Gillian Wearing – Whitechapel Gallery

Posted on May 2, 2012


I have visited the Gillian Wearing exhibition at the Whitechapel twice. It is a time hungry exhibition with several video pieces which are  quite long.

Overall I found the work interesting but only to a point. Much of Wearing’s work is founded upon the same premise which is that the public face is quite often at odds with the inner self. It appears that Wearing has been much influenced by the work of American sociologist Erving Goffman.  Goffman produced his seminal book Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life in 1959. In this he talks about ‘Frontstage’ or public face and ‘Backstage’ or inner self. I have obtained a copy of this book and will at a later stage post a more detailed commentary on its key messages.

I found one of her earliest series Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say  the most interesting piece. This was a series of street portraits in which her subjects were asked to write what they were thinking on a card and then be photographed along with the card. The portraits are made in ‘snapshot’ mode without careful consideration of aesthetic considerations – she chops off people’s feet and horizons are not alway level etc. This gives the photographs an authentic feel which adds to the credibility of the overall project. Many of the signs are surprising and are significantly at odds with the appearance of the subject. For example the well dressed apparently confident city gent displaying the sign ‘I’m desperate’.

The notion of ‘Frontstage’ and ‘Backstage’ are interesting for my own work and I will give this a lot more consideration once I have read Goffman’s book.

Wearing’s portraits of herself disguised as members of her family are very well known. These works I found difficult to read. On the face of it they are typical photographs from family albums. But on closer inspection they appear slightly off. The key to this is the eyes where one can just see that the subject is wearing a mask. With knowledge that these are photographs of Wearing made up to look like her family member one is then faced with the dilemma that they appear like one person (‘Frontstage’) yet in reality they are another (‘Backstage’). This realisation made me even more curious about what was going on in Wearing’s mind as the photographs were taken. I found myself staring into her eyes for some clue. The other very noticeable feature of these photographs is that they are huge gallery sized prints. This coupled with the fact that they are being viewed in a gallery add further complexity. Are we to view them as works of art, family snapshots, sociological studies or what?

The exhibition has numerous video works by Wearing. I was particularly taken by the video 10-16 made in 1997. This work shows a series of interviews with children, one for each of the ages from 10 to 16. The voices of the children are superimposed on video footage of adult actors. My first reaction to this was confusion. I had not read about the work before watching it and so it took me some time to work out what was going on. After a while I found that I had to disengage from the outward representation, i.e. the adult (‘Frontstage’) and listen very carefully to what was being said by the inner self i.e. the child  (‘Backstage”). I am not sure whether this was the intention of the artist but it really did heighten my awareness of what was being said as I was no longer diverted by outward, perhaps contradictory signs. I had to concentrate on what was being ‘given’ rather than what was being ‘given off’, to use Goffman’s terminology.

Many of the other video’s operated in a similar manner. Some I found very difficult and disturbing to watch. Sacha and Mum 1996 for example showed some quite violent scenes enacted between a mother and daughter with the sound heavily distorted.

Wearing generally obtains her subject by advertising in local newspapers etc. So all of them are volunteers. There was much discussion amongst the OCA group members during the visit as to whether the volunteers really understood what they were getting into and to what extend they were being exploited. Personally I think that in the situations where the identity is protected by the use of masks or by actors standing in the represent the person physically then there is no significant ethical concern. With regards to the videos and photographs where the individuals are clearly identified I think the key question is whether the individual is happy to have their inner feelings made public. In these days of social networks and reality TV I believe that these issues are of less public concern. Indeed many are happy to have their moment of fame even if it exposes inner frailties. On balance as a photographer I think that it is right that the works should be displayed but it is incumbent on the photographer to make the subjects aware of what they are letting themselves in for.

On balance although I found the works repetitive in terms of theme, the exhibition was very thought provoking and has raised some interesting ideas which will add value to may studies.


Whitechapel Gallery (2012) Gillian Wearing London: Ridinghouse

Goffman, E. (1959) The Representation of Self in Everyday Life London: Penguin