The work of British artist Gillian Wearing resides somewhere in the intermediary space between documentary staging and the complex aesthetics that categorize contemporary fine art. Only one of three women ever awarded Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize, Wearing has been confronting the art world with her honest and affecting photographic projects since the mid-’90s. At Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, the artist has organized a mini-retrospective of sorts, People (2005 – 2011), showcasing her most recent experiments on the subject of the human condition. Ranging from video, to photographic portraiture, to installation and even sculpture, the exhibited catalogue of projects are as formally diverse as they are psychologically rattling.

Gillian Wearing, “Bully,” 2010. Video for projection. 7 minutes, 55 seconds. Film Still. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

One of the original YBA’s (Young British Artists), Wearing introduced herself to the art scene with a series of documentary photographs, Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992 – 93), in which she prompted strangers on the street to write something about themselves on a piece of white card stock. In straightforward journalistic fashion, the artist then photographed her subjects holding the completed signs. Evocative results abounded as people used these blank slates to project their innermost thoughts, insecurities, and/or emotional pain: a young businessman holds up a sign that reads “I’m desperate;” a police officer writes a plea for “HELP.” Such unconstrained confessional acts, solicited by and revealed to a complete stranger, became the basis for Wearing’s work, and find common footing in all of the pieces exhibited at Tanya Bonakdar.

Photography is especially slippery for Wearing. Influenced by the candor relayed in English fly-on-the-wall television documentaries from the ’70s, her subsequent use of the medium continuously blurs the line between reality and fiction, as in her triptych series of large-scale, black and white portraits of the artist as Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus, and Robert Mapplethorpe. This same sensibility extends to Snapshot (2005), a series of seven single-projection videos framed by a candy-colored array of plasma screens. All depict different stages of the female life cycle—from the innocence of early childhood to old age—while the images’ picture quality and dress are reminiscent of the recently bygone Kodachrome era. These “living” portraits move, fidget, and stare, awkwardly vacillating amid the stereotypical postures that have historically constituted portraiture in the West, from the age of Rembrandt up to that of Reagan. The bolt in this suite of images, therefore, strikes not in their content (i.e. the average female) but, rather, in their presentation. Ever so subtle are the slight traces of movement that flip the concept on its head, exposing traditional portrait photography for what it truly is—artificial, surreal, and given the delicate nature of gender-building and identity formation, even dangerous.

Gillian Wearing, Snapshot, 2005. 7 videos for framed plasma screens. 6 minutes, 55 seconds (loop). Overall installed dimensions: 143.31 × 393.7 inches. Photo: Jean Vong. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Similar investigations occur on the second floor of the gallery space with “Secrets and Lies” (2009). In a 53:16 minute video, nine Brits “confess all” behind an assortment of misshapen masks, their identities hidden not by cliché (as in Snapshot), but instead by the impenetrability of a tangible object. The results of anonymity are palpable as individual after individual confesses to a string of immoral acts from adultery to embezzlement and even murder. One particularly disquieting interview features a man in a crimson hooded sweatshirt, his expression rendered completely blank by his prosthetic mask, save three holes cut out for the eyes and mouth. Over the course of approximately 15 minutes, this lost and grieving personality recounts the abuse and neglect he endured as a child, his eventual turn towards violence, and the beating to death of a stranger. For this crime he spent 13 years in prison where, in a stroke of fated luck, he met his wife, a guard at the penitentiary. His story did not end there, but it was at this point that I became consciously aware of the empowerment conferred by the disguise. This barrier not only afforded a confessional healing on the part of this man, but allowed me, his confessor, to access that catharsis. The mask, marauding as a benevolent gesture on the part of the artist, becomes equally necessary for the viewer—a two-way mirror impartial to both sides.

Wearing plumbs the depths of residual emotional scars even further with her video, “Bully” (2010), a project extending from her feature length film, Self Made (2010). In this staged enactment, the protagonist recreates a traumatic scene from his youth, casting actors in archetypal roles of bully, bystander, etc. As the participants taunt the victim with insults, a shift occurs and the enactment, triggering the witness of a painful memory, becomes a real-time exercise in psychological healing.

“The camera lies,” Wearing states in an interview with BOMB magazine. Indeed, it does. The mythic guise of truth telling has long been falsely associated with documentary media, its deceptive arms becoming further entangled by the manipulative aspects of technological post-production. Barry Friedlander, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall—all employ chameleonesque machinations as a means of fingering the duplicities inherently tied to the notion of photographic “truth.” But these aims are most often outwardly directed; they do not alter experience, only question it. In providing anonymity to her subjects, Wearing gives guileless voice to a collection of forgotten souls. There is no place to hide from this work. Frank, revelatory, and brutally honest, all one can do is steel oneself against the truths that unfold—and then, with heavy breath, let that information in.


Kara L. Rooney

Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.