Keeping it in the Family: Gillian Wearing interview
Originally published in The Times: T2 supplement, October 3rd 2006
Also used by the Maureen Paley Gallery as the accompanying text to Gillian Wearing's exhibition Oct 10th - Nov 19th 2006
A landmark reality TV show has inspired Gillian Wearing, she tells Matt Lippiatt.
Almost ten years have passed since Gillian Wearing was awarded the Turner Prize. During this time she has proved herself to be among the most enduringly popular of the Young British Artists to graduate from Goldsmith’s College in its late 80s heyday, sharing early success with fellow alumni including, among others, Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst. Wearing's artistic territory is documentary portraiture, from the family snapshot to CCTV footage, but always with a twist.
On the surface her video works, such as Confess all on video. Don't worry, you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian (1994), are about revelation. In the latter, a series of people in masks reveal their innermost secrets. But the works also ask how much of ourselves can be captured through a lens? Do we reveal more when our identity is concealed? And what is the role of the person behind the camera - impartial observer or conspirator? Flatterer or exploiter?
Wearing has just produced her most sophisticated work yet. Family History revisits one of her earliest influences: Paul Watson's 1974 fly-on-the-wall documentary The Family, which followed the fortunes of the Wilkins family from Reading.
"It was unlike anything else on television. The people in that series were giving away a lot more about themselves than people tended to in everyday life, especially in the Seventies," she says.
For Wearing, then aged ten and a half and growing up in Birmingham, Heather, the tempestuous teenage daughter in The Family, exerted particular fascination. She saw her as an anti-authority figure, someone fighting with her mother. "I did strongly relate to Heather," she says. "There was an idea of a bond. I identified with her as strongly as if she were my friend."
One screen of the Family History installation shows a reconstruction of the Wearing family's living-room c 1979, complete with a young actress playing the part of Gillian, watching and commenting on The Family as it plays on the television set. For the second screen Wearing invited the television talk-show presenter Trisha Goddard to interview Heather herself, who is now grown up, with teenagers of her own. Goddard agreed to take part, she has said, because she has studied psychology and is interested in her guests' body language.
What was it like for Wearing to meet Heather, her self-confessed childhood TV "surrogate sister", as an adult?
"In a way I was still expecting this angry person huddled in a ball, but obviously she's changed a lot," she says. "I was surprised at how much her life has been affected by appearing in that documentary. I wanted to do something about someone whose past was very significant somehow, and with The Family it's because they had their past recorded more than anyone of that generation. Does that record end up marking your life more than anything else? No one had ever experienced that lack of privacy before."
Reflecting on another key influence, the continuing documentary series Seven Up, she admits: "I think I'd find it very scary if someone was following me, taping me every seven years. I'd feel like I had this deadline by which to have a story to my life, to make it worthwhile being filmed. Everybody wants a happy ending."
While Family History harks back - both to Wearing's childhood and Heather's on-screen adolescence - the newest works on show in London delve still further into the past.
The Album photographs are a continuing series, begun in 1993, featuring Wearing posing as members of her family. Costumes, wigs and meticulously crafted silicone prosthetic masks go into recreating, in detail, the snapshots and portrait images on which her photographs are based.. The results are spooky and raise questions around loss, the passage of time and disintegrating identity.
However, it's an expensive process (each mask costs mor than £10,000 to produce, followed by up to 40 rolls of film to capture the perfect image of Wearing inside it). Until recently the series consisted only of parents and siblings, two self-images and an uncle. Now there are two new additions to the album: Wearing's maternal grandparents.
"My grandfather died before I was born, and my grandmother died when I was very young, but they had good photographs taken of themselves so obviously that's interesting to work from."
The pictures are immediately recognisable as from a different era. In high-contrast black-and-white, the formality and stagey chiaroscuro lighting of her grandfather's portrait in particular contrasts with Wearing's brother Richard, caught in a snapshot casually brushing his hair, topless in an untidy bedroom. "That's the most interesting thing about this project; seeing the way we have changed our approach to being photographed," she says.
Wearing's preoccupation wit family and history is of the moment, coming at the same time as the success of television shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? and the recent explosion of interest in researching family trees.
Inevitably, the further Wearing extends Album to include previous generations, the more her own position seems like an end point; the final name at the bottomof the family tree. "That's true - how to take it forward? I don't have any children, but if I did, I probably would use their pictures in this series. It's made me think about how people in years to come will be lucky, because they'll have photographs that go back through generations and generations of their family."
She says she's keen to avoid "the nostalgia trap" in her work, but more of her work will focus on the past. "In the future there will be amazing family albums spanning hundreds of years," she says, with genuine wonder. "I think that's fascinating."
Family History was at Maureen Paley, 21 Herald Street, E2 (020-77294112), Oct 10-Nov 19
For a complete transcript of the interview that this article is based on, click here.