Gillian Wearing: Why she's one of Britain's best-loved contemporary artists

Jessie Thompson
Behind the mask: Gillian Wearing's Me As Cahun Holding A Mask Of My Face

Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing is one of Britain’s best-loved contemporary artists. She captures the unseen side of ordinary life, examines the self in a way that unsettles and draws the viewer in, and she’s about to be the first female artist to make a sculpture for Parliament Square.

Here are a few reasons why she’s one of the art world’s most exciting figures.

She danced in a Peckham shopping centre like no one was watching

Wearing’s 1994 piece, a performance art work captured on video called Dancing in Peckham, saw her prancing around in the middle of a shopping centre to music only she could hear - much to the bewilderment of passers by. It was inspired by her seeing a woman dancing with no self consciousness at a jazz concert on the South Bank. It plays with ideas of private moments in public spaces and how people present themselves in an age long before social media.

Her Turner Prize-winning work showed the truth behind a photograph

The work, called Sixty Minutes Silence, appeared to be an official photo of a group of police officers, but it was in fact an hour-long video. The human elements leaked out of the uniformed inhabitants of the image as they endeavoured to keep still and silent for the duration of the film. She also created Sacha and Mum, a film in which actors portrayed a strained embrace between a mother and daughter and the film is shown backwards.

Self Portrait of Me Now in Mask

She makes sculptures

Wearing’s A Real Birmingham Family, placed outside the Library of Birmingham, was deemed controversial. It depicted two single mothers, one pregnant, out with their children. It was based on two local mothers who were sisters. Some criticised the sculpture for not showing a father figure, and Fathers For Justice protested against it. Wearing is creating another sculpture this year, this time of suffragist Millicent Fawcett. The statue will be in Parliament Square, making Wearing the first female artist to create work for the area.

She loves a good mask

Wearing’s fascination with masks have seen her create some of her most brilliant, unsettling work. She created masks of her entire family, including herself as a child, to create an extremely unusual album of family portraits: all the pictures were of her, wearing masks of other people.

Self Portrait as my Father Brian Wearing

She has a spiritual family of artists

Wearing created a series of mask pictures based on her ‘Spiritual Family’ of artists. She styled herself as Diane Arbus, Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe. Her image of herself as Claude Cahun while holding a mask of her own face helped to inspire a joint exhibition on the two artists at the National Portrait Gallery. Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask explores how these two artists, who were fascinated by the self-portrait and the use of self-image, complement each other with their work.

She took selfies before anyone knew what they were

The National Portrait Gallery exhibition shows the collection of Polaroids that Wearing took of herself between 1988-2005 - before anyone had ever heard of a selfie, Wearing was documenting her face, charting the changes and examining what she looked like over the years.

She gets people to say how they really feel

Another of Wearing’s famous works, which has been shown in Tube stations as part of Art On The Underground, is Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say And Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say. The series of photographs captured passers by, asked by Wearing to write down what was on their mind and then pictured holding the statement. One of the most famous images sees a smartly dressed man in a suit holding a sign saying "I’m desperate".

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