I had an enjoyable morning at the latest OCA study day at the Whitechapel Gallery on Saturday. It was good to meet up with everyone and also to listen to other points of view on the exhibition from the other students, the curator and tutors.
The Gillian Wearing exhibition is concerned with aspects of our public and private faces. I have seen some of her video work before (the twins and mother video) but this retrospective helped me to consolidate in my mind what her work was all about. The many faces that we portray (public and private being just two) is a subject area that I find fascinating and as a student photographer to be able to see the progression of these ideas in all of Gillian's work was enlightening.
The exhibition begins with a video of the artist dancing to silent music (in her head) in a busy shopping centre. The curator for the Whitechapel Gallery began his talk to our group in this spot. Unfortunately the noise from the other video booths was very distracting and I found it hard to concentrate on what he was saying. It felt a bit like being in a crowded swimming pool and I couldn't wait to move on.
In the next gallery the images from the series, "Signs that say what you want them to say, and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say." were hung on the wall in a block and as a whole were very effective. Some of the signs were very poignant such as the policemen with the one that read "help" or the businessman with "desperate." Some of the signs were more amusing or cryptic. I found the concept of giving an anonymous person in the street an opportunity to reveal some of their inner thoughts to the world at large an interesting one. The danger is that some of the people would truly reveal a private face and others would just be showing another mask entirely. I thought this may be the case with some of the jokier signs. The artist must be aware of this and therefore another, deeper, layer is added to the images for me.
In another room Gillian's "mask" images were on display. Another element to her investigation into public/private faces is to use a team to create lifelike masks of her family members and people that she has admired creatively. The masks were very convincing with just areas around the eye and nose to indicate that a mask is being worn. The work reminded me of the personas that Cindy Sherman adopts to create her "types." Gillian also wears wigs and costume and a set is designed to replicate some of the original images from her family albums. This work comes across as much more personal and the image of her brother bare chested in stained tracksuit bottoms, brushing his long hair and getting ready to go out, sometime in the mid 80's is very effective. A whole body suit was constructed for this image rather than just a face mask.
An image that I found quite upsetting was the "Self-Portrait at Three Years Old, 2004" The thought of even a three year old having a mask to face the outside world was too close to home for me and I had to walk away from it. A very powerful image.
The video booths showed people reading lip-synching to intimate confessions from anonymous people or the originator disguised in some way. This is a further development in Gillian's interest in the public and private persona. I decided not to listen to the description of child abuse in one of the booths but did go into the twins one although I have seen this piece in another gallery. It is very disarming to see the words of the twins coming from the mother's mouth - especially as the twins are brutally honest about their thoughts on her. I studied the mothers face for signs of reaction to the words as she spoke them but could not detect anything. I guess the recording of the performance itself made her very aware of herself and so she displays an alternative public mask in juxtaposition to the private and uncensored words of her children.
As always I enjoyed the study day and it was good to meet up with other students. What I have found most useful was to analyse the different methods that contemporary artist use to create a piece of work. The wigs and body suits, clothing and sets, even creative teams to produce these, are just tools to enable them to explore a concept and sometimes the photography seems like it is a record of an event rather than the end product in itself. Fascinating stuff...