Gillian Wearing: The art of the matter

The Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing talks to Sebastian Smee

Gillian Wearing was 16 and just starting out in her first job when she realised she'd spent most of her life not speaking. She was working as an office junior for an insurance broker in Birmingham. "There were two great women there who kept on poking fun at me - but in a nice way," she says. They liked Wearing, and she liked them; but they would say: "You've got to go up to the counter when the next customer comes in, because you can't make a sentence."

"It could have been brutal, I suppose, but it wasn't." What was frightening, says Wearing, was having it brought home to her how much of her life she had been spending in silence. She had never felt wildly abnormal: "I mean, I was going out clubbing at night and having a good time as well." But, she says, "until I got to know people I'd always go through this whole thing of not speaking. I'd be so scared that I used to make myself light-headed in the morning [by deliberately hyperventilating]: I thought if my head was spinning then I wouldn't have to worry about speaking."

These days, Wearing, who is renowned as one of Britain's most successful artists - and the winner of the 1997 Turner Prize - is rather more practised at forming, and even finishing, sentences. She is considered, enthusiastic, and acute. But her speech still has a stilted, self-tripping rhythm - an occasionally jarring hypersensitivity to the gap between intentions and talk, between interior life and public façade. Regardless of whether this heightened awareness served her well as an office junior in Birmingham (one suspects it did not), it has certainly served her well as an artist. Wearing's work is simple, direct and easy in the same way that an effective ad looks easy. But it hinges on the kind of deep-rooted doubleness of which she herself seems constantly aware.

Wearing first came to prominence as an artist in December 1992 with a series of photographs that appeared in The Face magazine. She asked random members of the public to write down whatever they wanted on a sign, and she photographed them holding that sign. The series, called Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say, seemed closer to documentary photography than to art, as has a great deal of her work since (that was part of the reason she chose to show them first in a magazine rather than a gallery ). But they contained a subtlety, a quietly surreal intensity that undermined anything straightforward you could think to say about them.

One of the most famous images from that series showed a young businessman in a suit holding a sign saying "I'M DESPERATE". The impact it had was like clutching a livewire, and it continues to shock today. But who knows what the man was really thinking? "I think he was very serious," says Wearing when I ask. "He wanted to go away and think about it, but I said if you do that it will ruin it. He certainly wasn't joking, and I don't think he was being ironic either. But I've no idea what the context for that was." That, surely, was part of the punch. "I think that's really important," Wearing insists. "If you ever make anything too literal you might as well forget it. It loses everything. It loses the mystery which is probably the most alluring factor - more so than what you know."

So simple yet effective was the idea that it was taken up by an ad agency in a campaign for Volkswagen cars. Here, of course, the idea lost all its animating ambiguity and interest. Wearing was appalled and threatened to sue, but the risk was too great: if she lost (and the law is deliberately loose here, in part to allow artists themselves the freedom to pinch and quote freely) the costs could be huge. Instead, she has been getting on with it. About four years ago, she placed an ad in a London newspaper which read: "Negative or traumatic experience in childhood or youth and willing to talk about it on film. Identity will be concealed." She had the people who responded put on masks of adolescent-aged faces and filmed their private confessions of traumatic experiences for a work called Trauma. The damage confessed to ranged from the relatively innocuous to physical and sexual abuse. Soon enough, the devastating effectiveness of the idea once again attracted the attentions of the ad-men. But this time Wearing was open to their advances. She directed a terrifying community service ad for the government warning of the dangers of children being "groomed" over the internet by paedophiles. A child's voice is heard speaking, but as the camera slowly pans back the face is revealed to be that of a grown man. (The film echoed an earlier video by Wearing, called "2 into 1," which showed a mother swapping voices with her two sons.)

Wearing's recent work revolves around the use of prosthetic masks. Earlier this year she made a profoundly unsettling "self-portrait", using one to cover her own face with. The mask was neither anonymous nor ostentatious, as most masks are: rather, it was a replica of her own face. "Again, it's to do with this thing that makes you look twice. I'm quite interested in that double-take." For the image reproduced here, Wearing has applied a full-body version of the same idea to a professional model, Olia Demidova, an extraordinary looking girl from Siberia with blue eyes, translucent skin, high cheekbones and a forthright kink high up on the bridge of her nose.

"I wanted a young, idiosyncratic-looking girl - preferably slightly androgynous," explains Wearing, who chose Demidova from a list provided by the model agency.

It is the first time for several years, apart from the self-portrait, that Wearing has made a body of photographic work. Her favoured medium before then had for some years been video. "What I love about photographs is that they give you a lot and also they withhold a lot," she says.

She got the idea for her latest photographs, now showing at London's Interim Art, while looking at an old photograph of her mother. "I'd had the picture forever actually, so it wasn't a revelation. But it was the first time I'd really looked at it. For many years I always saw her as quite old in this photograph, because I'd had the image since I was a child. But all of a sudden I realised that she was actually really young.

"So I found myself kind of re-evaluating her life. And then there's that element of seeing yourself in the picture of her, and then, as well, NOT seeing yourself ... When I looked again at the photograph of my mother, it was in that moment when I both did see myself and didn't see myself that I passionately wanted to do this work."

The resulting six photographs are of Wearing as various members of her family when they were younger. "I thought if you took everyone back to a similar point in their life and you could actually inhabit them ..." She laughs infectiously and, not for the first time, chooses to begin a new sentence rather than complete the last: "I don't know how people will evaluate their age when they look at the photographs. But with my mother and father it's before they were even married. Me and my sister and brother are younger; we're at that point where the future is coming up but hasn't happened yet."

Wearing says she has always worked with "elements that kind of dislodge reality". But she is hard-pressed to say exactly why - generally a good sign in artists, an indication that they are prepared to stay in that place where thinking must occur, rather than settling, as so many do, on a signature gimmick. "You just know," she begins, giving it a crack, "that there's an element of truth in doing something like this that's actually surreal. It rings true somehow. But how do you articulate that weirdness? "It's very hard when you're in your own body to know what it consists of, and what you consist of. You're forever contradicting yourself and fighting against things, which are probably the things which are you the most. We're whole, but we're also fragmentary ... It's hard isn't it? I'm not someone who can write those things, my only way is through kind of sensing them."

Wearing says that she has always been inclined to stand apart and observe. "I don't know if I'm like that because of the problem I had with speaking or if it's genetic or f something. I do remember being like that from when I was a small child. I remember I used to go to my nan's house and sit at her window and watch people go past - a bit like old people do actually! I would watch them constantly and see the changes in them week after week, and try and create stories about these people's lives. The more people interested me the more I would look out for them at the certain times when they went past."

Wearing came to London from Birmingham when she was 19. She did two years at Chelsea School of Art, and was then taken in by Goldsmiths College. A handful of Goldsmiths students two years above her, the core of the YBAs, had only recently shot to fame. "A lot of people were quite taken aback by them just taking off," she admits. "It was quite destructive. I definitely never thought that would happen to me. But I felt optimistic about making work because it was so challenging."

Goldsmiths proved another hurdle for Wearing in terms of her difficulty with speech. "Everyone was so articulate! So I went through all that thing again where I could speak to certain people but not to others because I was just too scared." Wearing was trying to come up with ideas, find her artistic voice. She made card houses with the names of philosophers written on each card (the idea of "building up knowledge", she explains with a self-mocking giggle). And she and a friend boarded up bookshelves in the library ("We did get permission but we wished we hadn't - we wished we'd been more rebellious") then filmed students trying to get the books out.

"That was probably the first time I used a video recorder. We were hoping that they'd get really angry. But they didn't, they looked more inquisitive. That's just students for you though isn't it, they just accept things!"

When there was a fire in the computer department, Wearing and her partner-in-artistic-license wanted to claim responsibility, so they put up posters everywhere claiming they'd done it. "But it came to nothing again!" In second year she began cutting up books. In front of her classmates, the teacher said, "Why do you cut up books?" "The only thing I could say was, 'Cos I don't like them.' My face went totally red and my tongue went dry - it was horrible. I thought afterwards that maybe I was exaggerating it in my mind, because sometimes you think these things are so much worse than they actually were, but when I asked my friend she said, 'No no no - it was HORRIFIC!'" She laughs uncontrollably at the memory. "But I do talk now," she adds in a believable rush, "I always talk too much."

Gillian Wearing's latest exhibition is currently showing at the Maureen Paley Interim Art Gallery, 21 Herald Street, London E2 until 23 November. For more details, call 020-7729 4112

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