Gillian Wearing by Cassidy Mckenna: Whitechapel Gallery 28 March -17 June 2012
Gillian Wearing: Me as Cahun Holding a Mask of My Face, 2012 Framed bromide print 149 x 120.5 cm © the artist Courtesy Maureen Paley, London
There is a 1990’s novel by Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, called Invisible Monsters. In it, an LA model’s face is irrevocably disfigured, the narrative is warped and the facts are deformed, and at one point the narrator confesses; “nothing of me is original, I am the combined effort of everybody I have ever known”. Outer appearance distortion, a story fed to the audience on a spoiling drip in which truth is hard to distinguish from contortion, and a questioning of the permanency of identity – Palahniuk’s story could very well be a precursor for the work of Gillian Wearing.
In her retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery, Wearing explores themes of personal and public individuality, and the fallible durability of self, in a concoction of mediums positioned over two floors; video and some photography on the first floor, and photography, video and sculpture on the second. The most successful works are undoubtedly those in the forms for which she is better known. The projection of ‘Sasha and Mum’ (1996), from her 1997 Turner Prize winning exhibition, is one of the strongest pieces on display; a monochrome fictitious interaction between an entangled mother and daughter, an inconsistent narrative depicting a bewildering relationship, a continuous alternation between physical destruction and claustrophobic affection. Because of the set up of the gallery, with multiple videos on continuous loops being shown in separate housed wooden spaces, you can intrude on the film at any point. Its time does not appear completely linear, with close-ups and wideshots of sped up brutality and sedate tenderness – you watch waiting for an explanation of situation to be eventually offered.
Gillian Wearing: Dancing in Peckham, 1994 Colour video with sound 25 minutes © the artist Courtesy Maureen Paley, London
Even after the video has circled several times, even after you know no indication of motive is ever given, it remains hard to comprehend the apparently unprovoked reality the work depicts. You cannot fathom condoning the violence, and yet you vainly seek some explanation to justify it. Within the exhibition, the distorted cries of domestic pain from ‘Sasha and Mum’ echo out of their chamber, permeating the ground floor with a disconcerting audio. The silent projection of ‘Dancing in Peckham’ (1994), hung initially in the entrance, where Wearing moves to mute music in a private oasis, oblivious to her very public surroundings in a South London shopping centre, is given a perturbing additional soundtrack.
Immediately upstairs is the famous photography series, ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say’ 1992-3, where Wearing asked people in the street to write what they were thinking and hold it up to her lens as a placard. Though nearly a decade old, as a public statement of society this series retains substantial cultural permanency. The varying statements are specific to their time, and the typically 90′s clothes, all leather shorts and miniature backpacks, are foolishly dated, yet they are actually back to be pretty fashionable once again.
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
One person asks, ‘will Britain get through this recession?’; a man in a banker’s business suit says ‘I’m desperate’. It’s not hard to imagine that if Wearing decided to produce the series again the results, despite their age difference, might turn out pretty similar. In this same room are also some of the weaker works in the exhibition. Three miniature figurines, also holding signs of various forms and based around a theme of elevated commemoration of the everyday hero, have none of the anachronistic sustainability of the photography series, the extra detachment of representational medium render them kitsch and sentimental in comparison.
Two halls of fame hang opposite each other in the central section of the second upstairs gallery. In one, Wearing recreates, with highly intricate prosthetics and mimicking backgrounds, her family photographs, capturing herself inhabiting the spaces and faces of the people who biologically involve her. In the other, the same method replicates her heroes, the people responsible not for her physical creation but for her artistic foundation. There is an uncanny Robert Mapplethorpe, a much less convincing Andy Warhol. The replications are demurely affectionate, modestly exposing their inconsistencies of reality only around the eyes, where monotonous sets of the same brown irises stare out in unison from every frame. In her familial set it is the full body copy of her brother, caught in action with a head cocked to the side, a bare chest and a stained pair of sweatpants, which is most absorbing. Unlike the staged formal expressions of the other specifically taken original portraits, this is a duplicated snapshot, a moment at which the subject were caught as themselves, not posing at being it. It is a more submerged manifestation, she is a more innate imposter, it asks more prudently at what point does the mask become your face.
Gillian Wearing: 2 into 1, 1997 Colour video for monitor with sound 4 minutes 30 seconds © the artist Courtesy Maureen Paley, London
Wearing constantly batters at the line between public and private and exterior and interior, but sometimes it is the divide between the real world and the artwork, which is intriguing, the breaking of the fourth wall. In one of the ‘Signs’ series a benign looking old man chooses to write a mildly sexual comment about a ‘lovely girl’ on his cardboard. It is a compliment for the artist, a thought not just documented and captured by the artwork, but a direct product of that documenting and capturing. In the recent ‘Bully’ (2010) – a young man tortured by the memories of a tormented youth confronts amateur actors in the guise of his childhood persecutors and it hard to tell at what point who if anyone is not performing to directional instructions – the fabricated dynamic of reenacted trauma is disrupted when a man in the role of a passive bystander offers up an apology, a sincere ‘I’m sorry’ for his metaphorical lack of interruption, and the victimised man seems startled by his own reaction, crumpling with relief. At a point in ’2 into 1′, a video in which twin sons lip sync to the descriptions of them given by their mother, and their mother repeats for those of her given by them, one of the boys silently mouths an adulatory account of himself while his brother cannot help but snigger behind his hand. The child does not merely listen to or repeat what is being said when he is asked to do so, he has a reaction to the content and process of what he is doing, just like an audience has a response to it as a final film.
Gillian Wearing: Trauma, 2000 Colour video for monitor with sound 30 minutes © the artist Courtesy Maureen Paley, London
By the last room, the masks are sliding off. In candy coloured confessional booths (‘Secrets and Lies’ 2009) strangers emit harrowing monologues of murder and rape, hiding their faces with ill-fitting disguises. The clown camouflage and the coarse wigs are obvious exterior additions, and unlike the previous portraits, there is no doubt something very different hides beneath. The display ends with a self portrait, the most recent of several within the gallery. The eyes are a little more sunken than in others, the fiction a little more obvious, but though the mouth is still and quiet, her look out is clear and glossy. This exhibition is littered with people expressing what they are thinking; telling a story, holding a sign, declaring an emotion. It may be that in her choice to record them, to capture all this self admission, Gillian Wearing is actually saying just as much about the multiple identities within herself; as a family member, as a person, and as an artist.
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