Gillian Wearing shows compassion and forgiveness at the Whitechapel Gallery

By Mark Sheerin Published: 09 April 2012 Updated: 06 April 2012

A photo of a woman dancing in a shopping centre
Gillian Wearing, Dancing in Peckham (1994). Colour video with sound© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London
Exhibition: Gillian Wearing, Whitechapel Gallery, London, until June 17 2012

Although she appears in various guises in her first major international survey, artist Gillian Wearing takes a back seat in general. The stars of this show are the members of the public who bare their souls while the YBA pares her proverbial fingernails.

The pleasures of seeing and hearing from so-called ordinary people are familiar to us now from more than a decade of reality TV. The web has normalised crowd sourcing. But it has to be noted that the piece which brought Wearing to prominence dates back to 1992.

While the title of this photographic vox-pop is a bit of a mouthful, the user generated content is to the point. For Signs That Say What you Want Them to Say and not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants you to Say, she presented Londoners with paper and pen. The results threw up political enquiry, self-affirmation and cries for help.

It might be a bit much to say Wearing invented the era of micro-celebrity, but she was among the first to mediate between voyeurism and exhibitionism. One pleasure of her sign works is to merely look at the way people are dressed, at their facial expressions, at their handwriting. People are interested in people, and therein lies the appeal.

Some might think that by 2012 we would be saturated with the man on the street. But the examples who take part in this show can certainly pack a surprise or two. A video work called Secrets and Lies features a haunting monologue by a troubled young man who beat a stranger to death. This is more than you are likely to get from Big Brother.

There are three similar confessional video pieces, and the clear reason for the candour of those taking part is the chance to do so in disguise. Hidden by a layer of latex, they can dispense with the masks which the rest of us wear in public most of the time. One chap admits to a penchant for drinking menstrual blood. This is otherwise unsayable.

Less shocking but no less brave is a video from before the days of the flashmob called Dancing in Peckham. In this 25-minute film, the artist dances to an unheard track in a shopping centre full of bemused passersby. True, dancing can be public or private, but there is a time and place for it, which is what this piece explores.

Wearing often plays with sound, getting grown actors to lipsync teenage soliloquies, backmasking a mother’s violent assault on her daughter, swapping the words of two schoolboys with those of a long suffering mum. This works to best effect in Prelude, when she pairs footage of a deceased streetdrinker with the reminiscence of her twin sister.

By the end of the show one might conclude that getting to know people is itself an art form, and a beautiful one at that. But hiding one’s identity might also be an art, as the number of photographic self-portraits also suggest. Wearing dons the latex even when appearing as herself.

But even these portraits explore other people. The artist dresses up as other artists, as family members, as herself at an earlier age. It is reminiscent of Cindy Sherman, of course, but the masks help remove Wearing further from the frame.

She is everywhere in this exhibition and nowhere. So nothing gets in the way of this compassionate and forgiving body of work.

  • Open 11am-6pm (9pm Thursday-Friday, closed Monday). Admission free.

More pictures:

A film still of a person sitting down in front of a blue background
Trauma (2000). Colour video for monitor with sound© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London
A film still of two schoolboys in uniforms sitting in chairs
2 into 1 (1997). Colour video for monitor with sound© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London
Visit Mark Sheerin's blog and follow him on Twitter.