Rewind: Gillian Wearing

Gillian Wearing, Self-portrait, 2000. Courtesy of the artist, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, and Maureen Paley, London

By Kay Campbell

I was particularly excited when Juliana started talking to Gillian Wearing about doing a show at ACCA.  I’d been captivated from my first encounter of her work while I was living in the UK – its tough and tender portrayal of the precariousness of the human condition was compelling and unique. Quite different in spirit from that of most of the so-called YBAs with whom Gillian was associated and also unlike any practice in Australia at that time.  

At Saatchi’s notorious Sensation exhibition in London in 1997 I was struck by Gillian’s 10-16 installed in a side room where it emitted a raw vulnerable humanity that differentiated it from the slick works in the main hall. In this series of videos the words of 7 troubled children aged between 10 and 16 are lip-synched by oddly matched adults in mundane settings. Each narrative is a painful snapshot of a moment in an individual life, but their juxtaposition and sequence make a fascinating, complex and disturbing study of the loss of innocence, the development from childhood to adulthood, and the tension between the internal voice and the external facade. These are enduring themes in Gillian’s work. 

The exhibition at ACCA took a couple of years to realize, and the result, opening in October 2005, lived up to all my expectations. This first for Australian audiences provided a rare opportunity to see the depth and range of Gillian’s work and was the largest show that she had presented. The exhibition filled the whole space and featured most of her photo and video works including 10-16, the already iconic Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say, the notorious Drunk, the Family Album series and many more.  

Gillian Wearing, 2 into 1, 1997. Courtesy of the artist, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, and Maureen Paley, London

The first work encountered at the entrance to the exhibition was an arresting self-portrait of Gillian in an emerald green jumper. From a distance its stiff blocky-ness suggested a naive painting; close up it became apparent that it was a photograph of the real Gillian inside a prosthetic of herself, with only her eyes appearing through the mask. This simple gesture immediately questioned the authenticity of photography, and the nature of self – as public and private, as artist and object.

On entering the main gallery, the viewer encountered the entire family album spread out across the back wall – brother and sister, parents, grandparents, an uncle. The eyes of Gillian appeared through each mask, spookily binding the family together, while simultaneously detaching herself. The self-portrait as a young child was particularly arresting – the knowing eyes of the adult Gillian showing through the innocent, sad and serious little face of her 3 year old self.

Within the gallery a series of claustrophobic box like spaces were constructed to house the moving image works Confess all on Video, Trauma and 2 into 1, heightening their psychological intensity. My favourite, 2 into 1, was devastating.  Once again the concept is very simple – twin 11 year old boys are asked to talk about their mother and she about them. Each then lip-synchs the words of the other. This revealing portrait of motherhood and the emergence of adolescence was fascinating and became excruciating at times, particularly as it caught the mother concurrently registering the often cruel words of her beloved boys as she mimes.

Gillian Wearing, Self-Portrait at 17 Years Old, 2003, Courtesy of the artist, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, and Maureen Paley, London

There were many other highlights, from the tender and harsh Theresa series, to the surprisingly optimistic I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing. As always Juliana’s installation took the visitor on a physical and mental journey, which compelled them to move from one work to the next and then loop back on themselves. The last work, on the other side of the wall to Gillian’s self-portrait, was a tiny poignant portrait of her frail grandmother Nancy Gregory slumped in a wheelchair. There was no mask here, instead her face was hidden by a sun-hat and she remained internalized as the life ebbed out of her, silent except for the occasional soft chirruping of birds.

Gillian Wearing: Living Proof
5 October – 3 December 2006   
Kay Campbell has been Executive Director of ACCA since 2002.