Emerging in the 90s alongside the
YBA movement with her frank and telling photography and video work, Turner prize-winner and self-confessed pop culture obsessive Gillian Wearing has influenced far more than just the art world with her images. Her piece, Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say..., made back in 1992, remains iconic within pop culture. The simple idea, showing random strangers holding a thought to the camera, has been used by everyone from art college students to advertising agencies and is described by Wearing as “going off into the stratosphere”. Having produced numerous observational works across her 20-year career, all of which provide a revealing take on society, we talk to the OBE-awarded artist about her unfaltering interest in people and her forthcoming debut feature film.
Dazed & Confused: How did you become involved in the art world?
Gillian Wearing: Quite by chance. I worked at an animation firm on accounts in the 1980s. I was interested in the animation process and eventually they advised me to go to art college. I was accepted into Chelsea to do a BTEC at first – at the end of the first year, my tutor told me I had a fine art sensibility so I applied to Goldsmiths.
D&C: When did you first start to conceptually develop your ideas?
Gillian Wearing: I would walk around a lot of different studios at Goldsmiths and found it exciting to see what people were doing – things I hadn’t seen before. I realised that they had ideas in their work. We were given access to the workshops and one of the first things I did was start to cut up books. That was my first foray away from drawing and painting.
D&C: It was after Goldsmiths that you began to be grouped with the YBAs – were you aware of being a part of a scene at that time?
Gillian Wearing: The YBAs were really all from the generation of artists that showed in the original Freeze exhibition. I never really considered myself to be a part of that group as I had been below them at college. It was strange for me when I had my first group show with that generation – I felt like a bit of a fraud.
D&C: What was it about the the movement that made all of those artists so influential?
Gillian Wearing: They were artists that gained strength from being part of a group. It gave them the energy to do things, in a sort of punk, DIY way. I think it’s important to remember that they didn’t have a manifesto. It was more a moment in time that changed British history in contemporary art than it was a movement.
D&C: Looking back, can you see a pivotal ‘break’ in your career?
Gillian Wearing: Signs that Say... I actually remember feeling like it was a good idea while I was making it, and you can’t always say that – it got me excited. The fact that you were finding something out about someone you didn’t know really struck me. As well as being something that received attention, it also alerted me to the area, conceptually, that I was interested in. I felt then that it worked, but originally thought it was more an art piece for a magazine. I actually submitted and published the first series in The Face. I found it very hard to consider how it would be shown in a gallery as at that time art looked very much like art, and there was something raw about these images.
D&C: Were you surprised by how honest the people you encountered were with you?
Gillian Wearing: Yes, definitely. Back then, we had this idea that British people didn’t open up. But I would just pass them this piece of paper and all of a sudden they were incredibly honest with me – that’s what really made the project for me, it broke all those stereotypes.
D&C: That exhibition played a part in your Turner Prize nomination, which you won in 1997. How did you feel about winning?
Gillian Wearing: I actually thought Cornelia Parker was going to win as she was slightly older and more established. I got really drunk beforehand – a bottle and a half of champagne. When they called out my name, I was so drunk I can’t even remember what I said in my speech. I don’t think you need to win a prize to feel validated – it’s a bonus, and that’s how I feel you should see it. I know to some people it was everything, but I always felt if you were going to obsess about something, it should be the work.
D&C: After Signs... there was quite an investigative side to your work. Where do you think that drive comes from?
Gillian Wearing: I remember when I was young and used to stay at my nan’s house, I would look out of the window at the people going past and make stories up about them. I think I was always just really interested in people.
D&C: You once described yourself as a TV addict and a lot of your work explores aspects of popular culture. How have you seen popular culture change during your career?
Gillian Wearing: Reality television has changed a lot in TV and film – even in the way people behave with each other in their daily lives. When you watch people trying to be as much of themselves as they can on television, I think it makes people less scared to say things or do things in their own lives. Everyone has now been fed a diet of what reality looks like. We are also now so saturated with multiple platforms. I’ve got Sky television but I only watch a few channels. Yes, I have all the choice in the world, but somehow it doesn’t seem to offer me that many avenues.
D&C: Do you think that an increase in media has made people become more adept at editing the content they engage with?
Gillian Wearing: You have to move pretty fast to edit all of that information into something you actually want to take in. Perhaps the good thing about television in the 1970s was that I would watch documentaries that a kid now would never watch, because they have access to all the things that children actually want to watch. Back then, after 6pm there was only serious drama, a documentary or a comedy.
D&C: You have just finished work on your first feature length film – Self Made. How did that come about?
Gillian Wearing: The Film Council asked me to submit a proposal along with 20 other artists to make an experimental film. I thought it would be interesting to ask other people what they would like to be in that film. We were given the go-ahead and I worked for two years with the writer, Leo Butler.
D&C: What’s the idea behind it?
Gillian Wearing: It was always going to be a process piece of work. I would film the casting auditions, then we would have a workshop and an acted scene. The idea developed into using method acting, because the people then bring an element of themselves to a fictional character.
D&C: The film is very much about people’s own stories – how did you cast the characters?
Gillian Wearing: We placed adverts in various places, and around 2,000 people applied. In the applicants’ emails, if they gave something of themselves away, I became more interested. The advert was very simple but some responses really told us something about who they were. When we actually met them, we kind of knew immediately.
D&C: How did you find the process of making a feature?
Gillian Wearing: Intensive. It was actually shot in three weeks, which is quite short for a feature but I have never been so exhausted in my life. I would only have about three hours sleep a night. Your adrenaline is running constantly which is great, but there is very little time to stand back from it.
D&C: Self Made feels like a distillation of lots of the themes that you have been working with throughout your career. Was that intentional?
Gillian Wearing: I hadn’t really thought about that until recently. The gallery owner Carl Freedman said something similar after a screening of the film, but I didn’t have that in mind before making it. I work very organically and this film was a collaborative effort between everyone involved. I am very much pleased with it though, and I think it does distill a lot of the ideas that I have been interested in before.
William Oliver is commissioning editor of Nowness
Photography by JESS GOUGH
Dazed & Confused's October issue, 'Come Together: 20th Anniversary Special', is out now. Click HERE to check out the other, already published, Q&As celebrating the issue