A retrospective of Gillian Wearing’s work ran from March 28 – June 17 at London’s Whitechapel Gallery and following quickly on its heels will be an exhibition at K20 Kunsthallsammlung NRW in Dusseldorf (September 8, 2012 – January 6, 2013). William Corwin sat down with Wearing at her East London studio to quiz her about various projects in her past and present, particularly her 2010 feature film Self-Made.
William Corwin (Rail): A single early video of yours was displayed very dramatically upon entering your retrospective at Whitechapel. In the midst of a darkened room, initially the visitor saw only a smallish TV monitor displaying “Dancing at Peckham” (1994). Can you tell me the origins of the piece?
Gillian Wearing: I was at the Royal Festival Hall one weekend and I saw this woman dancing very wildly, out of sync with a jazz band that was playing; it was almost as if she was in her own world. She didn’t seem to be with anyone. I was totally transfixed. I tried to work up the courage to ask her to be in a work of mine. I didn’t know what kind of work, I just thought, “when I see someone like that, fantastic, I really want to find out a bit more about them.” But I didn’t pick up the courage and that was probably a good thing, because you can’t really stop someone from dancing and start talking to them. Also, I didn’t know if I stopped her what I’d actually ask her for, really.
Rail: Yeah, what would you say?
Wearing: Exactly. “Can you recreate this moment, but I don’t know where or when?” It was frustrating—I had quite a few moments like those early on where I’d see people I knew would be great in a video. I’m still shy but I was incredibly shy then. I was quite annoyed with myself for two weeks after that. I realized there must be something about that dancing that was really important—why was it important? What was it about it? And then I just came up with the idea it had to be me being her, or actually it had to be me doing the dancing, and that seemed to resolve all my frustrations. I decided I should dance somewhere, out of sync, not in relation to the environment around me.
Rail: You first performed this piece in a South London shopping center. Was there any preparation?
Wearing: I practiced and created a tape with all my favorite music on it, so then I could almost play it my head, because I didn’t want to wear a Walkman or anything like that. I thought I’d only last about five minutes because it’s hard dancing without music. But, because I didn’t want to do it again, I actually lasted 25 minutes; the time went quite fast in a way because it was quite embarrassing. It was very hard because it’s hard not to be distracted by the shoppers, but I wasn’t going to look at them because I was meant to be in a state of euphoria, dancing. So that’s kind of the origin of that piece. When I first watched it, I didn’t know if I was disappointed or not. It was very hard to look at myself because you feel like you’re in turmoil when you’re dancing because you’re doing something slightly exhibitionist, but I didn’t feel like an exhibitionist, at the same time. I have a better relationship to it now. It’s almost as if I’m looking at someone else dancing.
Rail: I’d describe your work as inhabiting the awkward space between confession and information that people desperately want to share, but can’t. You did a show in 2009 at the Musée Rodin called Confessions/Portraits, Vidéos. Confessions and these two branches seem to define much of your direction in the last seven years.
Wearing: Not all of the work is confessional, but there is an aspect of confession that’s been there from the very beginning. You could say the Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say (1992–3) series was confessional in a way because I approached people on the street and asked them to write something on a piece of paper. I hadn’t even thought that maybe they would write something personal; the pieces that seem to work are when you do sense someone confessing something. Particularly, say, the business man who holds up a sign saying “I’m Desperate.” It’s obviously not the complete story; you have to then fill in the blanks as to why you think he’s desperate. But that set me on the path to thinking about interior monologues and finding that everyone’s got a story; everyone’s either got a secret or everyone’s got something that you can’t perceive by just meeting them briefly or seeing them from a distance. So with the confession pieces I started in 1994 (and gathered into the film Confess All On Video: Don’t Worry You Will Be in Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian), I decided that I wanted people to feel protected when they talked about certain things in their life that they wouldn’t want the public that knows them to know. I can understand that sort of holding on to things—it’s kind of part of British society to hold things in. I always think of Britain as being a place where you’re meant to keep your secrets—you should never tell your neighbors or tell anyone. Things are changing now, because the culture’s changed and the Internet has brought people out. We have Facebook and Twitter where people tell you small details of their life.
But there are still large instances where people need to withhold secrets, and even since I first started the confessional pieces, I think we as a society have changed—people are being more open now—and that’s why I decided to make a piece called “Secrets and Lies” (2004). It’s the real big secrets that you probably have to keep from your friends, your colleagues. People came forward and again I used the same method, wearing masks to conceal identity. The masks kind of help protect the people, but people also feel quite empowered by them because they know they’re not waiting for some post-production facility to blank their faces out, and it gives them a sense of slightly being a different person because obviously when you put on a disguise you can be free of yourself for a certain while. There are some very big secrets in the film, really some large confessions, quite harrowing ones as well. I showed the work in a very small space, a bit like a confessional booth, so you had this very intimate experience when you faced the person, which is a sort of head and shoulders shot, that the person is somehow only talking personally to you. Someone telling you something for the first time, you really get close to the stories in that way.
Rail: I found myself in a mix between feeling sorry for some of the people and at other times becoming quite hostile toward them. Some of the masks seem to respond to this. Do you have a sense of the story the individual is going to tell and do you assign masks to complement that story?
Wearing: Some people do tell me their story before we meet, others only want to tell their stories when the camera is switched on. I leave the situation always very open. I do not assign masks to anyone. Some of the participants have chosen which mask they want to wear, other times I help the people try on the different masks to see which one fits the best.
Rail: You also wear masks in a series of portraits of your family, major figures from the history of photography, and from the New York scene.
Wearing: I’ve got a series of photographs of me in disguise as three New York artists, Diane Arbus, Andy Warhol, and Robert Mapplethorpe. I did a series in 2003–2006 where I became all my family members and I wore different masks, then I decided I wanted to do my spiritual family, the artists who have influenced me. My first photograph was me as Diane Arbus; then I did the very famous Mapplethorpe photograph where he’s holding a walking stick with a skull on it, it’s one of his last self-portraits. Then I did a photograph which is a hybrid; it’s a photograph as Warhol, based on two photographs: the Christopher Makos one that he did when he was in drag and the Richard Avedon one where he’s showing his scar. It’s about an artist referencing another artist referencing the artist as iconic figure. I’m interested in people, basically.
Rail: When did you first discover these artists? When you first started looking at photography?
Wearing: I knew about Warhol before I knew about Diane Arbus, and before I even considered wanting to be an artist I remember going to a screening in King’s Cross in the early ’80s when I’d first come to London at the age of 19, and going into an all-night screening of Warhol films. I knew Warhol in the sense that everyone knew who he was in the ’80s because he was very famous, on adverts, and he was on about the soup can. You didn’t need to know much about contemporary art but you knew who Warhol was. But seeing his films was a different side of Warhol that I hadn’t come across before, and for me he was sort of someone who was like the Renaissance man: he was able to go into the media, he was able to be a fine artist, he was also able to be a personality, like a celebrity and at the same time he was critiquing celebrities. He was an influence, but in a sense of the possibilities of what an artist can be in the contemporary world.
Rail: And Diane Arbus?
Wearing: Warhol wasn’t as big an influence as Arbus, whose work I didn’t know until I was at Goldsmiths. There was a lecture on photography, and one image really stuck out out was her photograph of the twin girls. It was beautifully explained by the lecturer at the time; he said “this is a psychological portrait, if you look at the eyes, one’s introverted, one’s extroverted, that’s all you kind of need to know.” And then you realize the differences in individuality; these are twins, they’re meant to be the same, virtually, but they’re completely opposite of each other. It was a bit like an Alice in Wonderland moment. But I didn’t go out and make any photographs after seeing that. It wasn’t until I started doing the signs that someone pointed out the similarity to Arbus. I know what they were trying to say, because I was just approaching anyone on the street, but I couldn’t see that many parallels. If I was to find a parallel I’d say it’s because you look twice between what the person’s saying and what they look like. With Arbus there is that sense of the psychological which interests me, but I’ve taken a different path. It’s good to have that spiritual family there as a sort of backbone, but you don’t want to emulate anyone: what interests you is a part of who you are and how you were brought up and the experiences around you. Arbus had a different life and a different experience from me so I can only bring to the work what I know about the world that I inhabit. But they’re there as really good role models in that sense. So that’s trying to inhabit them for a very brief moment. I almost thought maybe one day I’d do a film where I would play Arbus, but I don’t know how successfully it would ever work out.
Rail: There’s a heavy element of personality in the Arbus, Warhol, and Mapplethorpe portraits, but the August Sander image of himself is much more staid and sort of documentary. Why did you choose Sander to inhabit? That seems less about iconic imagery and more about a fascination with perhaps a methodology.
Wearing: I feel the Sander looks like a Sander photograph, a documentary photograph where the person imaged directly faces the camera. Arbus I believed also looked at Sander’s work, in fact some of Sander’s images look like she could have taken them. His influence on me came after Arbus, but you can see how he changed the face of photography. His photographs are more than the explanation behind the work of photographing everyone he could; they transcend that.
Rail: This is completely out of left field, but you seem supremely qualified to comment on this: I would just like to know what you think of reality television, of people exposing their lives in a way they never did before. The magic of your art is that it’s hidden. When it’s not hidden, does that completely ruin the idea of keeping things to yourself?
Wearing: Yeah, the world’s changed from when I did the signs. If I did them now, maybe they’d get different reactions, I don’t know. Saying that, when I first did them I was surprised how open people were in contrast to what everyone said about people never telling you anything about themselves, particularly in Great Britain. I found people to be incredibly open and I think the signs are a good way of saying the media only represents a very small portion of the population. When you go out there, there are much more interesting things to be said and heard but they don’t make the TV or the printed media because people haven’t found a way to find those voices yet. I think what happened with reality television is that it’s invited, at least in the very early stages anyway, people that you hadn’t necessarily seen represented on TV before. Of course now with a lot of TV programs, they find who the ideal person would be for reality television and they are normally quite extroverted and even exhibitionist. But in the very early stages, which I thought were really brilliant, particularly things like Big Brother, the people who came forward saw it as something that was an experiment. They were interested in what they could get out of, not realizing there could be a media career for themselves afterwards.
What is the right and wrong about what people should reveal about themselves? What was not acceptable in the ’70s we’d not be shocked about now. It all happens very gradually really. But I think openness is probably a better thing than not, ultimately. I’d be interested to know, in the next generation, how it changes social life really. With my own work I’ve obviously had to consider all those changes because it affects what I was doing originally: I was thinking of things that I felt weren’t being heard, and now there’s an opportunity for people to have some kind of voice. I think being heard is an important thing for everyone.
Rail: You made a movie in 2010, Self-Made, which I think encapsulates exactly this idea. You mentioned earlier that there is a type of person that is drawn to reality television, and you definitely did not recruit people like that for Self-Made! Instead they seem to range from normal or quiet to introverted. Using the Method acting technique you draw them out and have them tell their stories, and then create a fictional or historical performance or scene that fits their personalities. First off, once people responded to the newspaper advertisement, how did you choose the cast?
Wearing: The casting took about four years in total, partly as the budget for the film wasn’t green lit until the end of that period. Initially there were thousands of replies, and you had to look through the written applications to try and work out who best to audition. I chose around 60 people based on the ideas they had on who they wanted to play.
Rail: How long have you been interested in Method?
Wearing: I came to Method rather naively. I knew that a lot of the directors and actors that I thought were brilliant were connected to Method teachings. When I was looking into structuring the film I thought Method would be perfect as you have to bring a part of yourself to a character and my participants had thought up the ideas for who they wanted to be in the film so it made sense that they would bring an aspect of themselves to their creations.
Rail: You do frequently work with actors in lieu of real people—sometimes substituting real people’s voices while an actor lip-syncs along (as in “10–16,” 1997). What are your thoughts about mixing theater and reality in this way, having real people act or having actors mimic the actual actions of individuals (as opposed to inventing those actions)?
Wearing: We are all performers and actors. We perform the moment we walk out of our front doors. I don’t really want to delineate between an actor and real person as an actor is a real person. I am, however, interested in the metaphor of acting and real life. I am very interested in the writings of the sociologist Erving Goffman who wrote about the frontstage and backstage, the frontstage where we wear our social masks and the backstage where we relax and become less aware of our actions and what we say.
Rail: Could you talk about City Racing, where you showed Signs in 1993?
Wearing: City Racing was run by artists that were actually friends. It came after Freeze and it was almost the opposite of Freeze, which was, in my mind, something more glamorous because it was this big space in the Docklands, a big warehouse. City Racing was an ex-bookie’s where people used to bet on horses, and so it was a small kind of shop-like space. So it was quite intimate—a former squat, actually—and it didn’t have that grand museum-like quality. I was originally going to do a collaboration with Paul Noble who was one of the artists that ran the space. We sat down and tried to think of a collaboration together but it didn’t seem to be going very far.
I was offered a solo show in ’93, and that was the whole space, three small rooms really, and I showed the signs work and two other photographic pieces as well. It was a good thing to do. It wasn’t a huge audience; probably on the weekend you could expect like 20 people to come and see your work. It’s not bad for a little unknown gallery. I had my first sale through them as well: they put an advert in Frieze magazine—Eileen Cohen who’s a collector in New York saw “I’m Desperate” and phoned the gallery up and said “I want that image.” So I think it was like 250£, that was my very first sale, it sort of launched me into the world of being collected!
Every month they would do a City Racing private viewing and it was something to look forward to because you’d go there, then you’d all go to the pub afterwards and get drunk and hang out with people you know. It felt quite casual but also at the same time you’d get reviews. I had a couple of reviews in Time Out and Art Monthly. It was my first experience of having a solo show. Always very nerve-wracking—on the private view night I couldn’t speak at all, I was so nervous, and someone was trying to ask me about the works and just couldn’t say anything. Even though it was kind of a small space, it was kind of a big thing for me in those days.
Rail: Did this gallery function as an emerging artist venue?
Wearing: With the signs, which I did start two years before, I didn’t know they were seen as art: I didn’t think of showing in any art galleries. I went to Face magazine in 1992 and showed them to the people there. I was very foolish because I didn’t realize I was leaving all my original slide film. I left all the originals, without taking copies! They decided to give me two pages in the magazine, and I thought, well that’s perfect because I showed them about 30-something images. I always thought, well maybe this is for print media, but then they were in a show at Gio Marconi curated by Liam Gillick. So I knew that they worked as images. I didn’t know what size I should print them; eventually I just printed them at A3 size, which was just the size of the paper the people were holding. They had a little exposure before City Racing. I knew as an idea that they worked. If you think about contemporary art in the early ’90s, it was very aestheticized and leaning more towards sculpture, if anything, and so these were snapshots that weren’t quite aesthetic in many respects. They showed at 303 Gallery afterwards, that summer of 1993. I knew it was a good piece of work, but getting it in galleries was not as easy because the medium wasn’t particularly fashionable at the time.
Rail: You’ve created a series of small sculptures, I’m thinking particularly of “Terri” (2011) which was a tribute to 9/11. What motivated you to create these pieces, and why have you chosen such a small scale?
Wearing: I wanted to make some social sculptures, celebrating the heroic actions of individuals. I wanted a small size sculpture so I could build a portable collection where the monuments can easily be all shown together. Coincidentally, all the people portrayed have come from uniformed vocations. Two policemen and one solider. I didn’t want to show them in uniform but in everyday clothes so as to show the real everyday face whilst the words on the small plinths explain the extraordinary events.
This interview appeared on Art International Radio in a different form. Special thanks to Michael Craig-Martin and Anna Preston Gelderd for making this interview possible.
WILLIAM CORWIN is a sculptor and curator based in New York City. His work has been reviewed in the Brooklyn Rail, ARTnews, Sculpture Magazine, Artcritical, and Art Monthly. In 2016, he organized I Cyborg at the Gazelli Art House in London. He currently teaches with the Meet the Met program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and hosts a program on Clocktower Radio.