the seven acts of coming home. Everyone else varies in their emotional states towards her.
IN YOUR IN YOUR ME AS … SERIES YOU PHOTOGRAPHED YOURSELF AS FAMOUS ARTISTS (WARHOL, MAPPLETHORPE AND ARBUS) BY WEARING MASKS OF THEIR LIKENESS. WERE YOU, IN A SENSE, TRYING TO SEE THE WORLD FROM THEIR PERSPECTIVE?
I feel very connected to the artists I chose to create masks of. Sometimes when I see an image of Diane Arbus I see a familiarity because I have looked at her intently for so many years. Sometimes when I look at the world I see it through the various artists I have become. Becoming them is like the final embodiment; they are my spiritual family. I definitely felt like the artists when wearing the masks, adopting poses I thought they would do.
LIKEWISE, IN THE ALBUM SERIES YOU PORTRAY YOUR PARENTS, GRANDPARENTS, UNCLE, SISTER AND BROTHER. HOW DID IT ALTER YOUR SENSE OF SELF?
The biggest thing was that I found a different perspective on my parents. I chose to be my parents at a younger age than I knew them, before I was born, so at the point they had never met and their destinies weren’t mapped out for them. My thoughts of them before that were more to do with my direct relationship to them, but by taking myself out of that equation I could see them much more as individuals with different dreams and hopes.
YOU ONCE REMARKED, “I’M INTERESTED IN PROCESS, I’M INTERESTED IN PEOPLE, BUT I CAN’T BEAR THE IDEA OF TECHNOLOGY BEING SOMETHING THAT REPRESENTS ME.” THAT WAS IN 1999, NOW, 15 YEARS LATER, BEING REPRESENTED/PRESENTED VIA TECHNOLOGY HAS BECOME ALMOST UNAVOIDABLE. HAVE YOU RECONCILED YOURSELF TO THIS IDEA?
I still agree with that. What I meant by the statement was that the technology should not be more powerful than the idea you are trying to put across. So in the early days of the Internet a lot of people were trying to make art about the technology itself and I felt that idea and how to use it well would take many years. When someone uses facebook and twitter they use it as a means to say something, they are not addressing it as a technical facility. I make moving or still images and it doesn’t matter what I shoot on as long as it compliments the idea.
Read the full interview in I LOVE YOU #10 THE CRISIS ISSUE, get it here