Since seeing some of Gillian Wearing’s video works at the Guggenheim in New York nearly 10 years ago, Mrs B has been a big fan. So, we took the chance during our Easter break in London to see her exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery.
The show itself was on two levels of the gallery. On the ground floor four rooms were set up showing a retrospective of earlier video works. The film of actors playing a by turns violent and tender mother-daughter relationship, running backwards, was almost unwatchably unpleasant. It reminded me of the footage of the assault on Rodney King by LA Police Officers when it was shown in edited form by the officers’ defence lawyers to make it look as if the officers were unbeating him up. That also called to mind an experience of mine from my short career as a criminal defence barrister in a case where my pupilmaster was defending a man charged with assaulting his pregnant ex-girlfriend. The defendant in that case was insistent that what witnesses had seen when his girlfriend was on the floor after the initial headbutt was him trying to help her back up rather forcefully, rather than him landing further blows to her abdomen (fortunately no harm was actually inflicted on her unborn child).
There was also a small video monitor in the middle of the room showing Wearing dancing alone in the middle of a shopping mall. That video was made long before YouTube made such videos a commonplace so the impact of it was probably much greater then than now, but even so, seeing incongruous and unrestrained dancing while people go about their dreary shopping was interesting. OMB liked that he was encouraged to join in with a bit of dancing of his own!
Similarly, the series of photos making up Signs that say what you want them to say, and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say that were the first exhibit on the upper floor have lost some of their impact since 1992 when the work was made. The idea of getting people to hold up unexpected subtitling to their real thoughts has been used in advertising and also in the romcom Love Actually and so is somewhat less edgy now than it was. That’s both a risk and a validation for Wearing’s work in my opinion – her pioneering ways of expressing real but hidden thoughts and feelings have become mainstream so that when replicated they seem like clichés while the original works are not.
I’m not so sure that the main newer works on the upper level, the series of mask photos will endure in quite the same way. These show Wearing’s eyes today behind masks of people, both family members and artists, who have influenced her (including one photo of her middle aged eyes staring out of a photo of her when she was 17). These are unsettling and disconcerting, but were for me, for some reason, also not very engaging.
Although the show is rightly described as not suitable for children, the curators were aware that it isn’t always possible for people to visit without their children. The exhibition therefore included an excellent (and free) activity pack for children so that they could participate. This meant that we were able to see much of the exhibition before OMB got too bored. The pack had two main activities. First, the instruction to dance and then to write what you were feeling to wear as a sign and second, a pair of masks to cut out with glasses, moustaches and other decorations to add. These let OMB participate in thinking along the lines that Wearing had done for two of the major series of works in the exhibition and would also have allowed older children to be led further into accessing the works to the extent that they were suitable for them.