Of all the artists who emerged from Goldsmiths during the period that the YBAs flew to fame, Gillian Wearing is deserving of special attention. The particular brand of socially reflexive, love it or hate it conceptual art that developed around this time finds special representation in Wearing’s work and the current retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery provides a great overview of her fly on the wall social commentary.
One of Wearing’s main areas of exploration is the all-pervasive separation between public and private that organises our daily lives. Her 1992 series, ‘Signs that say what you want them to say, and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say’, is perhaps the most iconic of her works. In this series of photographs strangers are asked to write their innermost thoughts upon signs that they are then photographed presenting. Here the line between interior and exterior is crossed and the confident, suit sporting, city-goer showcases the desperation that is normally deeply suppressed to the realm of the private. The policeman, normally the provider of assistance, stands confronting us with a plea for help and the cosmopolitan, down-to-earth woman about town declares just how tenuous her grip on reality really is.
Various films and sculptures continue the task of examining the bounds of separation between the political and personal. People face camera as the catholic faces their priest and the gallery becomes a space comparable to the confessional booth while unknown individuals share with the viewer their most personal thoughts. Challenging the British ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude, Wearing questions the very fabric of identity and our perceptions of individuality to an extent that you may leave questioning just who entered the exhibition. As our lives become more and more public with the explosion of social networking and surveillance technologies, Wearing’s work can only increase in relevance as the boundary between the public and personal continues to erode. This survey of here work demonstrates the artist’s ability to penetrate deep into the sphere of the private and find the extramundane in us all.
Toby Austin Locke
Gillian Wearing will be at The Whitechapel Gallery until June 17th