Saturday, 28 April 2012

OCA Study Visit 28/04/12 – Gillian Wearing Whitechapel Gallery

This was my first study visit with the OCA and I was sent very useful joining instructions which set out the objectives for the visit:
 gain 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

The introductory video by the gallery curator Daniel Hermann is here:
In it, he states quite clearly “Gillian Wearing is interested in the divide we build between the front stage and the back stage of our lives” and “the powerful discrepancy between the public and private is at the heart of the work of Gillian Wearing”.
I have also read two articles from the Guardian newspaper, the first gives some background to the exhibition and the second is a review by Laura Cumming:
This link gives some more background to the exhibition with some interesting images of the construction of the masks for the album series.
A personal perspective
The first objective is probably the most difficult to tackle. It is now three days since the visit and I am still trying to make up my mind about how I feel about this body of work. This degree course is my first encounter with the arts. As yet, I don’t understand a lot about why artists do what they do and what motivates them.
From the information above, it is quite clear that the purpose of the work is to examine the differences between the perception of ourselves that we present outwardly and  the private, hidden self within us. In Tim Adam’s article for the Observer, he starts his piece recounting an overheard conversation on the top deck of the 55 bus. This relatively new phenomenon shows how readily we are prepared (almost without thought) to share details of our lives in public.  Social networking, blogging, ‘reality’ TV shows, instant communication and celebrity see us sharing more of our lives with the world. This seems to be self perpetuating, the more we see, the more we want to see and share. With the current speed of  communication and interaction, perhaps Andy Warhol's alternative quote “in 15 minutes everyone will be famous” could be just around the corner.
As a group, we looked closely at these parts of the exhibition:
  • Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say  what someone else wants you to say.
  • 2 into 1
  • 10 to 16
  • Crowd (a painstaking video  reproduction of Albrecht Dürer’s “A large piece of turf” 1503) link here
Of these, “Signs…” was the one I found most interesting. Given that the subjects were presumably given a free reign on what they wrote, I wonder if there were perhaps some frivolous thoughts or even if there was an element of people writing what they thought was expected (i.e something outrageous) rather than what they were actually thinking. I’m sure most of us are thinking very banal things most of the time.Very difficult to judge and equally thought provoking. Michael Lawton, who showed us around the gallery mentioned that apparently,  the suited business man holding the sign “I’m desperate” rushed away from the scene once his photograph was taken. I wonder if he was “desperate” for the bathroom? (That note of cynicism still surfaces, is that healthy?) I think this was a good way to engage people in the creation of an artwork and the signs make you think “what would I write?”
In the same gallery space there were three contemporary small painted bronze sculptures of named individuals, all heroic in very different ways.
Crowd It would have been easy to overlook this small video screen tucked into a corner. I thought this was a very interesting and simple idea. The artist has  reproduced this 16th century watercolour by Albrecht Dürer and  produced a 15 minute video loop. To see any change you have to search the image almost as minutely as the artist’s recreation was painstaking but you are rewarded with subtle changes in light and the movement of ants over the leaves.
2 into 1 This was amusing. Twin boys’ comments lip-synced by their mother and vice versa was a very clever idea and although the things they said were as you would expect from a mother and her sons talking about each other, each twin reacted to his mother’s words as they were played back and synced by his brother. It must have been toe curling and embarrassing for all parties but they carried it off brilliantly.
10 to 16. This I found strangely disturbing. Seven children from the ages of 10 to 16 speaking about their lives, their words lip-synced by adult actors. Again, with the exception of the 16 year olds contribution, much as you would expect to hear from children of this age. To hear children’s voices from the mouths of adults seems somewhat sinister to me. During  discussions it was mentioned that perhaps this was a device to make us listen more closely. I wondered if  one or two in this series of videos were deliberately designed to shock. One of the children’s voices was lip-synced by a naked dwarf sat on the edge of a bath which was disturbing (to me at least). The final sequence from the 16 year old was also provocative in that it was graphic in it’s description of the boys confusion over his sexuality. I’m afraid I am of the generation that stills finds four letter words cause me to wince inwardly although I do  accept them (reluctantly) as part of everyday expression.
Album (the family likenesses) I didn’t know how I felt about this at the time and nearly a week later I’m still uncertain. I can understand the idea that you may wish to draw attention to family likenesses and that to wear a mask and body suit of a relative to show an intimate connection  reinforces this. What I do admire is the execution of the idea, a very complex and time consuming process which produced something of interest. As a technical process, very challenging. Is that its own reward perhaps? This work tells us something about Gillian Wearing but I’m not sure what. The second part of this gallery, the artists Wearing considers her major influences, is clearly meant as a tribute to Arbus, Mapplethorpe, Warhol Cahun and Sander. Again the masks are beautifully created and the poses are based on existing photographs. I’m not sure if this type of work has ever been done on this scale before. Maybe this is the artist’s motivation?
There were other video sequences to watch, the confessions series, and one or two others but I had seen enough. I found the video “Dancing in Peckham” amusing for a few seconds and was more interested to see the reaction of passers by who seemed to treat the arm waving and head banging dancer as part of the everyday experience of a shopping centre.
All of this makes me think that it is more important that I preserve (rather than hide) my “backstage”. I don’t consider that I have anything to hide but on the other hand, there is a lot which could be misinterpreted or misused and besides, I have to reserve some aspects of my personality for those I wish to be intimate with. After all, if you show it all to everyone, what is left? I think Gillian Wearing knows this only too well.
The Gallery Experience It was pointed out to us as we entered the first part of the exhibition where the majority of the video screening booths were located, how like the “backstage” area of a theatre it was with the unpainted wooden framework exposed all around us. The photographs were hung differently, the Signs series were arranged like large contact sheets, the Album series at differing heights with different coloured frames, an informal family collection whereas the others on the opposite wall were of similar size and arranged formally in a straight row. I’m not sure whether these arrangements affected the way I perceived the exhibits, it may have been very subtle.
Networking This was certainly a very effective way of getting to meet other students, a tutor and staff involved with the OCA. Lively discussion took place in the gallery Cafe about the exhibition, our individual courses, submissions for assessment events, art and photography in general. A very worthwhile and rewarding experience topped off by an additional visit to the FOTO8 Gallery to see the Dana Popa “After the New Man” exhibition.
A slideshow of the images is available on the link above. Essentially, the photographer has documented the everyday lives of the young people in post Communist Romania. These images were supplemented by a caption list which provided a commentary; echoes of the past interspersed with the hopes that these young people hold for the future.
Reflection This visit has gone some way to help me to understand what art is, why artists do what they do and the role of  the artist in society. I read on one of the OCA forums last year in which Clive W. said that our understanding would come in time. I think I am a little closer to flicking that switch.