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The theatre of identity at Gillian Wearing’s Whitechapel Gallery retrospective

‘He has a way of putting his finger on the truth’ says an exasperated mother of her son Lawrence in the video 2 into 1. The same might be said of its maker, Gillian Wearing. The role-play, masks and voice-overs that dominate her current exhibition might seem at odds with this claim to truth-telling but it is the very theatricality of her language that affords oblique insights into the real lives behind this show. Mannerism appears to be à la mode in London. Gilbert and George have returned in all their iconographic glory to the White Cubes; the Hayward is enshrining David Shrigley’s nonsensical wit; Picasso, Hockney and Freud are plumping the cause for pure painting (at the Tate Britain, National Portrait Gallery and Royal Academy) and this week the Tate Modern hails in the concept King with a Damien Hirst retrospective. Not to knock art for art’s sake, but I’m glad that Gillian Wearing is letting a little of the outside world into the Whitechapel Gallery.

Gillian Wearing, 10 - 16, video (1997) courtesy of wordpress

Bar two red-herring still lives, the photographs and videos here are all about people. The exhibition opens with her YBA masterpiece 10 – 16. It features visual footage of adults lip-syncing recordings of 10-16 year olds discussing their anxieties. The effect is provoking, at times funny, surprising, sad and weird. A baby-voiced middle-aged midget in a bath complains he want to kill his lesbian mother and her ugly lover. A washed-up alcoholic with a helium-high voice says ‘I feel like I’m a man in a boy’s body’ – while coming across the opposite. Two grannies picnic on sandwiches and confide that they kick other girls in the playground. It makes you think- about childhood, adulthood, the similarities and differences between them, the effects of experience and the possibility of fresh perspectives.

In the surrounding booths, I found Bully and Sacha and Mum less convincing- (melo-)dramatized versions of formative experiences that leave little room for thinking, feeling or conjecture. By contrast Prelude is a beautifully simple elegy. It screens footage of Linda, a street drinker Wearing met just weeks before she died. Wearing never could film Linda as she had intended so all that remains is this: a silent film of Linda talking and pulling faces while we hear her twin describing her. Twins lend themselves especially well to Wearing’s doubling acts but the point here is intimacy rather than intellectual precision, anyone close would do. The piece inhabits the schism between the outward appearance and lived experience of a person.

Gillian Wearing, Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say (1992–3) photograph courtesy of blogspot

Upstairs, a similar interpretative gap animates the hugely successful series Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say. The messages held up by the subjects here project their inner thoughts out from the photograph. The fun is in the disjunct between what people look like and what they think. A weedy chap in beige writes ‘I’ve thought about being a gigolo but I’m worried about the health risks’. A prim and proper lady bears a ‘Hello Sailor’ placard. The scrawlings are diversely political, philosophical, whimsical and wise but the principle uniting them all is to say what you think. The surprise is that this is a difficult and unexpected thing to do. Accordingly the results and their effects vary widely.

In the next room, 2 into 1 shares 10 – 16’s gimmick. Parents mouth their children’s words and vice versa. You can’t help wonder what a son makes of his mother liking to be dominated as the fantasy issues from his lips. In Wearing’s videos the strange grafting of characters dissects the relationships between people; it separates out what binds and divides them. This allows her to represent people through the distinctions that determine their identities; it shows an individual to be as much what they aren’t as what they are. Truth is on the backside of the tapestry; especially with the self-portraits in the final room. Here, Wearing presents herself through pictures of relatives or peers. Her eyes look out through the photographed faces of her family members or fellow photographers (Mapplethorpe, Arbus, Cahun). The cut eyelet outlines give the game away so that the images become about masquerade rather than straightforward examples of it. One argument here is that this is deadpan self-portraiture: these figures have affected her and so constitute part of the person she is. Another argument is that the photographs illustrate what the press release describes as the paradox in Wearing’s work, where ‘given the chance to dress up, put on a mask or act out a role, the liberation of anonymity allows us to be more truly ourselves.’ There is an extent to which Wearing appears to identify with her alter egos here and it might also be the case that she frees herself from heavy artistic influences by taking them on (literally). However I think her understanding of self is a both simpler and subtler than this. There is never quite a ‘true self’ in her work; instead there are possible performances, some of which might be more honest than others. Schopenhauer’s neat summary is nearer the mark: ‘it is true that no one reveals himself as he is; we all wear a mask and play a role’.


Gillian Wearing, Self Portrait as my father Brian Wearing (2003) photograph courtesy of Flickr

The exhibition ends with a trinity of video loops in what look and behave like confessional boxes. In these three separate booths, interviewed speakers tell their confessions, traumas, or secrets and lies (respectively). Like much minimalism these films skirt artistic nihilism. There is almost no creative intervention here. It is just people telling us about themselves; it is life not art. However, they all wear masks and this is the piece’s raison d’être. For without the masks there would be no revelation. All the speakers answered Wearing’s public appeals to those who wish to divulge in disguise. The result is classically uncanny, both familiar and strange. The obsessions, weaknesses, desires and abuses recorded in the films are universally recognizable, but the grotesque costumes that facilitate the dialogue are alienating. The films bring the show to a close with profound ambivalence. They underline the importance of getting past appearances whilst demonstrating how impossible this can be.