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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.

10-16 (c) Gillian Wearing

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.

Sacha and Mum (c) Gillian Wearing

Prelude (c) Gillian Wearing

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.

2 into 1 (c) Gillian Wearing

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.

Signs that say what you want them to say, not Signs that say what someone else wants them to say (c) Gillian Wearing

Extract from Signs that say what you want them to say, not Signs that say what someone else wants them to say (c) Gillian Wearing

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.

Self-Portrait at three years old (c) Gillian Wearing

Self Portrait as My Grandmother Nancy Gregory (c) Gillian Wearing

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.

Extract from Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian (c) Gillian Wearing

Extract from Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian (c) Gillian Wearing

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.

Gillian Wearing at Whitechapel Gallery – Click to book or for more information

Having recently been astounded at how long my blog posts take to write and put together, I thought I would give you a little something in the interim period between full posts. What with a full-time job and 3hr per day commute, two volunteering positions, lots of interests, friends, family and the boyf, I struggle to find time for more than one a week!

Yesterday, however,  I took advantage of a free afternoon and the astoundingly gorgeous weather to take a trip to London town with my camera in tow. I squeezed my way through the Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery and rubbed shoulders with the cool cats at the preview of the new Damien Hirst show at White Cube (reviews to follow).

On my walks to and from these venues I was snapping away at anything which caught my eye. Details have always interested me. The little things which people don’t usually notice. A detail can sometimes be a clue to it’s surroundings, or can sometimes seem alien as it is taken out of context. These were my favourites from the day – I hope you like.

All photos were taken with a Nikon D60 Digital SLR with 18-55mm VR lens.

Builder’s Tea – St Thomas Street, London

Fourth Plinth – Trafalgar Square, London

Jaws Shadow – St Thomas Street, London

Fashion and Textile Museum – Bermondsey Street, London

Discarded flowers – Bermondsey Street, London

The Shard – from St Thomas Street, London

Sun through the trees – Leathermarket Street, London

Paint detail – Lowfield Street, Dartford

Closed down shop – Bermondsey Street, London

Graffiti on Board – Lowfield Street, Dartford

Closed down pub – Lowfield Street, Dartford

Torn St George – Phoenix Place, Dartford

Derelict land, previously Ripley’s Market – Lowfield Street, Dartford

David Shrigley (c)the artist

After the very outward-looking Deller exhibition which dealt primarily with culture and society, I immediately climbed the stairs of the Hayward gallery and stepped straight out of the real world and into the eccentric brain of David Shrigley. It felt completely fitting that the show was in the top space, as if a visual representation of being inside his mind. Deliberate? I hope so.

The first thing I noticed as I came into the room was the eclectic nature of the pieces. Deller’s work had also seemed a multifarious assortment, but only in terms of material and style; the message and topic was generally consistent. Like Deller, Shrigley’s objects also cover a range of techniques and approaches; some intervention, photographs, sculpture, video etc. But the message is convoluted. I accepted after a while that I was not going to ‘get it’, if indeed there was anything to get. That’s not to say i didn’t like it. The contrast between Deller’s clear moral and political messages and the stream of consciousness-feel of Shrigley was like being electro-shocked from the frontal lobe to the neural networks (to continue the brain analogy).

David Shrigley (c)the artist

David Shrigley (c)the artist

David Shrigley (c)the artist

It’s clear that Shrigley has a dry sense of humour. Again, much like Deller, his work makes you laugh – but not in the same way. Deller’s humour was witty and sometimes withering. With Shrigley’s work, I laughed outwardly at the silliness, nervously at the creepiness, and sometimes hysterically at the madness. It’s fun in a disturbing kind of way. It reminds me vaguely of Beavis and Butthead. Not just in the graphic style, which has a similar spiky-featured look, but the general uneasiness of the vibe it emanates. Unsettling. As if the works will smile at you, then turn around and bite.

His wall of sketches seems to be a kind of visual description of a manic episode. Your eyes jump from one drawing to another, trying to find a common link ,a story, but none appears. Maybe I’m just not imaginative enough to spot the connections. Or maybe there is no defined link and it is indeed just the rambling bizarre thoughts of Mr Shrigley himself. I like that I don’t know.

David Shrigley (c)the artist

David Shrigley (c)the artist

David Shrigley (c)the artist

David Shrigley (c)the artist

I succeeded in drawing some meaning from his ‘Eggs’ piece as well as ‘New Friends’, both of which seemed to explore ideas about being different and fitting in. A line of irregular, oversized eggs were placed above one of the spaces, each emblazoned with the name ‘egg’. To me, it spoke of difference and similarity, acceptance and humanity (and animality). Apologies, a bit of alliteration overkill there. This message, about essentially being the same but with slight differences, was continued in the animated ‘New friends’ whereby a square character is cheered and held aloft by a large group of circular characters, but, thinking he is accepted, is then rounded off on a plane to become just like the rest. An animated morality tale of intolerance.

David Shrigley – Photo (c)Artfinder

David Shrigley (c)the artist

Now I wouldn’t say I took anything in particular away with me from this exhibition (besides a generally bemused demeanor) but it was certainly a surreal experience. Finished up by the ultra-dry ‘I’m Dead’ dog and the ‘headless drummer’ animation, to which the gallery guide was gleefully tapping away on his thighs, I couldn’t help thinking that David Shrigley seems to me the art world equivalent of a cross between Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers. A man with an intellectual, manic sense of humour suffused with dark, inter-woven threads of meaning. His portfolio is so diverse I feel that this barely scratches the surface, but I think that the urge to scratch deeper has only just begun.

David Shrigley (c)the artist

David Shrigley (c)the artist

Check out some further info links –

David Shrigley talks to The Guardian readers through webchat – Jan 2012

More lovely images on Artfinder

You may initially think, well, it depends on how long you spent queuing. I have heard stories of people waiting for 3 hours, 5 hours, 10 hours. From dawn ’til dusk. At one hysterical point it even gained that  legendary status, usually only afforded to super-brand Apple or the new World of Warcraft game, of people dragging their pop-up tents through the sweaty caverns of the Circle Line to camp out all night. All for a glimpse of the new work produced by an artist Brian Sewell calls a ‘vulgar prankster’.

So was it worth it? Without a doubt. If Brian Sewell hated it, it means it is certainly worth seeing. Mr Sewell (ever noticed how his name sounds strikingly similar to Sewer?) is rather like a compass pointing towards a bear pit in the dark. Whatever it says, generally go the other way. I personally had a rather extreme reaction to the show and was quite overwhelmed by the scale and colour, almost bursting into tears in front of the vivid A Closer Grand Canyon, 1998.

The exhibition puts you slap bang in those glittery red shoes belonging to Dorothy just when she arrives in Oz. Technicolour wonderland. You feel as if this is what the world should be like, with a hint of jealousy that he saw it first, that this is the way he sees the world. Not only that, but that he can convey it with such abandon. You are struck by an overwhelming sense that this man has mastered his craft. Yes he is technically superb, as you can see from the stunning charcoal preparatory drawings which intersperse the paintings and provide a crystal contrast, but he is also deeply and firmly rooted in his niche. His style is obviously still reminiscent of his much earlier and most well-known works, A Bigger Splash, or Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, for example. But the awkwardness of that sterile utopia has been replaced with a hyperactive excitement at the natural world. The natural world as it is in Yorkshire, no less. The concept of a kid in a sweetshop comes to mind; it’s there, they’ve got it, they can’t get enough of it. It makes you smile. Well, it made me smile. A lot.

Aside from being a celebration of the beauty of nature, the works tell a story. They are a study, or rather, many studies. Hockney spent countless hours meticulously photographing, recording, collecting and painting, to capture the scenery across the changing seasons. Some say the British seasons are the most wonderful, as the extremity of change creates the most striking contrasts. I would certainly say they had a point after seeing these works. Hockney has often portrayed the same scene 3 or 4 times at different times of year and the effect is startling. No more so than in the Ipad room, where a spectacular headline piece entices you into the space. I strove to ignore it and to save it for last, like my favourite food on a dinner plate, and made my way round the room full of prints. Ever the  techno-geek, Hockney took it upon himself to learn to paint on the Ipad, using a Paint app. The resulting enlarged prints are primarily, for me, a visual representation of development and exploration. They were not visually my favourite pieces in the exhibition, but then I don’t think they were meant to be. Dated by when they were completed (generally one a day, which alone is pretty amazing), they traced a very visible learning curve which was fascinating to follow. It led me clockwise around the room and to the astonishing crescendo of The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate.

The debt to Van Gogh and Picasso is clear; the exploding colours, the multiple viewpoints. They complement the theme and have been used to his advantage, but the ethos is all his own.  I wait with baited breath to see what the next ten years will bring…