On entering Gillian Wearing’s exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, one is confronted with her seminal video piece Dancing in Peckham (1994). It features the artist wearing headphones, dancing alone in a shopping center as members of the public walk by. It was made almost twenty years ago, and despite the YouTube generation of staged and documented performances, it is a work that still leaves you feeling uncomfortable. In many ways, the structure of the exhibition is formed around this exact feeling – that instant when a private, confessional moment is placed in the realm of the public domain or even a public gallery. Her video works are housed in intimate confessional booths, whilst her mask series are exposed on open walls and encased in brightly coloured frames. It is the first major survey of her work in the UK, and the exhibition houses over 100 works including new photographs produced especially for the Whitechapel Gallery. Unseen images from her photographic series Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992–93) are also being exhibited, in which Wearing captured members of the British public holding signs that revealed their inner thoughts. Yet, her most recognisable works are her self-portraits, which capture the artist in a state of flux between opposing identities. The works were taken wearing masks, prosthetics and body suits, allowing her to pose as members of her family, younger versions of herself and most recently as her idols. AnOther spoke to curator, Daniel Hermann, about Gillian Wearing’s fascination with the staging of the ‘self’ and the public domain.
Notions of public and private, and of back-stage and front stage are explored in Gillian Wearing’s work, and in many ways these themes have formed the structure of the exhibition…
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. All of these elements can be found in her work, but what hasn’t been explicitly explored in an exhibition is the staging of the self in everyday life. When Gillian and I first got together to think about the exhibition, we found that both of us were very interested in the work of an American sociologist named Erving Goffman. One of his famous works is called The Staging of the Self in Everyday Life, and he explores this idea that there is a front-stage and back-stage element to every interaction that we have in social life. 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.
"There are a number of recurring themes in her work that are rich veins for intellectual mining – notions of family, aspects of love, of the documentary, of mass observation and the question of reality TV"
Do you remember the first time you encountered her work?
It was in 1995 and it was Dancing in Peckham (1994). It was the one video work that made everybody stop in their tracks. There was a private person in a public space and you saw her dancing and you didn’t know what was going on. There was no YouTube, there was no Facebook and no staging of the sort. I found it entirely mesmerising - it made you laugh, it made you smirk and it made you feel a bit uncomfortable. Also, it made you admire her for putting herself out there like that. What I find really interesting is that after nearly twenty-five years the video piece is still strong, it hold people's attention and it is still very important even though our social boundaries have changed drastically.
There is also something fascinating about setting up these very private confessional works in the public realm of a gallery…
I hope the public will take something from that. We have these colourful confessionals, which recall notions of a confessional box as a place that holds privacy – just as masks create privacy. At the same time the privacy that seems to be created by that seems to be at a stark contrast to the very public setting of a public gallery. There is a dissonance between the public and the private in that work and that’s what makes it very strong.
Gillian Wearing is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London until June 17.
Text by Isabella Burley