Gillian Wearing at the Whitechapel Gallery study day

Before the visit I read several articles and reviews in newspapers (Guardian and Observer), the British Journal of Photography, Art Review, and references on the OCA site. I also listened to a useful interview where she described her “People” exhibition in New York 2011. All picked up on Wearings influences from a book by Erving Goffman, “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”, where he describes how an individual playing a role in real life, eg mother, waiter, child, is understood by the observer to have those attributes and characteristics whereas the individual may be consciously presented the public face whilst hiding the private face. The OCA site quotes ‘expressions we give and expressions we give off.’ The former is always intentional and is usually expressed through language, the latter may be intentional but doesn’t have to be’.  With this briefing in mind, Wearing’s work is immediately framed and understood in this context. I am unclear whether Wearing herself read Goffman before she made her art or whether they came to similar conclusions in different media. Her work is nonetheless very effective at exploring the public/private aspects of daily life.

I followed the OCA suggestions on how to reflect on the exhibition, and have used those for my impressions as follows.

Objective: gain a personal perspective on the work of Gillian Wearing

The first exhibit was Wearing dancing to music only heard  in her head for 25 minutes in a Peckham shopping centre. We saw passers-by react to some extent but no-one called for outside help, and no-one asked what she was doing or if she was OK. A young woman dancing alone to no music in front of a video camera on a tripod. Perhaps they thought it was “candid camera” or other reality television stunt, or perhaps they’ve been de-sensitised to constantly seeing the mentally ill on the streets. Wearing has presented her private self in public against the usual conventions of keeping the music in her head, and I thought it interesting that the public around her remained within their own public presentations. I was reminded of a YouTube video  that allegedly demonstrates “leadership” where one man starts dancing in the middle of a crowd, and then one by on the people around him join in. However the context is everything, because whereas Wearing was in a setting that was not a usual forum for displays of the private, the video was shot at a rock concert where such displays are not only not unusual, but actually expected due to the emotion, drink and drugs, and teenage exhibitionism involved. Contrasting Wearing’s exhibitionism with YouTube video confirmed to me again that management consultants are paid a lot for making the most banal of analysis.

Wearing begins her exhibition with her extroversion surrounded by the public introspection, and our tour guide Michael Lawton from the gallery brings our attention to the place, which is intended to be the “backstage” set downstairs with stage flats and harsh functional chipboard benches, and then the glossy centre stage displays upstairs. The themes of backstage/stage front, and private/public are continued through the exhibition.

“Signs That Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs That Say What What Someone Else Wants You to Say” was a set of around 70 photos where people where asked to write on a card, produced the most amazing results, most memorably the policeman who wrote “HELP”. He may have written this ironically but his expression seemed to reflect what he’d written, as did many of the other subjects. The idea of having people hold up cards is not new, and I’m thinking of Bob Dylan holding up and dropping cards on which he’d written the words of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as the song was played. His presentation was much imitated as were his songs, and I’d be surprised if this wasn’t one of Wearings many influences even though she was only born in 1963, two years before the song and film were released. Wearing’s initial objective was a “confessional” theme, drawing out interior monologues, and was aptly illustrated by a business who wrote “I’m desperate”, and then stormed off when the shot was taken. Wearing says you have draw your conclusions, and she provides much raw data to work on.

Another influence may have been Cindy Sherman, whose self portraits within movie scenes were commented on by other students. Wearing invested a huge amount of time and expense in creating body suits and masks of celebrities and her family, such that the only clue as to what you were seeing was in the mask outlines around her eyes. She may have actually stated her influences through these works, being her family, and celebs such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, and Diane Arbus, and another interesting point was that the celebrity shots were hung in the same size of frame whereas her family were seen in different sizes and borders which may have given a slightly family album feel. In the NY interview Wearing describes how Arbus in particular was a strong influence. She make many interesting points, including the need to read what people are saying to you, especially in the UK.

A tutor made an interesting observation that “the investment (in masks and body suits) is worth it and easier to do if you ‘re already established and know you’ll get a return”, and the OCA degree may open doors to the arts establishment. Certainly the majority of the Taylor Wessing exhibits are from professional photographers with their degrees and colleges listed.

Another exhibit – “Confess All On Video, Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise” also used masks to allow people to speak freely, thus continuing the theme of public/private presentation. I was intrigued that even small eye movements and shoulder twitches emphasised what was being said even as the masks displayed no emotion. Wearing’s self-portrait prominent downstairs made a perfect shingle for what was to come but I only understood this as I was typing this review.

We watched videos where people were miming other people’s words, including a mother and her two teen twin boys. This was odd, but set the scene for a second video where only the mime was seen, saying the most incredibly inappropriate words. At various points I found myself believing the mime owned the words, and was stunned more by the words than by the mime’s appearance. One was a naked dwarf (apologies if ‘person of reduced stature’ is the ‘correct’ description, in bath, who stepped out while speaking as a schoolboy  who wanted to kill his mother because she was a lesbian. When the schoolboy ended his tale with a description of how he’d make poisoned pea soup, because “I do like to cook” I laughed out loud, it was so ridiculous and I was picturing a nude dwarf enjoying cooking up poison for his lesbian mother.   Another image was an elderly gent described how most of his body was covered in stretch marks because he’d lost so much weight in an attempt to regain her own self-respect. I was constantly reminded of the Ardmann animations where plasticene animals describe why they need central heating.

A more recent exhibit that was quite unobtrusive was her shot of a bunch of flowers titled “People”


The flowers are all constructed and arranged very specifically, perhaps to illustrate difference, diversity, but described by Wearing as being “in honour of people”. I understand that she was working on a similar image just before the Whitechapel show, described in this RA interview.

Objective: reflect on the experience of seeing photography and video in a gallery

Wearing isn’t an artist tied into a particular media. There is photography and video obviously, but also sculpting and mask design and creation, and Gillian may feel that her dancing is also the work of an artist, and it is certainly performance art. The common display of all these forms in the same exhibit was inspiring, and impressive in terms of the investment she made in many of the works. The body suits and masks for example each took months to complete and were created with the help of professionals. A comment was made  by a tutor to the effect that it may be easier to make that investment when you know you will sell the results, and then another comment that gaining the OCA degree is step towards gaining that sort of confidence and acceptance into the business end of this world.

Being guided by gallery staff and being able to discuss the show with tutors and students was invaluable, and provided a much more informative and thought-provoking visit than could be achieved by a lone visitor. I’ve attended a few of these visits and I get more out them with every new trip, because my confidence grows in the company of like minded people, where you say what you want to without being criticised or dismissed. My opinions may not be commonly shared but I can freely speak them in these environments.

Another advantage of the study day is that I feel more vindicated in buying further books or DVD’s of Wearings work, and perhaps even an original print if I can find it. Having explored her work I feel an understanding of her objectives, and I have a tenuous connection with her in that she was a Goldsmith’s student from where my daughter graduated in 2011, and where I believe Clive White also studied. I have a growing collection of books on photographic themes (my previous how-to collection having been dispersed into Bernardos shops), and I’m reluctant to add to the collection randomly as I have previously, so with a deeper knowledge of Wearing I may actually start to target work that I know something about.

Objective: network with other OCA students

We gathered outside the gallery for a roll call and briefing from Gareth, blocking the pavement, chatting to students we’d met previously, and trying to bring in the newbies. After watching the dancing video for a few minutes the ice was broken when we started to pick out her dance moves- there was Mudd’s “Tiger Feet”, John Travola in “Stayin’ Alive” from Saturday Night Fever, some Status Quo and few other gems from the ‘seventies.

As we moved around the exhibits there was much interaction, even with a few non-OCA visitors who seemed to enjoy participating in several conversations. This was actually a better forum for interaction than the cafe, with many ad-hoc conversations taking place. I felt quite welcome in just joining various groups, listening, and making my own points. The little red OCA badges are quite a useful ice-breaker in validating who you can speak to. This interaction followed Wearings themes quite well, that is that in a gallery you may not usually wander around chatting with strangers, but with a little red badge (or even without I saw) you’re welcome to join or listen in on any conversations.

The networking in the Whitechapel’s cafe is limited because of the layout, such that you can probably only chat with a few people,  but it is valuable because everyone there has different opinions and objectives, and I think everyone benefits from hearing other student’s experiences. Gareth showed how networking should be done by moving around every table and chatting with everyone for a few minutes, but this isn’t an ideal space for everyone to do the same. Perhaps we could take over the Starbucks just down the street where we could move a lot of tables together?

Reflections on this post

At close to 2,000 words this is the longest review I’ve ever written for the OCA, and I can see that my output derives from an interest and new understanding of the artist. On Gillian Wearing I could probably write another few thousand words, and I may update this post, but for now I will publish and move on. I’ll add to Gillian to my “artists of influence” that includes such as Martin Parr, Sebastiao Salgado, and Gregory Crewdson. Whilst I am interested in the old guard of Steiglitz, Frank, Arbus, Goldberg and so on, their work is finished and more archival then current practise.

I expect that in future study days I will do more pre-reading, internet searches, and listening to interviews and reviews.  There does seem to be much material available, and hopefully my taking in a wider spread of source data will provide with much more insight on which to draw for the study days.

About watlvry

Flaneur for my own ailments; government and corporate hypocrisy; guitar stuff; the music business; home made videos featuring home made tunes played at home; a bit of golf; and of course photography. Specifically "art" photography (doesn't exist) and contemporary photography ( sadly does exist in all its grotesque reality).
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