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Art Exhibit Review: Gillian Wearing: Mass Observation, The Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania

by jill goodheart

Tucked away on the outskirts of the University of Pennsylvania, among semi-hip chain stores, lies a gem of an art space in Philadelphia. And now through December 14, the Institute of Contemporary Art is hosting work of the British video artist Gillian Wearing. Included in this exhibition are examples of her work from 1992-2002. The exhibition, entitled Gillian Wearing: Mass Observation, is small but significant, manageable and moving. Wearing's style could be described as documentary film making meets video art meets psychotherapy.

In 2 into 1, Wearing interviewed a mother and her two sons about their opinions on the nature of their parent-child relationship, their thoughts on one another, and their own self-reflections on family. In a striking monologue, the mother discusses parenthood and how having children brings out two extreme emotions: love and hate. She contrasts the beauty she finds so inherent in her children ("I love every inch of him") and their demands and short tempers, which we get hints could be quite unreasonable at times. In the boys' discussion of their mother, they have few positive words, though criticism is plentiful: she's forgetful, she has yellow teeth, she's a slow driver, she wears old-fashioned clothes. Wearing's role in all this is to heighten these emotions for the viewer (and perhaps the participants) by dubbing this discourse over a film of the person who is the recipient of the comments lip-synching their family members' words. Thus, the mother lip-synchs the boys' criticism of her and her sons do the same. The comments of each are given only a few seconds before they are juxtaposed with the 'other' person's commentary. The result is fascinatingly surreal and oddly heartbreaking. Both the arrogance of the children (who at 11 claim to be "sophisticated") and the pain of the mother are exaggerated through this context.

The largest piece in this exhibition, spanning three screens, is the 23 minute Drunk, in which Wearing has filmed several town drunks she has somehow convinced to spend some time drinking in front of her cameras. When under her microscope, the actions of these men and women are calmingly bizarre, homoerotic, and incredibly sad. In one sequence, a drunken man attempts to walk (or perhaps simply remain standing). This man who has lost his balance to alcohol thus begins a slow motion, wide stepping dance so as to not fall down. This strange dance, filmed in front of a stark white background, could be a performance if the viewer were ignorant of the dancer's true motivations. In another sequence, two men begin to fight, but given their level of inebriation, their arms swing in slow motion and their punches land softly. In the end, the two are lying on top of one another in a kind of awkward pile, eventually pulled apart by the fight's spectators. An oddly similar feel occurs during an excruciating sequence of two men hugging in what could be a lovers' embrace, though it is likely brought on by over-imbibing. These two men stroke one another's hair, appear to give near kisses, and utter barely audible murmurs of affirmation of their friendship ("you've always been there for me"). More painful pieces of the film show the jittery twitching of a man passing out after too much to drink and a well-dressed woman, pearls and all, drooling and tipping over beyond the scope of the camera.

Wearing's longest piece in the exhibition is Sixty-Minute Silence, where several British police officers pose for what at first appears to be a traditional group shot. This being video, however, the group does not simply pose for a moment or two and walk away, but is left to stand (or sit) a full 60 minutes, in which remaining still becomes visibly more difficult. In the end, the 'photo' of the police officers looks like an otherwise still pond with a few momentary ripples, as the subjects smooth their coats, shrug their shoulders, scratch their noses, and adjust their clothing.

Other pieces include Wearing's homage to a woman with a bandaged face the artist had seen on the street. In this homage, Wearing bandages her own face and records the reactions of the people on the street. Her own insecurities come out in this process, as well as the discomfort of those surrounding her who stare or attempt to look away. And in addition to the video pieces, some of Wearing's still photography is also on display at the ICA. Included is a self-portrait of the artist wearing a mask, seemingly reminiscent of Abre sus Ojos or perhaps the bandage-faced woman. Her participatory documentary skills are also exemplified in her collection of nearly famous photos titled "Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say," where she has given pedestrians the opportunity to create a "sign" of their very own to be photographed with. Examples include: "we are the hardcore" from a couple of punk rock kids and "HELP" from a police officer. Hmmmmmm.


Image above: Gillian Wearing, Self-Portrait, 2000, chromogenic development print, 67 3/4 x 67 3/4", Collection of Anthony T.Podesta, Washington D.C., Courtesy of Maureen Paley Interim Art, London

Issue 16, October 2003

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