October 13 – November 16, 2014
Tranquil, sunny scenes of a British town fill the first frames of Gillian Wearing’s latest film, We Are Here, showing at Maureen Paley’s landmark gallery in East London. Cars whiz past, trees endlessly sway in the sunshine. Suddenly, the camera cuts to a white, elderly man standing somberly in thought. He relays, through interior monologue, a story of a woman he loved as a teenager (several years older than he), and subsequently let slip away for reasons unknown to him. As he speaks, we learn that he is dead, speaking from the confines of the afterlife. Other “shades” begin to tell their stories.
Another elderly appears; he is only visible in profile. He relished his resemblance to actor Tom Cruise in his youth, but for the rest of his life, allowed his crushing insecurities to erode his relationships with others. The remaining stories follow similarly gloomy patterns: a Muslim woman describes how she repressed her feelings to spare others from hearing them; a black woman attempts to rationalize her loneliness by insisting that she was a kind person; another black woman relays the isolation her illness (undisclosed) had laid upon her.
All of the characters file into an unidentified community space. There they sleep, stare, and are caught up in themselves. Waves of low-frequency sound permeate the space; it resembles the amplified hum of Buddhist monks in deep meditation. The film reaches a buzzing climax in the form of a passionate spiritual: with arms raised and eyes towards the heavens, the souls are like those in Dante’s Limbo, holding out for salvation never to be received. They chant in eerie, rumbling rounds, “We the memories, all alone. No-one knows that we are here.” In the final seconds they repeat, in unison, “We are here.” The lush trees just outside the window are seen as a kind of peaceful world that the characters will never reach. A bird darts out from the leaves, and the camera cuts to black.
Much of Wearing’s work is a process of inversion: bringing the inside out, folding the outside back inward. We Are Here accomplishes both of these tasks simultaneously. The ghostly “shades” reveal their mistakes, their grievances, their secrets to the audience, but they remain invariably mute; they are as anonymous in death as they were in life. Wearing keeps most of her subjects’ faces hidden from view while they speak, as if they were privately confessing.
Confession is a major undercurrent of Wearing’s work, realized in photography, performance, and film. Early series such as her seminal Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say (1992 – 93) documented textual results of strangers’ confessions written, then shown to the camera, on placards. Her performance Dancing in Peckham (1994) captured confession in kinetic format with Wearing herself dancing in a trance-like state within a busy, South London shopping mall. In a series of portraits taken between 2003 and 2006, Wearing sits in the confessional as she takes on the uncanny likenesses of Warhol, Mapplethorpe, and even her parents. The photographs reveal her aspirations, her influences, and perhaps even her frailties.
We Are Here is a dark, deeply poignant fusion of Wearing’s previous investigations of absolution through experience. Whether they are people she observes or her own internal makeup, secrets are revealed voluntarily to the artist, who acts as a kind of receptor. The origins for the film are traced to American poet Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915), where voices from the grave implore the reader to act as their confessor. Anonymity is a similar burden for Wearing’s subjects. In life, they tucked away their truths to preserve intricate façades of poise and calm. In death, they crave empathy, even attention, and find little comfort in the fact that they are part of a community of “invisibles.”
There is no question that Wearing leaves her audience suspended between feelings of despair (for the inevitability of the body and mind’s disappearance) and feelings of gratitude (for the privilege of living, at all). Though as an artist, perhaps Wearing’s most vivid achievement with We Are Here is her ability to expose a world oscillating between tangible, accountable gestures and hazy, forgotten events. It is not death that is the ultimate specter of Wearing’s film, but the loss of memory and its rapid advance within human consciousness. The intense beauty of the film rests in the cinematic capture of these stories; framed by wide shots, interrupted with minimal to no cuts, the piercing hum in the soundtrack colors the final act of supplication as one of spiritual ecstasy. Among contemporary artists of the last two decades whose chosen subject matter communicates the complexity of human life and whatever may follow, Gillian Wearing has been (and continues to be) in a class by herself.