With a recent string of exhibitions devoted entirely to photography, it seems The Whitechapel Gallery has converted itself into one of London’s primary destinations for fans of the medium. Off the back of highly-acclaimed solo shows of the work Paul Graham, Thomas Struth and John Stezaker, we are now being treated to the first major international survey of Turner Prize-winning British artist Gillian Wearing. 1000 Words Editorial assistant, Sean Stoker, went along to the media preview and was impressed with the results.
For more than twenty years Gillian Wearing’s work has shown a fascination with the performative aspects of everyday life, exploring this through photography that both embraces and breaks away from aspects of a documentary tradition. Split between three galleries, this delectable exhibition shows a range of work, from Wearing’s photographic series Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say, made in the early nineties, to her latest video, Bully from 2010.
Wearing’s portraits and mini-dramas reveal a paradox, 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. The exhibition begins with the artist herself, dancing in a shopping mall, blissfully unaware of her bemused audience. The idea of performance continues with works including Wearing’s 1997 masterpiece, 10–16. Adults lip synch the voices and act out the physical tics of seven children in a captivating film which moves from the breathless excitement of a ten year old to the existential angst of an adolescent.
Bearing witness to such forthright confessions is occasionally uncomfortable, but the stories told are powerful and emotive. Because of this, Wearing’s work treads the line between real life and performance in a way that leaves the viewer unsure which is which. This feeling is heightened by the route navigated through the gallery. From the dark and intimate confessional chambers on the ground floor we must climb a set of stairs to the next gallery, giving us a much needed pause to process all that has been confided in us before the open and light spaces that follow, including Wearing’s iconic 1992 series, Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say, and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say where strangers are offered paper and pen to communicate their message, messages that are still relevant twenty years later. In the upper galleries we enter the world of private subjectivity. An advert – Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian… (1994) attracted a series of disturbing disclosures. Wearing then turns the mask from metaphor to reality to explore her own identity, simultaneously disguising and exposing herself while adopting the guise of family members or artists such as Diane Arbus or Andy Warhol, revealing her own background and influences in the process.
This comprehensive survey, which also premieres new films and sculptures, shows Wearing’s ability to remove the mask from everyday British reservations and lay bare occasionally uncomfortable truths about ourselves. She bypasses the often clichéd stigmata of the dispossessed and traumatised in order to focus on finding the extraordinary in everyone of us. Combining an unflinching honesty with an acute sense of humour, Wearing unveils the best and worst of us, like a joke amongst friends, subtly indulging our innate pessimism and self-deprecating nature in a way that is a joy to behold. The exhibition runs until 17 June 2012.