Wednesday Art Idol

Gillian Wearing: the Turner Prize-winning artist peeling back layers of the human psyche
By Finn Blythe | Art | 21 July 2021

Gillian Wearing, Trauma, 2000. Colour video for monitor with sound 30 minutes © the artist Courtesy Maureen Paley, London

This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of Wednesday Art Idol

HERO DAILIES: Essential culture, curated daily
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Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing is one of the UK’s leading conceptual artists with a multifaceted practice that incorporates performance, film, sculpture and photography. At the centre of these interlinking mediums is a common interest in uncovering social masks, the parts of ourselves we choose to present to the world and those we choose to keep private. In this sense, her work builds on the conceptual themes of like-minded artists like Cindy Sherman, whose image-making is equally concerned with artifice and reality in an age where they are increasingly impossible to distinguish. 

Despite pre-dating social media at the onset of her career, Wearing is widely acclaimed for the prescience of her work, which addresses the very questions online proliferation has only underlined. Equally important to her is strong political messaging. Wearing often focuses on the accounts of the traumatised or dispossessed, recently demonstrated by her bronze statue of pioneering suffragette Millicent Faucet. As the first (and only) statue of a woman on Parliament Square, the work was not only a recognition of Faucet but of Wearing also; two women who have dedicated their lives to speak on behalf of those whose voices are ignored. 

Born in Birmingham in 1963, Wearing settled in London during the mid-80s to begin her studies, first at the Chelsea School of Art and then at Goldsmiths College, where she would emerge as a crucial figure among the YBA’s. In her early work, Wearing built on the traditions of photographic portraiture, particularly the likes of August Sander, Diane Arbus and Walker Evans, giants of 20th century photography who transformed the medium’s relationship with day-to-day life. A lot of her work from this time was therefore based on Wearing’s observations and recordings of daily encounters, always with a keen focus on the presentation of the self.

In Signs That Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say (1992-93), one the first works Wearing made after graduating and one that remains among her best known, the artist asked strangers she met in the street to write down their thoughts on a piece of paper. Photographed in the street by Wearing holding these silent written admissions before them, the resulting portraits, which number over 600, capture the same tension that inspired much of her work over the next three decades, probing between public and private, outward appearances and internalised anxieties. 

Gillian Wearing CBE, ‘I’m desperate’ 1992–3 © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London

Secrets and Lies, 2009

For Secrets and Lies, her haunting series of close-up video portraits made in 2009, Wearing took her study of multiple-selves to new and very literal heights. Having recruited participants via a classified ad that promised the chance of anonymous confession, Wearing covered each of the respondents with a Mrs. Doubtfire-esque silicone mask, behind which only their eyes were visible. 

The monologues range in mood and darkness but all provide a poignant demonstration of the power of anonymity and the need for compassion. From murder to morbid fantasy, each is an unflinching admission re-called from the depths of repressed trauma through the presence of the mask. The result is an expression of something very real that can only exist courtesy of something very fake – a paradoxical symbiosis and the kind that Wearing’s work feeds on.

Gillian Wearing, Secrets and Lies, 2009, still from a color video

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