Before attending the study visit I had completed the pre-visit reading of link and link and so I had an initial understanding of her approach. By the end of the visit I hope that I have formed a clearer view of Wearing and her work, albeit that my views are relatively brief. It’s also important to place her work in the context of the time it was made. Work such as ‘Dancing in Peckham’ seems much more commonplace in the YouTube era than it did at the time – when it was groundbreaking.
During the visit, the stills work we saw related to signs and masks. The former had a snapshot feel to it, although it predates the wider acceptability of such an approach through Wolfgang Tilmann’s work in the 19nn. I know that I was not alone in being instantly reminded of Bob Dylan’s video for Subterranean Homesick Blues. Our guide referenced even further back to the extensive use of signs in paintings. This is not something I would have known and prompted much discussion during our ‘networking’ break as to whether ideas in art can ever be truly original. Nevertheless, some of the signs images on display have a certain resonance, such as image 1 below, where a young and apparently affluent man signs that ‘I am desperate’. Apparently, Wearing made more than 600 sign images and many of those on display have never been exhibited before. It was suggested that the work has been heavily influenced by the work of the Canadian Sociologist Erving Goffman.
In the masks work, (images 2-6 below), the photographer was much more ‘present’ physically and intellectually. Many of my fellow students described the work as creepy. However what I found most interesting about the general reaction was that they all talked about her rather than the images – paradoxical for this particular artist who it seems wishes to inhabit the personality of the person portrayed. It was also interesting how Wearing uses presentational devices such as the colour and size of frames, image sizes and hanging heights to distinguish her work from documentary photography and, in particular, make the masks series look like a family album.
In the later masks work, 6-7 below, Wearing recreates iconic images. This is a development of the masks idea and stylistically the images are stronger – although I suspect that this strength is ‘borrowed’ from the original images.
The images referred to above are shown on my Pinterest site here. For convenience an image of the pinboard is shown below – please note that Pinterest does not currently allow images to be re-ordered and so they are not in the same order as the above text – please follow the numbers.
So what did I learn from this visit to the Whitechapel Gallery? Certainly I learnt more about Gillian Wearing’s art and I think that I will recall her images for many years to come. I also experienced, almost for the first time, some discomfort with both images and the artist herself – but that’s a good think, it leads to thinking through the reasons for this discomfort. This exhibition also enabled further exploration of the relationship between photography and art – here we have work that is clearly, in my mind, art, but where the medium could be viewed as incidental. All-in-all this was time well spent and a positive learning experience.