exploring art and writing

Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say: the art of Gillian Wearing.

In Art on May 10, 2015 at 8:51 am
‘I’m desperate’ © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London

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

Let’s say a person you didn’t know propositioned you to write a snippet about anything on a blank piece of paper – kind of like a tweet before any of us really knew what the internet actually was. Now let’s say that person then requested a photograph of you with your piece of worldly wisdom in order to exhibit it to the world. What would you write?

This is exactly what YBA (Young British Artist) and Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing asked members of the London public to do from 1992-1993. Titled Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say, the resulting images range from the extremely jovial to the heart-wrenchingly poignant.

‘I have been certified as mildly insane’ © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London

I have been certified as mildly insane’ © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London

I have been certified as mildly insane’ © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London

Wearing made it clear in an interview with Paul Judd that artworks such as Signs… are an attempt to “find out as many facets as possible about people. I’m interested in people more than I am in myself, maybe that’s what it is”.

In fact, almost all of her work involves the documentation of people other than herself. In Drunk (1997-99) she gave some of the more colourful characters from British society free reign in her studio in order to make a three-channel video projection. In 10-16 (1997) we see adult performers lip-syncing perfectly to the confessions of young children and teenagers. In Confessions (1994) we encounter the masked faces of those who responded to her advertisement in Time Out Magazine: “Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry You Will Be in Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian”.

‘Help’ © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London

‘Help’ © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London

‘Help’ © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London

In many ways Wearing’s projects almost seem to be verging on therapy for the participants. This is not so surprising considering the subjects that she lists as influencing her practice, with reality television and fly-on-the-wall documentaries being two of her primary fascinations and concerns.

In works such as Signs… and in many of the videos that followed, the participants’ written and spoken revelations are often surprising and moving, be they shocking, disturbing or amusing in content. What is perhaps most enlightening, however, is how readily we seem to welcome the catharsis of releasing our stories and emotions to a stranger. Who knows what we’d find out about people if we just thought to ask?

This post was originally published on Guy.com

signs 4

‘I signed on and they would not give me nothing’ © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London

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