April 2012: Gillian Wearing @ The Whitechapel

 Gillian Wearing, Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (Help), 1992-3
C-type print Dimensions variable © the artist Courtesy Maureen Paley, London


Gillian Wearing
The Whitechapel
March 28 through June 17, 2012

A lot has been said to envelope Gillian Wearing's practice in a deep and often mournful push and pull with concerns of identity. I'd like to try and forge a path outside of this genotype explanation and look beyond the figurative, physical mask. Wearing boasts a Turner prize, the ill-fated platform of the YBA and an OBE at only a decade and a half of practice. Working since the mid-1990s, it's overbearing how much she has been documented, talked about and referred too. Astoundingly though, this was my first face-to-face encounter with the work. The show triumphs in its ability to boldly profile a considerable amount of Wearing's practice, spanning both video and photography. The lower floor works as an emporium for the visual, split into hyper-dense MDF cinemas, whilst the upper gallery spans newer work.

The idiosyncratic tendency of how Wearing goes about her work is attractive by its consuming abilities to unpack the modern complexity of the contemporary or, on the flip side, the contemporary obsession with the complex. A global economic climate finds Wearing investigating a host of registers that feed directly into a critique of a very western democratic system and supposed emancipation. Wearing exhaustively uses masks, audio-rendering and dubbing, actors and text to begin an experiment with the actual truth in freedom of speech, alongside the obsessive dysfunctionality of the western preoccupation with embracing and clawing for uniqueness in society. The work 10 – 16 (1997) begins this investigation into the complex nature of 'the unique' by superimposing the troubled voices of children suffering from alcoholism, abuse and feelings or desires towards death, suicide, rage and confusion onto miming adult actors. The seven actors chosen are positioned in typical day-in-day-out mis-en-scenes, the end result works to face the viewer with a mundane scenery whilst the audio works to penetrate our subconscious with suffocating truths painfully reflecting the complex problems of children that are growing of age too fast in a vastly shrinking welfare state. Wearing's double-entendre is also in action through the closely situated Sacha and Mum (1996), a torrid backwards-forwards almost Lynchian dance between a mother and a daughter, the loop primarily occupied with the difficult thrust and pull of the physical dispute, starting at the end, the irreversible meander soon becomes one of frustration and love. Mother clasping daughter, daughter at the mercy, then daughter in control, laughs, cries and hysterics – the directorial awkwardness as with 10 - 16 (1997), finds Wearing completely able to elude the viewers' ability to figure out the line of sympathy against the grain of hurt, both fiction and fact lie side by-side as affect and effect in equal measure.

This toying un-truth also enables the viewers' mis-trust of Wearing's confidence through the timely Dancing in Peckham (1994). Glitches between the awkward and the confident splinter through as Wearing pushes the boundary between what is acceptable and what is still a taboo, the joke being that the artist is merely dancing in a shopping centre, the punch line that the illusion of a forward thinking and articulate society still finds this act of abandon and freedom as nerve-wrecking to interact with as a society pock-marked by oppression.

Gillian Wearing, Dancing in Peckham, 1994
Framed bromide print 149 x 120.5 cm © the artist Courtesy Maureen Paley, London

The mounting conflict of Wearing's stream of representation builds momentum through the work Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992 – 93)—people posed in the street hold up A3 pieces of paper expressing their 'innermost thoughts'. Wearing's classic inside/out joke once again plays with the decency of the image against the expression of the feeling. This work hammers home Wearing's preoccupation with what's felt, thought and acted upon; a Policeman exclaims “HELP”, a suited man reads “I'm desperate,” here the illusion one of openness, yet the grandeur of openness is smashed by what seems to be an ongoing uncertainty and hyper awareness of a very British condition. A hidden agenda flood the work with suggestions of letting yourself go, whilst the reality is entrenched in the banal and vain inability to truly overcome the fear of abandon. The hinge is 'an' English society entrenched in idealistic values, traditional aspirations of wealth and the remaining truth one of class divide.

This edge of reason or gap between what it thought and what is felt seeps through perhaps one of Wearing's most prolific works to-date. 2 into 1 (1997) spans the relationship between child and mother, Wearing re-articulating her former trope of dubbing this time using the technique to push beyond face value. The voice of a mother is streamed into the miming presence of her twin sons, the awkward domestic discussions of her thoughts and the feelings she has towards these entities of her creation; “They've got very strong personalities...but they love me I suppose” Wearing teases a web between truth and reality – the ever present mistrust that both have in one another. Here, Wearing manages to triumph by association, we feel sympathy every time a bad word is mentioned yet we clearly see that the relationship is one of complete domestic normality—it is this which Wearing emphasizes as the most problematic.

It is critique of the norm that finds Wearing as auteur to a catalogue of ills in contemporary British society, the hallmarks of class divide as signifiers of our destiny, the struggle of those and the hope we wrestle with. The video work throughout the 90s seems to build in strength as an outline for the 2009 piece, Secrets and Lies. Here, Wearing relies on her heavy use of masks by rote of a loop of several interviews with individuals highly disguised. The result becomes a somewhat theatrical problem between the sad and worrying tales they weave (rape, domestic violence, murder etc are all discussed), and the trust Wearing seems to have in her abilities to deliver these insights. The conclusion one which painfully mimics previous work as opposed to allowing for Wearing to slip and slide between bona fide video artist and talented Director.

It is the use of actors / real life people and strangers chosen from the street which best fits the understanding of how Wearing articulates a practice heavily directed and remorsefully controlled, the words seem to be free flowing but often its hard to see where Wearing ends and the thoughts of those chosen begin. The most recent photo-realist profile shots conclude this investigation aptly Me as Cahun Holding a Mask of my Face (2012) is one of many photos posed by Wearing donning a mask (either as a family member or celebrity; Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe et al). The grotesque masks featured in Secrets and Lies (2009) have been abandoned to make way for incredibly crafted, staged photos that are picture-perfect for their lighting, representation, staging and make-up. This is Wearing on auto drive, the awkward woman 'dancing in Peckham' not only seems non-related, but the effect of Wearing's relentless trip into the critique of the norm renders the artist stuck in limbo. The truth not the difficulty in finding the unique but the human resolve to presume that our problems are our own, our thoughts individual and our aspirations person specific. As Wearing dared to push the boundaries of the divides in society her latter use masks and costume start a narrative with reality which discovers that we are more a-like than we think.

 Gillian Wearing, Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (I'm Desperate), 1992-3
C-type print Dimensions variable © the artist Courtesy Maureen Paley, London

Gillian Wearing, Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (Help), 1992-3
C-type print Dimensions variable © the artist Courtesy Maureen Paley, London

Gillian Wearing, Me as Cahun Holding a Mask of My Face, 2012

Sophie Risner

Sophie Risner is a freelance art writer and critic living in London. "I am less art critic and more art writer - I find the idea of critiquing art through writing difficult in a purely formalist fashion. I often lean towards the difficulty of language as a way into the inherent difficulty of art. Embracing all aspects which observe and inspire artist practice as a way to create a more fruitful and less didactic approach."

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