How do we distinguish the back stage from the front stage of our lives? What does the space between the public and private areas of our consciousness look like? Gillian Wearing’s first major survey at the Whitechapel Gallery in East London answers this very question in a manner which is at once haunting and entirely captivating.

Curated by Daniel Hermann, the exhibition is laid out on two of the gallery floors, providing a lucid progression through this Turner Prize-winning artist’s works. Wearing works mainly in the medium of film and photography, and also experiments with the third dimension in her small scale sculptures, three of which are displayed in this show. Her video pieces garnered much critical attention in the 1990s, and her recent production has, according to Hermann, “drawn a new following of young critics and art historians”.

Wearing’s subject matter is simple. She investigates the opposition, as well as the partnership, between public and private actions and thoughts. Her treatment of these forces, however, is dark and complex, rife with psychological nuances that serve to immerse the viewer in a contemplative vortex.

The first floor of the show focuses on five of Wearing’s video pieces, including her latest work Bully (2010), as well as her award winning Sacha and Mum (1996). Each of the films uses elements of documentary, in that the material shown is derived from real-life accounts and volunteered admissions. Wearing, however, stages a retelling of these stories using trained actors to deliver the lines that make them up. She also makes use of devices such as distortion of sound, dubbing, and video speed discrepancies to emphasize the idea that she is staging reality. An adult speaks with a child’s voice in 10-16 (1997), so that the viewer understands the speech, but is simultaneously jolted by the physical artifice of the speaker’s appearance.

The first room on the second floor displays Wearing’s well-known series entitled Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992-93). These are photographs of individuals holding up a sign that displays a handwritten transcript of their innermost thoughts. Once again, Wearing challenges the notion of the differing realms of reality. A photograph of a suited young male holding up a sign which reads “I’m desperate” illustrates the distinction between the outer shell of perception, and the inner cushion of thought.

The penultimate portion of the show concerns itself with the notion of identity and disguise. Wearing’s photographic portraits are divided into two main sets. The first is a contemporary take on the art historical canon of family portraiture, whilst the second puts on display Wearing’s spiritual heroes such as Andy Warhol and Claude Cahun. The portrait subjects are masterfully crafted silicon body-masks, shaped to fit onto a cast of Wearing’s own face. Each of these human masks is then inhabited by the artist herself, so that she can entirely assume their identity. In entering them, she once again blurs the boundaries between perception and reality.

The final room hosts three confessional-type cubicles showing videos of people revealing their most personal secrets. Produced over a number of years -- the most recent is only two years old -- these series feature secret-tellers wearing masks, distorting gear, and disguising masks to conceal the physical aspects of their identity.

The show is bookended by two self-portraits of Gillian Wearing herself, in which she is adorning a silicon costume of herself. As the first and final images one encounters throughout the show, these portraits firmly sum up the intelligent questions the artist poses throughout her work. Hers is a search to uncover the flux between what is hidden and what is shown. It would seem that Wearing locates her own truth within these spaces, and in doing so, provokes a similar quest for the viewer.

Gillian Wearing, at Whitechapel Gallery

How do we distinguish the back stage from the front stage of our lives? What does the space between the public and private areas of our consciousness look like? Gillian Wearing’s first major survey at the Whitechapel Gallery in East London answers this question in a manner which is at once haunting and entirely captivating.

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