Gillian Wearing makes the art/film crossover with 'Self Made'
Dave Calhoun meets the British artist to discuss her new doc-fiction film about the nature of performance
Her photos around that time featured members of the public holding up cards with messages on them – ‘I’m desperate’ or ‘I have been certified as mildly insane’ – and her videos involved people making confessions to the camera while wearing a mask. She’s interested in how we think about ourselves and how we deliver those thoughts to others, as well as the roles that TV and other media have to play in the game of identity. Now Wearing has made her first film for cinema, a result of the UK Film Council looking to bring visual artists into film.
‘Self Made’ will screen at the London Film Festival later this month. Has she fulfilled a long-held ambition? ‘I always thought I’d like to try it,’ she says. ‘It comes with the territory. It’s something you might embrace or reject. Some artists I know would never make a feature film as they feel they would have to compromise.’
Wearing has been working with the moving image for years. She filmed herself dancing in a shopping centre for ‘Dancing in Peckham’ in 1994. And in 2006, for ‘A Family History’, she featured a ten-year-old version of herself watching TV while another screen had TV host Trisha Goddard interviewing one of the stars of the 1970s reality show ‘The Family’. But until now, cinema has slipped through her fingers. ‘There have been moments when I was almost on the brink of it.’
You could call ‘Self Made’ a documentary. It records a theatre project that Wearing initiated in London with a Method acting teacher, Sam Rumbelow. Together, they found seven non-actors – ‘participants’, she calls them – via a newspaper ad and entered into a ten-day Method workshop with them, filming them as Rumbelow pushed them to explore themselves and act out their experiences in a manner as gruelling and moving to watch as it must have been to take part in.
But ‘Self Made’ also diverts from documentary. We see five short dramatic films within the main film – ‘end pieces’, Wearing calls them – each starring one of five participants and each a reflection on their lives. One woman, Leanne, who has a difficult relationship with her father, plays Cordelia in an extract from ‘King Lear’. Another, Lesley, explores her difficulty with relationships by playing a 1940s woman who reacts coldly when asked out by a man.
Does Wearing think that Rumbelow’s workshop was a form of therapy for her actors? ‘No, maybe it’s drama therapy of sorts, but it never set out to be that. Yet the Method deals with memories, and it’s cathartic. Everyone came out of it with more knowledge of themselves and a sense of being a lot wiser.’
The way we perceive ourselves; the way we project those perceptions to others – both are themes Wearing has been exploring for years. ‘Self Made’ is a bridge between cinema and the live and conceptual sides of her art. It offers a new framework for the same sort of collaboration Wearing would embark on if she were making a video or photograph, such as asking a group dressed in police uniforms to stay silent for an hour for the video piece ‘Sixty Minute Silence’ in 1996.
In that sense, it’s more an extension of her art than a journey into completely new territory, in the manner of, say, Sam Taylor-Wood’s ‘Nowhere Boy’ or Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’. ‘Yes, absolutely, it’s territory that I’ve been working in for two decades. The difference when you’re making a piece for cinema is: how do you give something an arc? Not necessarily a traditional arc, but something that feels like it’s going from A to B. That was one of the biggest challenges.’
Author: Dave Calhoun
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