Gillian Wearing 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, 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 – 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 temporary 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 disguide. 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.
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. 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.
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 "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.
It’s been said that your work predicted social media by creating an image of yourself for the public, or projecting yourself outside of common boundaries. Do you see parallels between your motivations and social media?
Yes, absolutely. I remember when I became interested in doing my “Signs” series it was at the moment that TV documentary departments were closing down in the UK. As a genre there were cries that it was a dead format. But technology like video cameras were becoming more accessible, and I felt that so many more interesting things could be said because there didn’t need to be the big budgets to make things.
The “Signs” series are incredibly popular, having now had influence in so many different ways in advertising, music videos, etc. They work because they are so direct and quick, which is how we think of Twitter. A lot of people have mentioned how the “Signs” works are like Twitter in the sense that you have a limited space to write something. But also my work connects now to the fact that everyone has a voice and the more voices there are the more we find connections between people.
Do the participants in your films already know who you are when they answer your open calls? Do they have any expectations of what will take place?
Originally I didn’t have any profile, of course now it is different but I don’t actually notice any difference in how people respond to me. The process is always explained in advance, so everyone knows exactly how the shoot will be. Many of the stories focus on social moments being retold to be presented to the public at exhibitions or in museums, like "Bully" (2010). I was once told that holding a secret (or many secrets) no matter how innocuous can have a deep mental and physical impact on a person.
Do you think that anyone has ever made anything up, for example in "Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian..."?
It is, of course, always possible. Vut I think if someone comes to speak about something, there is always a reason, and this is in itself interesting.
Anonymity plays a role in your work. Works like "Dancing in Peckham" are almost exhibitionist. Is this state of boldness made possible by the euphoria of being anonymous while creating art?
"Dancing in Peckham" felt very much like me dancing in the shopping center, I had no mask to hide behind. I found it difficult but as I did not want to do it again, I made sure I danced all the moves I could, and rather than spend 10 minutes, I spent 25 doing it. The hardest was the beginning when I had to prevent myself from smiling or laughing as if I were conscious of dancing without music. I am on a busy shopping street on a Saturday and the pavement is quite narrow so although it looks like I am actually in control I felt the opposite, I was doing something unknown and experimental.