Sunday, 29 April 2012

Study Visit to the Gillian Wearing exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery

This was my first participation in a study visit, in this case to the exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery.  Gareth Dent and Clive White escorted quite a large group of students at the exhibition and guided us through an informal discussion on the work of the artist.

I have included a link to the photograph, Self Portrait at 17 Years old which features on the website and which is representative of the "family" series of self portraits.

But, to the beginning.  We were provided beforehand with information about the visit and some objectives.  The visit was to help students with:

  • gaining a personal perspective on the work of Gillian Wearing;
  • reflect on the experience of seeing photography and video in a gallery;
  • network with other OCA students.
I'll work backwards through the objectives.

Networking - this certainly was achieved.  It was a great pleasure to meet Richard Down whom I recognised from blogs and from the OCA facebook site, in fact he recognised me first.  Social networking is certainly powerful!  Everybody I found to be really welcoming and friendly and we certainly had some pretty animated discussion over coffee! Many were working their way through TAOP or P&P, with Richard doing the Digital Film Production module

The experience of seeing photography and video in a gallery - I guess I am a relatively frequent visitor to galleries to view photographs, having first gone some 30 years ago to the Photographer's Gallery when it was in Great Newport Street!  The point here, however, was well made by Gareth in the context of this exhibition.  Would one have viewed the videos at home and would they have had the same impact as they clearly did at the Gallery.  I have to admit that I doubt if I would have viewed them at home.  Certainly the presentation of the videos in the gallery was done with great impact and it was clear that Gillian Wearing had  a considerable say in how the work was to be presented and viewed.  When you first walk in into the gallery, there are 4 constructions which house the video viewing areas.  Facing outwards the viewing areas are unfinished, bare wood, as though these were "backstage".  An interesting device which sets the tone for the exhibition.

The work of Gillian Wearing - Gillian Wearing's primary interest is in people and how they interact with the world by what is going on inside their mind. through the use of masks, and in the case of the self portrait as her brother, she gets under their skin.  Aside from the videos, which are a major part of her work, the still portraits and the "Signs that say what you want them to say, and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say", series from 1992, to me, are the most interesting.

Taking the "Signs....." series, it was great to be able to see such a large number together, some 70 images out of the 600 which she had shot.  This was the first time that I had seen these together in such a large number and certainly they create a great impression of how people think.  There is a whole mix of emotions there: sadness, despair and humour.  The choice of location, including the Peckham shopping centre site of her "dance" adds to the images.  There is a curious juxtaposition of people against backdrop - Pink Elephant Parking on Pink Elephant Road.......  sometimes taking away from the feelings of the subject. Its interesting how times have changed on the surface, but beneath, the same issues remain.  This is very much the front stage / back stage of an individual.  This is brought up to date on the Whitechapel Gallery's Facebook site with a "Tell Gillian 2012-03-02 23:20:23", where many have submitted images of themselves in a similar vein - GW then choosing her favourites on the Guardian web site.

The self portraits fall into 2 distinct series, those of GW self portraits, "under the skin" of those who influenced her and the "family album"

The "influencers" were Arbus (2008), Mapplethorpe (2009), Warhol in drag (2010), Cahun (2012) and Sander (2012).  To me particularly striking was her take on the Mapplethorpe self-portrait as shown in the orginal form below (Credit to the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation web-site):

Robert Mapplethorpe Self Portrait 1988
The "family album" series was fascinating, but I felt somewhat disturbing.  I found it difficult to accept the concept of taking on the persona of other members of the family.  A particular example of this was the self portrait as her mother, shown below:

This image in the particular mask, as seen in the gallery, seems particularly expressionless and reminds me of  a porcelain doll.  Visions of a horror movie came to mind.  Nevertheless, I could appreciate the performance which was being enacted through the images rather than a post-production image manipulation in Photoshop.  The artist's own touch is also displayed here as the family portraits are all of a different size, with different colour frames and hung at different levels on the wall as though in a family home.  The intention, by the artist was to portray all at roughly the same age which adds to the viewer's confusion.  Only the grandparents were at their "correct" age.

Regarding the movies / video recordings, there is, the performance / dance in Peckham shopping centre.  There was no sound the dance music coming from within her head.  To me there seemed to be very little reaction / interaction with passers-by, perhaps by virtue of the camera on the tripod and, presumably others who were doing the filming.  Could this be that the passers-by wished to be disassociated with this performance?

The most significant video, in my mind, was left for us to see at the end.  This was the film "10-16" where adults lip sync to the words spoken by children within that age range.  The selection of the adults was very particular and intended match the sometimes happy, sometimes confused voices and feelings of the children.  I loved the 10-year old and the vision of playing in a tree house was very strong, as was also at the other end the matched actor to the anxieties of the16-year old, who was disturbed through having been fat and was struggling to find his sexuality.  In this last one, there is a connection to GW, as she appears, initially in the frame perfectly still with her back to the viewer as though to signify that this was indeed an interview.  As she is so still, could that have been a mannequin made to look like her?

In between there was the series of videos "confessions" where members of the public had responded to an advertisement and "confess" from behind the anonymity of a mask.  The confessions were disturbing in themselves, not least also due to the grotesqueness of the masks.

In summary, an enjoyable visit which certainly met its objectives and very thought-provoking.  Would I recommend this exhibition - absolutely.  I found it difficult to describe my emotions on here, so you must go to see it and experience it yourself.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the name check Tad. It was good to meet you. I have taken a look through your account of the visit. I made a few notes at the gallery and your post has helped me to sort out one or two things in my head. I've re watched the You Tube introduction, re-read the Guardian article (plus another one) but I'm still not clear how I feel about this work. Perhaps another night's sleep will help. Hope to see you on another visit soon.