Gillian Wearing at the Whitechapel, London

by Sue Hubbard

GW_Image 04“Happy families are all alike”, claimed Tolstoy, while “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same could be said of individuals. Happiness, a sense of well being, involves a feeling of rightness with the world, of belonging in one’s own skin, while unhappiness and dysfunction have their own infinite variety. The mind’s response to emotional pain is ever inventive. Self-destruction is a creative business. In many cases it turns out to be a life’s work, as those who give their true confessions to the artist Gillian Wearing attest.

In his book I’m Ok, You’re Ok (1969), Eric Berne’s post-Freudian model of transactional analysis, the relationships between internal adult, parent and child are explored so that the maladaptations embedded in old childhood scripts can be confronted in order for an individual to become free of inappropriate emotions that are not a true reflection of the here-and-now. Because people decide their stories and their destinies, attitudes, it is argued, can be changed. That is the ideal anyway. Yet for many of those who chose to answer a small ad placed in Time Out in 1994, which read: ‘Confess all on video. Don’t worry, you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian’, they may have felt that they had little choice when it came to addictive, sad or compulsive behaviour.

It was this act that set in motion the artist Gillian Wearing’s work with strangers. Whilst she explores cultural notions of production versus the finished work such technical niceties are much less interesting than the stories that her sitters have to tell and the apparent compulsion that they have to share their pain, on record, with whoever happens to be listening. Wearing first began to use masks, along with joke shop wigs and false beards, in this 1994 video in which variously disguised figures speak straight into the camera. Confess All on Video… consists of ten voices edited into a continuous 30 minute piece. There is an array of confessions from the admission of a first visit to a brothel to an incredibly sad narrative from a nervous man disguised as George Bush who tells of an incestuous relationship with his siblings that has quite literally ruined his life. Protected by their anonymity and free of any judgmental response the participants are remarkably candid. This seems to connect back to the use of masks in ancient Greek drama. The mask, then, was a significant element in the worship of Dionysus and is known to have been used since the time of Aeschyluss by members of the chorus, who were there to help the audience know what a character was thinking. Illustrations from 5th century display helmet-like masks, covering the entire face and head of the actors, with holes for the eyes and a small aperture for the mouth, as well as an integrated wig. It is interesting to note that these ancient paintings never show actual masks on the actors in performance; they are mostly shown being handled by the actors before or after a performance, emphasising the liminal space between the audience and the stage, between myth and reality. The mask melted into the face allowing the actor to vanish into a role. Research suggests that the mask served as a resonator for the head, thus enhancing vocal acoustics and altering its quality leading to an increased energy and presence that allowed for the more complete metamorphosis of the actor into his character. Many of these aspects remain true in Gillian Wearing’s work.

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