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A couple of weeks before Gillian Wearing’s retrospective exhibition opened at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), British Prime Minister Tony Blair delivered his swansong speech to the Labour Party annual conference. Of the numerous achievements Tony Blair claimed for New Labour’s three terms in office, one was the creation of a ‘caring society’ in Britain, in which the living conditions of hundreds of thousands of Britons had inestimably improved. Blair’s government had taken on poverty, unemployment and low wages with, he claimed, considerable success.
Of the many strategies New Labour adopted to deal with the often insidious symptoms of social incohesion was the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO). This granted police powers to apprehend unruly citizens who threatened the social good (including children as young as ten), and deliver varying forms of punishment from fines to prison terms. ‘Asbo’ also entered common speech as a term applied to likely candidates for such an Order, which is how one might regard some of the people in Gillian Wearing’s photographs and videos.
One such Asbo is Theresa, who is photographed by Wearing in varying stages of drunken disarray alongside her assorted lovers, who have apparently penned the accompanying testaments to Theresa’s personality, recounting her propensity for violence, for sleeping with anyone for cash, her failure to wash, her stupidity. The notes, despite their nearly illegible script, barely comprehensible sentences and frequent obscenities, also speak with affection of Theresa’s sense of humour and her loyalty, suggesting that for some of these men at least, she is their ballast in an otherwise hostile society.
Many of Wearing’s works seem to document the emotional and behavioural residue that collects in the kind of society that New Labour claims to have transformed. In the 2001 video work Trauma, men and women recount their experiences of emotional, physical or sexual abuse behind the anonymity of rubber masks. In Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry, You Will be in Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian…, the disguises appear again, but this time we hear from people who want to confess to a variety of criminal or sexual acts. The subjects who confess to camera appear as sideshow-style grotesques, in huge curly wigs and latex masks which are no longer protective devices but are strategies that render the confessions both bleakly humorous and surreal. This incongruity generates humour that defuses the seriousness of the work’s spoken content, providing an outlet for the uncomfortable viewer who has been forced into the position of voyeur.
One of the Confess All On Video participants concludes his confession by saying, ‘This is a true confession and I don’t think I can add any more than this. I can only hope that this is part of a therapeutic process which I’m seeking to undergo’. Whether or not his act of confession did help is immaterial for the purposes of Wearing’s work. The confession is just a starting point for the viewer’s experience and the works affectivity.
Given the confessional mode of address that she frequently employs, it is tempting to reduce Wearing’s images to the psychology of the people depicted, to contemplate the motivations and impulses that drive these people and force them into the circumstances they are in. Certainly Wearing’s works deal with many registers of the human psyche; from the introspective world of desire, the id and the ego, to the symbolic, social relations that are predicated on the maintenance of a delicate, fragile ‘sanity’ and socially-acceptable behaviour. It is, however, in this communal, intra-social register that Wearing’s work has the most power.
In Wearing’s representations the ‘self’ is always seen from the ‘outside’, from the perspective of its social or symbolic function. 2 into 1, 1997, is a video work in the style of a straight-to-camera interview, in which a mother is shown talking but what we hear are the voices of her twin eleven year-old sons. When the sons are interviewed, it is their mother’s voice we hear. The sons give their often scathing and cruel opinions of their mother, while the mother describes her sons in a manner both boastful and defeated. Wearing uses lip-syncing technology in a number of works to achieve this odd disjunction between the speaker and the voice we hear.
Similarly, 10–16, 1997, is a compelling and disturbing video work in which adult actors represent seven adolescents aged from ten to sixteen. The adult actors speak with the voices of adolescents, whom Wearing has recorded separately. We listen as these children rapidly pass from innocence to a damaged knowingness. It is like an accelerated version of Michael Apted’s TV series Seven Up (an acknowledged influence on Wearing).
It does not take long for the fall from innocence to manifest itself. Although the ten year-old exuberantly describes the joys of playing in his tree house, by eleven the child is a school-yard bully, the fourteen year-old is an alcoholic and the fifteen year-old a social misfit, riding the buses by himself to ‘feel better’. The depressing speeches of these adolescents are also inflected with undeniable humour—the thirteen year-old describing his mother’s detested female lover as a ‘lump of lard’ sitting on his sofa ‘guzzling cakes’ and his plan to kill them both with a poisonous soup made from thawed and refrozen peas is so eccentric that it could be scripted by the writers of Little Britain. The fact that the adult speaking these words is a naked dwarf taking a bath is only part of the carnivalesque quality of the work.
In soliciting and documenting the confessional impulse in these individuals, there is a degree of callousness in Wearing’s practice that has been interpreted by some critics as an attempt to ‘humanise’ the hitherto mechanistic process of documentary photography. The suggestion is that Wearing’s intervention has turned the photographed or filmed person, who in ‘traditional’ documentary photography would be conceived as an object ‘trapped’ in and by the image, into a ‘speaking subject’. In reality, Wearing’s subjects are not empowered through speech—whatever empowerment Wearing might give her subjects by allowing them voice is simultaneously annulled by the actor who performs like the ventriloquist’s dummy in their place, or by having them speak behind ludicrous masks. Given the spectatorial response that her work prompts—derision, disgust or curious fascination—one cannot help wondering if the silent gravitas Walker Evans attributes Allie Mae Burrows is not preferable, despite the undoubted ‘constructedness’ of that famous documentary image.
Wearing’s work is neither narcissistic nor solipsistic, but gestures to the dysfunctional element that will disrupt any attempt to create a ‘caring’ society. Wearing’s practice shows the dark side that persists beneath ‘Cool Britannia’, the tag-line of the highly-effective spin campaign that promoted an image of Blair’s Britain as the epicentre of contemporary art, architecture and music. Wearing has often been grouped alongside YBAs such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Gary Hume and Sarah Lucas, whose commercially successful work was collectively appropriated as propaganda to suggest that Britain was enjoying such success in all areas of its society. But Wearing’s photographs and videos unflinchingly insist on representing the undesirable, unfashionable, unmarketable side of British society: the continuing social inequality, the consequences of long-term unemployment, inadequate housing provision, a failing health system. Her works show, with devastating humour and savagery, the anti-social that remains lurking within society itself.