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Gillian Wearing: 'Having to talk to a group makes me very uncomfortable’

Gillian Wearing says that it is being shy that has made her such a bold artist. Now she is helping others to  overcome their social anxiety, through karaoke and poetry

Friday 30 October 2015 11:34 GMT
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Rock 'n' Roll 70, IVAM, Valencia, Spain 2015
Rock 'n' Roll 70, IVAM, Valencia, Spain 2015 (Juan Garcia Rosell / Elisa Bermejo)

The artist Gillian Wearing is a public figure with an OBE, a winner of the Turner Prize and a Royal Academician. Her position would usually demand swishing between parties and public events, making the occasional speech. But Wearing is so shy that she refuses interviews unless they’re by email. Public speaking can make her talk too fast, or mumble, or jumble up her words. Recently she had to do a talk for a large solo show in Spain, and she was so nervous that her gallerist Maureen Paley sat with her on the stage for reassurance. “It really helped me not to go off topic or have deathly silences,” Wearing says. “I can relate to conversation one on one, but having to talk to a group makes me very uncomfortable.”

Wearing tackles this painful subject of shyness in her new project at Nottingham’s Backlit gallery, titled the Shy Convention. As with her past work, she will involve the public but this time she focuses on people who are shy. After a few awkward phone interviews and a questionnaire about their particular type of shyness, 30 applicants have been selected.

They’re different ages, have different backgrounds, different everything, but are bound by a common difficulty, which Wearing intends to help them overcome. After a day of workshops each participant will stand on stage and perform a personal confession about love in a karaoke style, to an audience of around 150 strangers. There is a concession to the painfully shy: they have the option to hide behind a curtain while they do it.

“I love karaoke, it is a real icebreaker in terms of people coming together and enjoying themselves,” says Wearing. “For my last solo show in Los Angeles, I joked it would be good to do karaoke one night, not thinking anyone would take my suggestion seriously, but they did. Of course when you see one or two people sing at the beginning it’s terrifying, but as the night went on everyone, including me, got up on stage and the whole place became one. It’s a shared experience. Shyness can sometimes make people feel very alone and I hope this experience will bring people together and be creatively inspiring as well.”

To help them, people must bring along an object on the day, something that inspires the feeling of love. The shy participant and their object will attend two workshops. One, run by Isabel Mortimer, a personal development coach, will guide people through ways to improve their confidence, connect mind to body, and give them movements and phrases to perform.

The second workshop will be run with a local group of street poets: the Mouthy Poets. They work with communities to help empower through verse, and encourage members of the public to write: about how they feel, politics or issues to do with gender. They’re a bold group of writers, a stance that they hope to pass on.

“There have been many times when I have been frustrated by shyness but performance isn’t one as I find I can escape through that,” Wearing tells me. It’s an extreme contrast, from a woman who avoids conversations with strangers to someone who is able to dance alone in the middle of a crowded shopping centre, as she did in Peckham in south London, in 1994. Wearing’s performances are both awkward and moving, watching them opens your heart and makes you cringe at the same time. “My work forces me to deal with the things I probably lack, like not being an extrovert or being reserved. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to take risks or experiment with ideas, quite the opposite. So many artists I know are shy but you can’t tell by their work,” she explains.

For Wearing, a way to explore the boundaries between public and private selves is to use disguises, which allows people to open up without fear of exposure.

“I remember doing a performance when I was 17 at an amateur dramatics group and Sellotaping my face into a grotesque mask, and feeling very liberated. Everyone loved my performance. I know it was the mask that helped as people were not fixated with who I was, but on the mask. I used the Sellotaping technique on one of my participants in my first Confessions video. [Confess All on video. Don’t Worry You Will Be in Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian.] It was a way of bringing my experience to the work. All the participants wore masks. It was the first time I could see how it allowed people to be really frank, to say things they wouldn’t normally say and certainly not to camera.

“I am pretty certain nearly everyone wants to be heard. Being shy does not mean you want to turn your back on this. Life is about relationships and communication. One of the reasons language was invented was for people to gossip and to discover thoughts on other people’s relationships. Being shy doesn’t mean you want to be a hermit, it just means at times things can be uncomfortable. It is not a mental illness and there are ways to work with this trait creatively and build confidence.

“One exercise I was told about recently is that when you feel overwhelmed by a situation, pretend to be someone else, and then deal with it through how you imagine they would.”

In her most recent work, titled Me As a Ghost (2015), Wearing projects her image on to a puff of smoke so that she appears to float above the ground, dressed in a T-shirt with the slogan “Heavy Metal”, which refers to her home city, Birmingham. As a ghost, she’s both present and absent, existing in a place between this world and the next, like a shy person positioned in the stage wings: about to go on and yet ready to run.

The Shy Convention is at Backlit, Nottingham, today. Gillian Wearing is at the Modern Art Institute in Valencia, Spain until 24 January

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