What is genuine and what is artifice? Do we have both a real and a false personality? And what should be public and what kept private? These are the questions that underpin 1997 Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing's practice, and they are foregrounded immediately the viewer enters this major retrospective of her video- and photography-based work (the first in the UK), at The Whitechapel Gallery. Rather than seeing the front of the four booths, constructed in the downstairs gallery within which to watch her videos, we instead see what looks like the back of the structures, unpainted wooden walls and reinforcing struts. This is all a stage set, we are being reminded, and in Wearing's work it is everyday life, and often the public themselves, who are the players.
Many of the works being shown are well-known short videos from the 1990s that highlight the complex and often disconnected relationships between adult and child or parent and offspring, both recurring themes for Wearing. In 'Sacha and Mum' (1996), an uncomfortably ambiguous scene is played out by actors portraying a mother and almost adult teenage daughter, the latter dressed in only white underwear and holding a towel, as if having just emerged from the bathroom. As they tussle physically with each other the mood shifts between comfort and conflict, the unease accentuated by footage and dialogue being played backwards, with disturbingly David Lynchian results. It's still one of Wearing's most affecting works.
In '10-16', (1997), seven children (aged ten to 16) explain their hopes, fears and feelings, with topics ranging from acne to abortion. But their voices are lip-synced by a variety of adults. What is being illustrated here is that despite an external maturity of years, the innocence and fragility of the child can remain within.
In Wearing's most recent video, 'Bully', (2010), there's an exploration of a literal form of 'acting out' – method acting. The work follows on from the artist's 2010 debut feature film 'Self Made', which explores the same theme. Rather than have actors or others lip-syncing someone's voice, in 'Bully', a young adult orchestrates others in the re-enactment of his own past experience, an incident in which he was bullied. Definitions of reality are effectively blurred as, although actions are improvised, the emotions provoked are obviously not and it develops into a charged scene.
Wearing also puts herself in her work, most famously in her 1994 video 'Dancing in Peckham', in which she dances, oblivious to the public, in a south London shopping precinct, to music that only she can hear. Embodying ideas of both private and public and pre-empting the popularity of the 'flashmob' silent disco, its Wearing's most liberated expression of individual identity. It also provides a counterpoint to the frozen stillness of her series of large-scale photographs, 'Album', shown in the upstairs gallery. For these the artist was photographed wearing convincing masks that transform her into images from photographs of other family members, including her parents, grandparents, brother and sister. It's only the eyes that give the conceit away. Wearing could have achieved a similar effect for the viewer through digital trickery, but by having to physically transform herself, she could also see what it felt like to be someone else, through her own eyes.
Masks also feature in the three series of confessional videos in which disguised members of the public recount tales that often feature trauma and abuse, presented here within three intimate booths, painted in cheery springlike pastel colours.
Putting aside the slightly troubling issue of the vulnerability of some of those who, albeit willingly, have agreed to participate in Wearing's projects, her work can powerfully question who we think we are. But this exhibition left me with the interesting question of how might Wearing might continure to explore these ideas, now that we live in a very different age from the pre-social media and even pre-home internet era, of when her earliest work was made?
Created in 1992 to '93, the photo-series 'Signs That Say What You Want Them to Say and not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say', in which the public hold up placards with their thoughts written on them, must be viewed very differently by those who grew up with social media that by those who saw it when first exhibited.
When Wearing sought participants for her work 'Confess All on Video. Don't worry, you will be in disguise. Intrigued?', in 1994, the best method to communicate was through the classifieds; in fact, Wearing placed an ad in Time Out. Perhaps the interesting area now for artistic exploration is that through social media we can all create different identities and share our views whenever we want to, Repressed emotions can damage a healthy sense of self but maybe there is equal danger when unmediated feelings become too public.
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Great exhibition. GW is so skillful at letting ordinary people's voices and experiences emerge through her art. The different pieces are at times funny, poignant, frightening and heartbreaking - and occasionally all of these at once. The videos of homeless woman and the victim of domestic violence are particularly powerful, but some of the other stuff, whose subject matter is not quite as harrowing, is nevertheless affecting. Thanks to the whitechapel for putting this on.
This is a truly excellent exhibition fully accessible to even those not into contemporary art. A touching exhibition on the tough outer shell we all create in order to survive the modern world and what actually lies within.