I believe your reaction to the Gillian Wearing exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery may well correlate with your individual Empathy Quotient. This figure is measured by a scale which has at the 0 end a total lack of empathy (and thus sociopathy). An average woman would score 47. I (big softie that I am) scored 63. This is probably why I found myself close to tears at almost every exhibit in the show; and those which didn’t gut-wrench me into despair, scared me to almost the same point.
If art is meant to provoke (and I certainly think it should) then this truly is Art. Through film and photography, Wearing creates a no-holds barred showcase of the human condition and slaps you in the face with it. The whole conceptual theme running throughout Wearing’s work is the question of private vs public. What do we keep private and why? What happens when we take that private part of people and make it public? How and why do we put on a constructed facade, a ‘mask’, for other people? Her work forces you to confront these questions and to analyse your own reactions. I felt immediately ashamed when I recoiled from the man discussing his sexuality in 10 – 16 (’97). Although I know these people agreed to be filmed, it felt like intruding.
Is this what Wearing is trying to point out to us, though? That social stigmas are so ingrained in us that we now think them ‘natural’. It is ‘natural’ to want to turn away when you see someone being abused such as in Sacha and Mum (’96), or when faced with the deep sadness of reality in films such as Prelude – Lynn & Sister (’00). In the same way that we would turn off the news to avoid feeling depressed, our culture is one of denial and repression. We are encouraged to bury our heads in the sand. ‘Life’s too short, why dwell on it?’ is the familiar cry.
Wearing’s work focuses on our self-enforced repression and drags it to the surface. In pieces such as 2 into 1 (’97) we watch a mother and her two (awful) sons lip-synch each others opinions of themselves. 2 minutes of this and you will either realise how lovely your own children are or, like me, be very glad you don’t have any at all. But of course this is the mirror emotion to the sadness and despair provoked by the pieces. The relief. The overwhelming gratitude that when you leave the exhibition, this is not your life.
On the other hand, in a way, it is. We all have secrets. We all have feelings we are ashamed of. The contrast between our real selves and our facades is explored explicitly in Wearing’s famous social experiment, Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (’92-3). As a relatively unknown artist, on the streets of Brixton in the 90’s, she asked passers by to write whatever they wanted on a piece of card and have their photograph taken with it. The results are surprising. As you would expect, there are quite a few references to the recession and subsequent lack of jobs. But amongst these you have clashes of image and words. Policemen stating ‘Help’ and a very together-looking young woman claiming ‘My grip on life is rather loose’. We all make judgements based on facade, but we project that facade too, so that people see what we want them see. We have to have control.
The most disturbing part of the exhibition for me was the portrait room. I consider myself a pretty hardy young woman; I’ve watched The Exorcist a number of times, and laugh in the face of the multitude of modern teen-horrors. But this was something else altogether. In the honest spirit of the show, I will admit that I sat in front of these photographs and felt genuine fear in the pit of my stomach. ‘Self Portrait as…’ (’04-06) consists of a series of large photographs of Wearing’s family; grandmother, father, brother, as well as famous figures such as Andy Warhol. At first seemingly innocuous, a closer look reveals a familiar pair of eyes. Wearing has constructed lifelike masks of people and put herself behind them, carefully cutting out the area around the eyes so that you begin to back away as you realise that there are 13 different faces looking at you, but only one person. I was reminded of Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, or the Texas Chainsaw Massacre; the psychological difficulty of dealing with someone hiding behind another person’s face has us cowering behind the nearest cushion.
Not knowing what it is that we are facing is a fear which taps into every scary film set in the dark of night, or the surprisingly common fear of clowns. The irony is that we do this every day, with almost every person, but we accept the facade. Its easier. We are conditioned not see the masks. In pieces like Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian (94), Wearing literalises this situation by placing people in masks and asking them to describe their ‘private confessions’. The concept is tantalising and you can see why people took up the offer. For us as the viewer, it creates a disturbing scenario in which we helplessly watch someone bare their soul without being able to offer comfort, but for the participant it is no different to catholic confession, or even the popular therapy session. The need to share our private secrets is inherent in us as humans, and Wearing explores this need by making us do just that.
The exhibition is on until 5th June. If you are interested in the human condition and the power of art as social catalyst then I would highly recommend you see it. Although I suggest taking a cushion, either to hide behind, or to cry into. I wish I had.