Sunday, 6 May 2012

Gillian Wearing Whitechapel Gallery

The name Gillian Wearing echoed in my head when I read the email advising there was a forthcoming study visit but I didn't know of her work just that I vaguely knew the name. Knowing I needed something to kick start me I put my name down and was lucky to secure a place.

As with all study visits the pre-visit pdf with useful links and things to think about was a very good introduction :-

 gain a personal perspective on the work of Gillian Wearing
 reflect on the experience of seeing photography and video in a gallery
 network with other OCA students

and to

 Watch this introductory video by the curator of the exhibition
 Read this recent interview with Gillian Wearing from the Guardian
 Think about the distinction between two modes of communication - '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.
(This distinction comes from the work of Erving Goffman who is referred to in the
Guardian article)

New name to note ....Erving Goffman....I also did some independent research reading other articles and interviews  which I think has fried my brain cells having not used them like this for a while!

We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,-
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
    We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
    We wear the mask!

-Paul Lawrence Dunbar 1872 - 1906

Nothing to do with Gillian Wearing as such but I thought fairly apt :o)

For over 20 years, Turner Prize winning artist Gillian Wearing (born 1963, Birmingham, UK), has explored how individuals present themselves to others. Interested in the space between the public and the private, in the difference between fiction and reality, and in the relationship between the artist and the viewer, her photographs and films investigate the realm of personal confessions, private fantasies and individual trauma. - Whitechapel Gallery

Once we had all arrived Gareth recommended thinking about the difficulties in curating an exhibition of this kind and also contemplating why this was the exhibition that the Whitechapel Gallery had decided to charge entry for. The exhibition houses over 100 works including new photographs, the Claude Cahun and August Sander portraits, produced especially for the Whitechapel Gallery.

Curator Daniel Hermann is quoted as saying "I think there are a number of recurring themes in her work that are rich veins for intellectual mining. There are notions of family, aspects of love, of the documentary, of mass observation and the question of reality TV......It is not a question of deception, because we stage ourselves all the time and in every situation, but it is a question of why and how we do it. Those are the far more interesting questions that Gillian’s work explores, negotiates and confronts."

On the networking side it was lovely to see people I had met before, chat about why I had been so quiet recently and appreciated their kind words and support to carry on. Also great to meet new faces although I don't think I was quite as chatty as usual so they had a lucky escape ;o)

When going along to an exhibition it is much easier to describe what was there and how it was laid out rather than express a personal perspective, what is my opinion of her work, how did it make me feel, why did it make me feel that? Hopefully I'll do a mixture of both with this post.

Gillian Wearing has been labelled as a YBA (Young British Artist) due to the era that she graduated from Goldsmiths along with her contemporaries, Damian Hirst and Tracy Emin. To be honest I'm not convinced I totally appreciate work from any of these artists but admire their dedication to conceptualising and expanding ideas and their ability to achieve an end product. Sounds clinical I know but that is how I feel about their work. Quite a few people commenting on the newspaper thread felt "so what" about her work and I am trying hard not to take the same stance.

I have so many unanswered questions from the exhibition and wonder if I knowing the answers would make a huge difference?

When questioned about her work Wearing has said "I don't really know how it came about. I never set out saying my work will be about identity - I am just interested in people" (2010) This makes me feel more convinced that you can take a broader perspective when faced by a certain brief, bend the ideas, take a different road to tell the same story.

On entering the gallery her work is not set out in chronological order, which isn't to my mind an issue, just something that I noted; simply because we are looking at twenty years of work does it have to start at the beginning?

Due to the nature of Wearing's exploration of people via different media, the videos/short films were best seen in separate booths and I felt this was done well, the booths not only enabled small groups to successfully view the work but also echoed the idea of private/public faces or the front stage/backstage idea. As an established artist Wearing had an awful lot of input with the installation itself. (Having been in amateur dramatics for a good few years the backstage area was a bit too clean an ungraffitied for backstage theatre, but as the intention was more film set I guess it worked) The idea comes from Erving Goffman’s book "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life." where he explores the idea that we present a different face to the world.

Dancing in Peckham 1994 Colour video with sound 25 min

The exhibition began for us with "Dancing in Peckham"  where Wearing, standing in a shopping arcade, is filmed dancing to the music in her head. It is quite interesting to watch the attitude of the fellow shoppers and security men. Most walk past without giving a second glance, it mainly seemed to be the children who looked the longest, trailing after their mums, and gawping in a way that children do, not yet having picked up the social constraints that it is rude to stare. I wanted to know how obvious the camera was, were the possible reactions less because the camera legitimised her actions. "Oh they are making a video" rather that "oh dear a loony woman....steer clear".... I think the work/reactions may have been more interesting had the camera been hidden, it being a time before much reality TV existed. Having said that the original Candid Camera had been around for years by then so were people gradually beginning to accept these kind of actions in public? Would it have been different if filmed in a different area?

This is one of the difficulties I had with her work, trying to put the events and era in perspective, was it so "out there" at the time, is there too much of it about now that we become jaded by it and think " what?" and not realise how different she was? On a technical note I loved the pool of sunlight she stood in to dance, a natural spotlight....and yet another thought why was this video display chosen to be so small?

Prelude 2000 Black and white video for projection with sound 3 min 55 sec

In 1997 Wearing chose to interview some street drinkers, who brought along a friend called Lindsey. Test shots were taken, but when a few weeks later she asked to speak to Lindsey again Wearing discovered that she had died. Later the video short was completed with the footage of Lindsey accompanied by commentary from her twin sister. It details her reaction on hearing the news of Lindsey's death, the funeral and the relationship she had with her sister. The grey grainy feel of the video matches the sombre subject. Listening to another persons words made me observe Lindsey more closely, her facial expressions, the look in her eyes which flicked from despair to anger to a twinkle, but I was left wanting to know what Lindsey had actually been saying during the film, was it interesting? Did she make any huge life observations or was it just a drunk's ramblings? I had to admire Wearing's solution to a problem.Unable to re-interview Lindsey she employed the next best thing and it probably makes for a more interesting and emotional  end result more in keeping with the ideas used in the other films.

2 into 1 1997 Colour video for monitor with sound 4 min 30 sec

With much of her work I had this strange feeling of possible exploitation, although all of the participants were volunteers who responded to adverts and knew what they were doing what was the aftermath of them taking part? Especially with the later film "2 into 1" where a mother talks about her twins and vice versa, they then lip synch each others words.How did her sons feel saying her words, that she sometimes hated them, or that she knew they thought her a failure? Did they laugh about the whole thing or years later is she still as down trodden, with them in control as the video suggested? Was it the wake up call they all needed to be nicer to each other? For me this didn't feel voyeuristic more uncomfortable with the way the boys seemed unaffected by the sadness of their mother. Thinking back though, and looking at the themes of identity and this also relates to something Wearing later said about her Family Album series, as children I don't think we consider our parents to be people, individuals with lives and feelings. Echo's the way my 14 year old speaks to me!!

10-16 1997 Colour video for projection with sound 15 min

10-16 had adults again lip synching to children's voices, did it add or take away from the content of the topics due to adults speaking the words? Had the people chosen been different or their surroundings elsewhere would I have felt the same? I can't answer that one truthfully. A young boy discussing his mother coming out as a lesbian, her fat lover and how he wanted to kill them both was 'spoken' by a naked dwarf in a bathroom. I have asked myself why, and then again why not? Had it been a naked anyone, I probably would have looked only at their eyes and tried to concentrate on the words....was Wearing's intention to make us feel uncomfortable with what we were viewing? Today people air their dirty laundry in public, mobile phone conversations, revelations on Twitter or Facebook ( to name a few) therefore an awful lot of 'private' no longer is, so is the imagery chosen used to increase the uncomfortable feel of what we are hearing because as a nation we are becoming immune to such stories? But then again in 1997 Twitterverse wasn't about was it......More interesting perhaps, than either the subject of the monologues, or the chosen actors, was the way they chose to portray the children, their perception of the public face a child puts on whilst expressing their private thoughts.

Sacha and Mum 1996 Black and white video for projection with sound 4 min 30 sec

I didn't find this video as convincing as the other work. It looked more staged and theatrical. Yes, we know domestic violence happens but apart from the distorted sound and backwards playing film it appeared to be more like a scene you would watch from Casualty on a Saturday night. I presume the intention was to show the strange mix of love and hate felt within a familial relationship.What goes on behind closed doors, they present a loving family to the world but what lies beneath? Sacha being half dressed is automatically more vulnerable than her mother and the scene flits between gentle caresses and acts of violence. Apparently this is one of the first works in which Wearing had actors following a script rather than approaching members of the public to tell or show something about themselves. I think it shows.

Whilst researching this piece I found an interesting take; is Wearing producing Drop in Art...where the audience just drop in, have a quick peek and move on. Not only were they talking about this piece but also the 60 minutes piece which won the Turner Prize "There is by now a considerable history of long and boring films and videos which everyone has heard about and no one has watched from beginning to end: it began in the sixties with Andy Warhol (Remember The Empire State Building). Quite a few people will watch Sacha and Mum from end to end; very few will watch 60 Minutes. If they do not need to - if all that Gillian Wearing, the Tate, the Turner Prize jury want and expect of us is that we should drop in on the work to see what she gets up to - and indeed this is all the gallery space can cope with - that is a disastrous position to adopt. In the eighteenth century, people on Sundays dropped in on Bedlam; that did not make them psychiatrists."

The piece goes on to argue that she won the prize under the video section so it cannot be said to be a 'living sculpture' ....As the group of police sitting still for 60 minutes wasn't in this exhibition I  can't really comment but I do suspect it would have be ticked by me as " what?....."

Bully Bully 2010 Colour video for projection with sound 7 min 55 sec 

Wearing's debut feature, Self Made, merges the real and imaginary lives of seven members of the public....

Who are we – and who do we think we are? How do we make the selves we present to the world – and who are we really, underneath the social masks we wear every day? These are some of the questions posed by Self Made, an extraordinary debut feature by acclaimed British artist Gillian Wearing. A hybrid undertaking, Self Made is at once documentary, artwork, social experiment and performance project – bringing together a diverse group from the British public, non-actors every one, and offering them the chance to discover something about themselves through performance.

We were treated to, and I say treated because I really enjoyed this snippet, one segment from the film Self Made. In Bully one participant, James, was re-enacting a scene from his childhood where he had been bullied in the park. I should imagine everyone watching could empathise with the situation and the emotions he felt. What I found most amazing was at the end one of the 'players' apologised for his actions which obviously were not his own yet the distress of the memories and the strength of feelings expressed by James were such that he instinctively said sorry. At some point I'd like to watch the entire film to see if the rest was as impressive. Not sure I'd class it as 'art' but then again as film/media et al is considered art who am I to argue? It certainly helped the participants bring out their hidden selves. the emotions they kept bottled up for years, the 'backstage' them.

On moving to the upper gallery we came across more bodies of work.

Self Portraits - (2003 Photographs)

For me this series really brings to the fore that Wearing is a concept artist. She has an idea and then finds a team of people to help her execute it. From experts trained by Madame Tussauds, to photographers and make up artists. Personally I found the family results quite creepy. The faces, although based on the living, (bar her Grandmother) of her  parents, siblings, grandparents and an uncle, appear lifeless and eerily too much like evil shop mannequins, Dr Who type monsters, and in some cases reminiscent of the burns victims who wear plastic masks with just their eyes peering out at the world. Not as unnerving, I rather liked her portrayals of Warhol, Arbus, Cahun, Mapplethorpe etc. Some commentators have  wondered if Wearing is "trying to escape from herself or trying to make a broad statement about the ultimate sameness of people" but I get the impression that instead she has made a lasting tribute to people who are close to her or influenced her work. Either that or was trying to capture a feel of 'what was'. On talking about her portrait as her brother, modelled on a photograph from a photograph she said "I wanted to base a work on it – it was so cool, with a real feeling of the moment, of being young and getting ready for a big night out." And about her mother "It took my own ageing to make me really appreciate and understand my mother as her younger self." I don't think I've read anything where she admits to hiding or trying to become them, only trying to capture a memory or suddenly realising her place in the scheme of things at the time. That through looking at others, be they family or strangers, she was discovering more about herself.

I think you can see certain influences, Warhol's assertion that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, Arbus photographed people on the fringe of society, Cahun's use of masks, Mapplethorpe certainly didn't shy away from making the private public and the Signs series has Sander's typology stamped all over it.

I could also see reflections of Cindy Sherman (although Wearing disputes they are looking at the same themes they do use disguise and a sense of theatre to communicate their ideas) and oddly Thomas Demand. Demand also makes installation art, uses photography to showcase it and destroys the original work, just as the fragile latex body casts are destroyed when Wearing removes them. That piece of art can never be replicated. the photography was used as a medium of artistic expression and the image itself is more about the construction.

What I found more impressive than the end result, was the time taken over the execution of the concept, the attention to detail.The measuring and making of the masks, the lighting, tracking down the last orange phone booth curtain in existence, holding a pose in a latex suit for hours on end. The image of her brother took between five/six hours and 13 rolls of film to produce.

Each of the tributes to her favourite artists was based on one or two photographs already in existence or background knowledge of them. For example the Warhol is derived from a photograph taken by Richard Avedon in 1969  and Christopher Makos in 1981. Her drive and determination, her energy to follow through has to be admired even if like me you aren't quite certain how you feel about the finished article. This is certainly something to be taken on board when approaching a body of work or thinking about how you can move an idea following the same theme from one place to another.

Technical note that the photographs are a mix framed C type prints digital C type prints and in both colour and black and white. The portrait of her grandmother and of her 'spiritual family' are bromide prints..... a mixture in one body of work.

Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say.  (Photographs 1992)

Gillian Wearing had been using video and photography since the early 1990s, but this was her first real collaboration with members of the public.70 out of the 600 images she shot are on display. Some of which are not from the original 1992 exhibition and never seen before. Standing in a busy area of South London, she stopped passers-by and asked them to write down what was on their mind. With their permission, she then photographed them holding their statements. The photographs ‘started off from the idea of the vox populi, asking people questions without knowing exactly what I was going to get back.‘

The resultant epithets are diversely political, philosophical and even whimsical. On looking at the 'thinkers' some are very stereotypical, an unemployed man holding up "I signed on and they would give me nothing", two cheeky chaps holding cards with sexual innuendoes, but what struck me most was that the sentiments, concerns and philosophies could have been written today. "Will Britain get through this recession" or "I am desperate." Once more I wonder how long some of the participants took to think about their responses, some seem rather 'Miss World' in thinking about world peace. Were they really or did it just seem the politically correct thing to say at the time? How many regret the hurriedly scribbled notes? The famous story that gets told is of the anger the well dressed city gent displays after having his photograph taken, did he regret showing the inner turmoil his sharp suited figure didn't display to the outside world?

Gareth and I wondered if the woman who did the cartoon of herself knew that her doodle was also on display?

The style of the images was intentionally 'snapshot', supposedly cutting edge at the time, but now look very of the moment with a return to some of the 80's fashion, or possibly even dated; the use of signs is no longer new, and if we are honest wasn't at the time..I had to Google it to find the title, but Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues complete with a stack of signs came first, and has influenced many films, adverts and even a Weird Al cover ;o) But that is art, take an idea and make it your own!

On a technical note the images are colour photographs on photographic paper mounted on board,
each 1220 x 920 mm (48 x 36 ¼ inches).

Craig, Gervais, Terri (Figures)

Within a glass case sits three differing figures, until you approach them you have no idea who and what they represent but the body language is there for all to see, a fuller figured lady stands upright, hands clasped in front, a hooded youth head bowed forward sits disconsolately on a oil drum and finally a man stands tall holding a sign in front of him, echoing the Signs series. Apparently these are the first of a new body of work that Wearing refers to as "social sculpture." Life-like facsimiles of everyday people, the plaques below each sculpture describe the role each has held within the broader context of their society.

I have tried to discover if Wearing actually made these figures or had the concept and commissioned them to be made. To no avail, so if anyone can answer that question for me I'd be grateful :o)

Some have said that these figures are the weakest part of her exhibition. Maybe because they are along more traditional lines, but I liked them, maybe for the very same reason. Although commissioned for different reasons the way they were displayed emphasised body language and how we view the ordinary man in the street, make assumptions 'give off expressions' or read expressions as the pre visit blurb asked us to consider.

Craig 2012 painted bronze

Craig was commission by the Crisis charity. It’s a small sculpture of an ex-soldier called Craig who turned to drink when trying to adjust back to civilian life, this eventually led to him becoming homeless. The plaque below the bronze statue tells us that he thought his life was over and he was finished. The sign informs us he served in Afghanistan. He became a volunteer for Crisis and turned his life around.

Terri 2011 painted bronze

Wearing approached NYPD police lieutenant Terri Tobin, a hero of the 9/11 disaster, to model for the depiction of "Heroine". Tobin went on rescuing victims from the rubble of the fallen World Trade Centre towers despite her own injuries  which included a cracked skull and a back full of glass shards. From the unassuming, non-athletic figure we are presented with the revelation is quite a surprise.

Gervais 2010 painted bronze and marble

Who would have guessed without walking around the back that the shifty hoodie was in fact a police cadet? He states he gets stopped many times a day and that the police attitudes immediately alter once he explains who is. Police, he says, need to accept this is how kids dress. I can picture in my mind the attitude and body language of the police, and the public personae they project.

Then we come to the candy coloured 'confessional booths'. The jolly lightweight tones giving a false impression as to the confessions and revelations held within.

Secrets and Lies 2009 Colour video for monitor with sound 58 min 55 sec

Trauma 2000 Colour video for monitor with sound 
30 min

Confess All On Video. Don't Worry, You Will Be In Disguise...1994 Colour video for monitor with sound 30 mins

Once again Wearing had people respond to an advert, exhorting them to either confess to real life traumas or admit to strange fantasies interwoven with truths.Participants share harrowing monologues of murder and rape, sexual peccadilloes, whilst hiding their faces with contorted features and ill-fitting disguises. Some of the masks Wearing had made to be the same age and a similar likeness so some element of truth was preserved despite the story and to reflect the age at which the event being discussed occurred.

There is almost no creative intervention here. The backgrounds are plain with just people telling us about themselves and their worlds. However, without the masks there would be no revelations. The results appeared at once both familiar and strange. Their phobias, hangups and desires were instantly recognizable, but the appearances were either grotesque or amusing. How did this affect what the audience was hearing? It all went to underline the importance of getting past appearances whilst demonstrating how difficult it can be. (thinks back to naked dwarf)

Unfortunately due to time constraints and the amount of people trying to view this part of the exhibition I didn't actually view these videos in great detail. I understand why the particular set up was used, but it did limit viewers so in some ways it failed for me.

Crowd 2012 Video for monitor15 min

The film Crowd (2012) shows a piece of turf. Referencing a famous watercolour by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), the title of the intricately composed and constructed botanical model points to the artifice of our own constructed identities.- Whitechapel Gallery

OK......thats all I think I have to say....ok....very calming piece, very well reconstructed, bit like having a fish tank in your living room.....don't know if I would have made the automatic leap that it pointed to the artifice of our own constructed identities, but maybe that's why I am here....not there ;o)

People 2011 Framed bromide print

People, 2011 is Gillian Wearing's most recent photograph. Taking inspiration from Brueghel, a Dutch still life painter from the 17th century who made composite paintings, the piece 'depicts an elegant and complex arrangement of silk flowers in a small vase'.  " were incredibly expensive and rare in those times.... he had a finite time to draw each one before it died, and he would make these composite images, which I imagine was a bit like using Photoshop....The flowers didn't sit naturalistically together, but each one was important, and I wanted to use that as an analogy for people – trying to make each flower like a unique person.”

At first Wearing used real flowers and collaborated with a florist, but realising she wanted each bloom to sit in a certain way and needing the time to construct the final ensemble she reverted to artificial blooms. Yet again it reveals the flexibility and problem solving skills of the artist and a willingness to move on or change slightly to achieve the end result.

It also does help to add to the real/fake theme that runs throughout her work. The cynic in me says "and a great way to take photographs of traditional still life, bit chocolate boxy, without saying something new and getting away with it ;o)"

In Conclusion

This can be the hardest part, do I reveal the front stage me or the backstage me ;o) Do I deliver the flippant "so what" statement or put out there my honest opinion and wait to be shot down for it? As when producing a portfolio I reckon the best bet is to be honest about yourself and your work and your opinion. Produce what you want, not what you think people want to see or it wont have that authenticity about it.

Viewing this exhibition has made me realise you can continue a concept, an idea and keep reinventing it but investigate different ways to get a message across. Collaboration with others to achieve something can be a positive process. You don't always have to have a concrete idea at the beginning and the ability to watch an idea grow and take off, change direction or go with the flow is a good one to have.

Drive, determination and energy is required to see certain projects through to the end and Wearing seems to have all of those in abundance.

Do I like or enjoy her work? Hmmmmmm I like what I can learn from it, I like what she is trying to say, I enjoyed some of her pieces but feel they were in the minority, but in conclusion I am glad I attended and feel I got a lot out of it. I still don't know why the Whitechapel charged entry for this exhibition, I don't know what their criteria is....but I suspect it has impacted on the number of attendees....

At one point Wearing accused the VW ad men of ripping off her work but as mentioned before, not much art is truly original, we borrow ideas and influences from others even if it only subliminally. As Shakespeare said:-

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages

.....and philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer declared "it is true that no one reveals himself as he is; we all wear a mask and play a role".


1 comment:

  1. A comprehensive review and very interesting to read Jan. Welcome back as well.