Reviews Performance Published 24 April 2012

Gillian Wearing

Whitechapel Gallery ⋄ 28th March- 17th June 2012

Staging the real.

Carmel Doohan

If you found an advert in Time Out saying ‘Confess all on video. Don’t worry you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian’ – would you? Remember, this is back in the early nineties; before Big Brother and the reality TV takeover, before Facebook or YouTube. Way back when it was still possible to be intrigued by such a proposal.

Videos of the people who did respond to Gillian Wearing are now looped in a row of booths in Whitechapel Gallery. In these confessional boxes, with the viewer acting as the unseen priest, the volunteers wear latex masks that, while realistic, are unable to hint at the turmoil within. As ill-fitting voices reveal secrets – a woman who killed her abusive husband; a girl who is no longer in love with her boyfriend; a man who fantasies about cutting off his penis – the eyes of the confessor can be seen through the mask’s eye holes; their lips occasionally glimpsed inside its rubber lips. There is someone inside begging you to save them.

In 2004’s ‘Self Portrait as…’ series, large photos show Wearing in another series of perfect masks, posing as herself at three and seventeen years old, and also as her mother, father and brother. While exploring ideas of transformation and influence these also feel like a meditation on our idea of ‘other people.’ As they are filtered through social media, our memories and knowledge of other people take the form of edited content; people become wittily captioned, glossy masks of airbrushed pixels. Questions about the complexities hidden behind such manipulated images run throughout the show. The most famous example being the frequently replicated ‘Signs that say what you want to say not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say’ showing ordinary people photographed holding handwritten and often unexpected signs.

While some of the stories on offer are extreme, much of the fear people express is about the normal;  difficulties in negotiating the everyday and the terror in its contradictions. In a film of two drunk but ordinary couples coming home after a night out, an overlaid soundtrack of desperation and need expresses this contradiction between the felt and the seen perfectly. The words I love you are distorted and repeated, allowing hidden emotions to seep through into the mundane surface of events. In 10-16 adults lip-sync to children’s voices as they reveal their anxieties. The effect is often horribly moving; the child trapped inside the grown up speaking out about their confusion and fear.

While reality TV, cheap parody and copycat advertising campaigns have almost completely re-contextualised the areas Wearing is trying to explore, her work still has a great power to disturb and resonate. Her strikingly simple methods clear a space for us to really see and listen. Insisting on the complex, painful fact that other people are just as real as we are and staging our psychological realities in an almost comical way, she forces us to do a double take. We are made to look at where the obvious and the desperately ignored collide; the place where we perform our lives and our lies.

The Gillian Wearing exhibition is at the Whitechapel Gallery until 17th June 2012. Visit the website for further information.


Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.