A YBA who's still causing a big sensation

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The Whitechapel Gallery in east London is holding the first major retrospective of Gillian Wearing. Adrian Hamilton is moved by her deeply affecting films and photographs

The Continental curators may not love us but here in Britain our galleries have been producing a rare succession of major shows of our contemporary artists.

Last year it was Tracey Emin. This year we have Hockney, Lucian Freud and Damien Hirst all pulling in the crowds. And now we've got Gillian Wearing at the Whitechapel with her first retrospective.

Last but not least, one should say. For of all the artists working today she is the most personal and the most penetrating. You may or may not count video art as among the proper forms of art, but to see Wearing's short films or photographs is to experience a mind that is at once compassionate, complex and critical. It's easy enough to put her work into the category of the feminine confessional or to look at it as a kind of psychotherapy for the damaged and the marginalised. But that doesn't do justice to the subtlety with which she takes on the individual experience through the masks we wear and the performances we put on.

The exhibition begins, as it ends, with self-portrait, in the form of two powerful life-sized photographs of herself, staring out at you, big eyes and unblinking. Go closer and you see that the eyes are real but face is in fact a mask. The effect is stark and startling. Are you seeing the real person or is she hidden behind that smooth unageing face? Are the eyes blank or seeing as they challenge you.

This playing around with presentation of the self is what makes her such an interesting, and searching, artist. Now 48, a Young British Artist (YBA) and a Turner Prize winner in 1997, she was a year behind Damien Hirst at Goldsmiths College and a contemporary of Tracey Emin. She's like neither. Her work doesn't hit you full on like Hirst's nor is it openly self-confessional like Tracey Emin's. Instead, it draws you in to the story of people's inner lives, both what they say and what they would like to say but haven't.

It started with a series, Signs That Say What Want Them to Say and Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say (1992-3), in which she asked people in the street to write down on a large piece of paper a statement that they wanted to make and then photographed them holding the result. At it simplest – the policeman who writes "HELP" in capital letters and the city-suited young man who declares "I'M DESPERATE". But most are not really cries from the heart as such. They're the assertions of what people want to say when they know they're being photographed – sometimes witty, sometimes aphoristic and often quite wry. One lady just declares "Enough Said", while a young girl looks down on the paper on which she has scrawled tight in a corner the ambiguous thought "convenience causes apathy".

It's a delicate hinterland of self-pretence and self-knowledge that Gillian Wearing navigates with great care and persistence. The mask is one means to this end, not least in her autobiographical works. Prepared with meticulous attention to detail, she dons face and full body masks to adopt the persona of family and heroes, putting on the clothes and faces of grandmother, mother, father, brother, sister and uncle, and her artistic influences, Warhol, Mapplethorpe and Arbus. It's not a revelation through unpeeling but an understanding of the influences that make us what we are.

Wearing's other technique is the voiceover and the masked confessional. Starting with Confess All on Video. Don't Worry, You Will Be in Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian (1994) she has added layers since. In one case, 2 into 1 (1997), she records twin children and a mother talking about each other and then switches voices so the mother speaks the words of the child or vice versa with disconcerting effect. In Trauma (2000), she asks people to tell their most personal secrets from behind a mask of the age when it happened (more often than not, child abuse).

She does the same with video. It began with filming herself doing a dance, without sound, in the middle of a shopping centre in Peckham in 1996. By now that looks tame as the social network sites have made such demonstrations commonplace.

In the years since then, though, she has taken it much further. In her latest video, Bully (2010), on show for the first time in the UK, she use a method acting coach to organize a group of adult non-actors into performing a scene, based on the real experience of one of them, of childhood bullying in an estate. You see the group being given their instruction in the studio, you see them gradually taking on their roles of victim or victimisers with increasing fervour, you see the central figure breaking down in tears as he remembers it all.

It's not quite clear where Gillian Wearing goes next with this. You can envisage the Bully formula being developed with greater complexity and more layers. She recently made a full film, Self Made of professional coaches orchestrating a series of individuals to make confessional films about themselves. She's also recently been working with artificial flowers to imitate the real ones in still-life paintings and has, at various times, sculpted small-scale memorial statues to ordinary people, giving them all the dignity of the more famous. You understand the point but it can't be said that they have anything like the effect, or the creative force of her film and photographs.

In that area she is peerless, and deeply affecting. In one of the short videos shown, Prelude (2000), she films a particularly mouthy and extrovert addict. She'd intended it as a group portrait but, taken by the personality of this woman, tried to get in touch to do a film of her only to discover that the girl had died in the meantime. So instead she has voiced over the clips of the girl silently talking to camera with the words of her twin sister telling of her grief at her sibling's death and saying how far her mother had disowned the dead daughter, even at the funeral. I am not ashamed to say that I silently wept as it unfurled.

Accident or design, art or performance? It doesn't really matter. It has its own painful truth.

Gillian Wearing, Whitechapel Gallery, London E1 (020 7522 7888) to 17 June

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent