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Mass ObservationReview - Mass Observation
by Gillian Wearing
Merrell Publishers, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Sep 8th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 36)

Gillian Wearing is a British artist who works mostly in video. Born in 1963, she won the prestigious Turner Prize in 1997.  Mass Observation has been published to accompany an exhibition of the same name that will be at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago, October 2002 - January 2003 and at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Philadelphia, September - December 2003.  The book contains two essays, one by Dominic Molon, Associate Curator of the MCA, and the other by Barry Schwabsky author of The Widening Circle: Consequences of Modernism in Contemporary Art, along with 68 pages of plates from her work, an artist's biography and a bibliography of writing about Wearing. 

Wearing's work portrays people.  She is interested in how people live, how they present themselves, and what they think.  Her work presents people in unusual ways, upsetting normal expectations.  For example, here is Molon's description of the 4 minute piece from 1997, 2 into 1.

"In this work, a middle-aged mother, Hilary, and her two sons, Alex and Lawrence, lip-synch to recordings of one another's voices so that they seem to be describing themselves as the other sees them." (p. 16)

            Maybe her best known work is a series of photographs from 1992-93, Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say.  Ordinary people are pictured holding up signs containing their own words, written in their own hands.  An older man stands on a busy street squinting at the camera, his sign saying, "What is it?".  A young man in a suit and tie stands on a quiet street next to a doorway, his sign saying, "I'm desperate."  Equally gripping is Confess all on Video. Don't worry, you will be in disguise.  Intrigued?  Call Gillian, (1994) in which the participants in a 30 minute video tell the camera some of the bad things they have done.

            It's a shame that we are not able to view the videos, since the reader cannot get much sense of their power from still images.  This deficiency makes the book less interesting to potential purchasers.  The essays by Molon and Schwabsky are useful, writing thoughtfully about Wearing's work and providing a clear introduction to the artist. But they do not discuss all the work contained in the book, specifically leaving out a series of photographs titled A Woman Called Theresa from 1998.  Without explanation or context, these image leave the reader unnecessarily mystified as to their meaning. There is also no index, making it harder to find information about the works.

            Molon mentions that Wearing is influenced by important works of television documentary of British live, Franc Roddam and Paul Watson's 1974 series The Family and Michael Apted's series of documentaries starting with 7 Up (1964) (the most recent documentary in the series is 42 Up).  It's also helpful to compare Wearing to her British peer, Richard Billingham.  Billingham's book Ray's a Laugh showed his parents as they are in their everyday lives, in their difficult relationship, dominated by his father's alcoholism and their physical tussles.  Billingham's pictures are direct and moving, yet they also provoke the viewer to wonder about the action of showing one's family to the world in such an unflattering light.  Wearing also is interested in alcohol: her 1997-99 23-minute work Drunk is a three-screen black and white video projection with sound, and her 40 minute video on six screens from 2001 titled Broad Street both show people drinking. 

"Drunk presents terminal drunks in a blank white room where their fighting, cursing, and imminent collapse into unconscious oblivion become an almost laboratory-like exercise in human observation" (Molon, p. 23.)

Broad Street is about the ritual of a night out on the town.  Wearing's approach is far less personal than Billingham's; she rarely figures in her own work, and when she does, she normally is in some form of disguise.  Her style is gripping yet at the same time she keeps her distance from her viewer – she is not confessing or trying to convince her viewer to agree with her.  There's also more obvious devices in her work aimed to defuse the temptation to think that she is simply showing the world as it is; some of her pieces use actors, and her approach is nearly always to show people in unusual settings, not simply as they are in their everyday lives.  It seems clear that she wants to make the viewer reexamine her relation to the people portrayed and question normal assumptions.   

            Wearing's artistic creations do have political relevance – they certainly draw attention to gender and class issues – yet they seem more about psychology in the way people relate to others and describe themselves.  She is not subverting our conceptions of normality, although she does heighten her viewers' sense of the bizarreness of everyday life.  Neither is she trying simply to show in existentialist fashion the impossibility of true communication and the pervasiveness of self-deception leading to individual isolation, even though those themes do seem present in her bleaker works.  The importance of her work lies rather in its power in making the viewer call into question her normal perception of the world.  While Mass Observation may not be the best introduction to her work, it is at least a start, and the associated exhibitions should bring this extraordinarily provocative work to a wider audience.


© 2002 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.


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