"It really opened up to me how much my thinking of the world was so narrow, and that any view of someone else changes when you give them the openness that the sign series was able to offer."
Our interview with Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing OBE.
Hello Gillian, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. You won the Turner Prize in 1997, looking back how do you feel winning the prize has effected you and your work?
It did feel like a seal of approval, a recognition of the work I have done, which is really wonderful, but it is hard to know if it has an impact or not in terms of work. I was already showing internationally and the biggest change at the time was the media interest.
The prize was much more debated in the 90’s than it is now, so there would be a lot of press in tabloids and broad sheets. The art world was also a lot smaller and so if you were in the news it felt magnified. But since then contemporary art in the UK has grown exponentially - gallery wise, museum wise and many more artists, there is more voices and visibility and less of focus on one event.
Your well known series of works called: "Signs that say what you want them to say, and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say" is still very impactful. Could you tell us about these works, did you find that people were willing to share their thoughts/anxieties/feelings?
This was the early 90’s and I wasn’t expecting the full depth and breath of confession, emotion, thoughts or opinions. It really opened up to me how much my thinking of the world was so narrow, and that any view of someone else changes when you give them the openness that the sign series was able to offer. The simple instruction that I asked passers-by was to “write anything they wanted to on an A3 sheet of paper”. I didn’t have to coax any of the comments, people just wrote very honestly about themselves. I also think the purity of the project was one of the reasons for it’s success as well as a lot of participants really loved the idea.
Your work explores the boundaries between the public and private self with the use of disguises, how did the idea of using masks come about? Did you find that people opened up more easily?
The signs series gave me the idea of doing confessional films, since some of the signs themselves were confessions. I realised that most people would probably want to be anonymous if recounting a particular story or event and that’s why I came up with the idea of using a mask. The mask takes on it’s own identity in the film and I can’t remember how the people looked underneath and therefore relate each story to the individual masks. In the 90’s there was much text on this work being very much how people started to relate to the internet, the hiding of identities and being able to say things other situations wouldn’t allow.
Do you feel that the use of social media is an extension of the mask? Another layer to hide behind, with the potential to be anonymous or someone else?
Yes it does. Although I was much more aware of that in the mid 90’s than now. I think many more people are now posting as themselves, since social media has become a very visual space. So instagram is like curating an ideal identity. In the less visual online presence of the 90’s where everyone was a bit scared in revealing their true identities, there was a sense that no one was who they said they were. There is much more online policing now, or people being called out if someone believes they are fake. In my youth no one would consider someone a fake, but in the internet era it seems there is more doubt in what people believe to be real.
You were recently a judge for the #SelfExpression competition, organised by Saatchi Gallery and Huawei. Where artists are invited to enter images only using their smartphones. How did you find the process of judging these works? Was it enjoyable?
I enjoy judging because you get to see work before someone else will judge or make a comment, so you have to rely on instinct. One thing to learn in art there is no right and no wrong, no good or bad. An opinion is very subjective. One can pull apart anything in a negative way or raise it up positively.
On the short list of images there were some photographs I would not have chosen and were picked by other judges, their choices make me think OK I didn’t see that in the same way and you do remember that. Of course someone’s judgement isn’t the be all and end all of anything, certain art just will resonate with more people than others and sometimes something comes along that gets a unanimous vote.
Tell us a bit about how you spend your day/studio routine? What is your studio like?
My studio is like an office, but it is large enough to make art. Michael Landy my partner has a larger space below and I do a lot of photo shoots there. There is quite a lot of administration in my work, and I do spend quite a lot doing emails and/or doing drawings of ideas on Photoshop etc.
Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?
I have a solo show opening up in SMK Copenhagen in October, as well as unveiling a public sculpture there and I am creating a statue of Millicent Fawcett for Parliament Square next year.
Images © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.
#SelfExpression images courtesy of Saatchi Gallery
Publish date: 28/09/2017