The unbearable lightness of Wearing

At first glance, Gillian Wearing's work could seem voyeuristic. It isn't. But does it offer us any valuable insights instead?
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The Independent Online

Gillian Wearing's work is about things that are worth thinking about. Go to her show at the Serpentine Gallery after, say, a visit to Apocalypse at the Royal Academy or Ant Noises at Saatchi, and you should feel a change of gear. This is art that has its eye on more than striking attitudes. It's concerns are serious. And if you feel at the end of it that it leaves the world none the wiser, it's still worth thinking why that is.

Gillian Wearing's work is about things that are worth thinking about. Go to her show at the Serpentine Gallery after, say, a visit to Apocalypse at the Royal Academy or Ant Noises at Saatchi, and you should feel a change of gear. This is art that has its eye on more than striking attitudes. It's concerns are serious. And if you feel at the end of it that it leaves the world none the wiser, it's still worth thinking why that is.

Wearing won the Turner Prize in 1997. She may be even better known for having her work ripped off by ads. An early piece, Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say - photos of people in the street holding up personal hand-written notices - was flagrantly borrowed for a car commercial. But while any plagiarism is irksome, the re-take only emphasised the point of the original. In Signs, the messages are often genuinely odd. In the ad, they're replaced by the most bland and normalised tokens of individuality.

Our knowledge of others and the limits of that knowledge is one of Wearing's main concerns. Her art is People Art. Her photos and videos often involve people declaring themselves and describing each other. She arranges situations where spontaneity and performance, confession and impersonation, display and disguise, privacy and exposure interact. Occasionally she uses actors in character, but mostly her basic material is the personne trouveé.

The Serpentine show is a small retrospective, a selection of almost 10 years' work, and it manages to pack a good deal in without too much signal jamming. The Signs are there, and Dancing in Peckham, a video of the artist in a shopping mall dancing, absorbed, to music in her head as shoppers pass. Another video, Homage to the woman with the bandaged face who I saw yesterday down Walworth Road has the artist trying to imagine this person, going out herself with a bandaged face and a concealed camera to record peoples' reactions.

In 2 into 1, a woman and her two sons talk lovingly and rudely about one another, but the voices are transposed, with the boys speaking, lip-synched, their mother's speech, and she theirs. In Trauma, various people Wearing found through a small ad - "Negative or Traumatic experience in childhood or youth and willing to talk about it on film. Identity will be concealed" - reveal bad things directly to the camera - except that their faces are concealed behind vacant, childlike masks. In Drunk, a group of drunks is filmed, behaving drunkenly against a blank white background.

Now these spectacles are variously intriguing, as you might well expect when you have people revealing themselves, or making a public spectacle of themselves, or making a spectacle of the public. But maybe this isn't quite so worthy a pleasure. For some people who don't like Wearing's work, its appeal is all too obvious, and obviously dubious. Apart from the family in 2 into 1, most people in Wearing's work are poor, powerless or damaged. Sensitive issues of representation may well arise. Words like "intrusive", "voyeuristic", "exploitation", "manipulating" and "freakshow" might suggest themselves.

This line of criticism I think is wrong. Firstly, because this critical vocabulary can be used to prohibit the representation of anything which is outside the artist's immediate experience. The price of being non-voyeuristic may simply be complete ignorance of most of the world.

And for another thing, Wearing's work is anyway perfectly alive to these scruples. It's done its media studies. It knows all about the intrusion and manipulation of candid confessionals and documentary observation. The interest of her photos and films is at a remove from those well-known forms. We're not primarily to be interested in the lives of Wearing's people or what they have to say. The operations of exposure and self-exposure themselves are the objects of reflection.

But then the question is, what kind of reflection? And the problem is that Wearing's recipe is a pretty simple and consistent one: add weirdness. It takes documentary procedures and treats them to a twist of the odd. Her work is all too bound to the aesthetic of the strange, and it's a powerful view, of course. "Strangeness is Truth, Truth Strangeness...", says the modern Keats. But the truth of the weird is empty. And Wearing's work offers a parade of blank looks.

In Signs, for example, you get a series of people who were approached by the artist and agreed to co-operate, each displaying with their self-written sign, the signs quite short, and written presumably without much thinking time, and - most important - with the brief that they can say just whatever they like. It's not surprising that some odd messages turn up and that correlating message with person is hard. But if it seems to demonstrate the radical strangeness or unknowability of people, it demonstrates nothing of the sort. (And it certainly doesn't "give people a voice".) It's simply a procedure designed to generate meaningless dissonance .

Now you may believe - as many works of fiction have insisted - that people are ultimately unknowable. Notice "ultimately", though. Wearing art tends to baulk at first base, presenting people as almost immediately unknowable. Or perhaps this point is being conflated with another one, viz that we often pass people in the street whose lives we find hard to imagine - which is an important fact of life, but we shouldn't mistake such casual puzzlement for inscrutable mysteries of the self.

See how in Homage to the woman with the bandaged face the effects turns centrally on a point of deliberate ignorance. Why is she wearing this bandage? We don't know, and Wearing doesn't know, and her attempted impersonation is - I presume, deliberately - void. Of course we could know. But if we did, that would deprive us of the spooky fun of abstract facelessness.

Wearing's people are the human equivalent of the everyday household object seen from an unusual angle. Sometimes the estrangement effects are overt, like the masks in Trauma and the voice-swaps of 2 into 1. I can't see that these masks - innocent but inexpressive, generally too small for the wearer - do other than add a layer of tears-of-a-clown irony to the painful experiences talked out. But the mother-sons voice-swaps, though evidently borrowed from family therapy role-playing, seem to me the best trick in the show: simply, the business of physically mouthing someone else's account of you is superbly dramatic - but it made me wish it was part of some larger drama.

For the problem with using real found people, especially in such short bursts, is (again) the weirdness-effect of arbitrary ignorance. We could know more about them, we just don't, yet there seems no point to our not knowing. Granted, the problem isn't confined to real people. The only acted piece in the show, Sacha and Mum, maintains our ignorance about its non-specifically distressing events in other ways. But one way or another, a limbo of "dunno" is the recurring scene.

Never more so than in Drunk. Its whole story is decontextualisation. In a blank and featureless studio, of which we see only a bit of wall and a bit of floor, a group of drunks - apparently befriended into co-operation by the artist over a long period - are filmed in black and white. They stagger about, they fall over, they half fight, they hug, they move randomly, they piss, they lie asleep.

Any visitor to the Serpentine Gallery, looking from this sorry spectacle artfully framed in triple-screen projection to his/her generally well-dressed fellow viewers might well be reminded of the last scene in The Rake's Progress, with the ladies and gentlemen paying an amusing visit to the loony bin. But myself, I still prefer not to talk voyeurism, exploitation etc. What I don't like is the way this piece is determined to know nothing. It takes a human subject that everyone is acquainted with and has likely wondered about, removes it to an aesthetic-cum-clinical environment and treats it a specimen of behaviour, a ballet of awkwardly animated forms. One may well say that that the knowledge normally offered by the confessional and documentary media is doubtful and compromised. But pure and studied ignorance, we need like a hole in the head.

Gillian Wearing: Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2; everyday, to 29 October; admission free