Gillian Wearing at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Until 17 June, two works by Gillian Wearing from the Government Art Collection, Dancing in Peckham and Me as an artist in 1984 feature in In My Shoes: Art and the Self since the 1990s, an Arts Council Collection touring exhibition at the Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park. With a focus on self-portraiture since the 1990s, the exhibition explores different ways that artists have represented themselves in their work.

Me as an artist in 1984

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For her video, Dancing in Peckham, Wearing spent 25 minutes in a shopping centre in southeast London, dancing to Gloria Gaynor and Nirvana tracks that she ‘played’ in her head. People walk by, either bemused or ignoring her with classic British reserve. Consciously deciding to appear in the work, she said:

There are some things you can’t ask of the public… For instance, the original idea for ‘Dancing in Peckham’ stemmed from seeing this woman dancing wildly in the Royal Festival Hall. She was completely unaware that people were mocking her… Asking her to be in one of my videos would have been patronising, so I decided to do it myself.

The photograph, Me as an artist in 1984 was made two decades after Dancing in Peckham. Again, Wearing is the subject of her work, but here, as a younger version of herself. With a 1980s backcombed hairstyle and prosthetic mask, she sits on a desk holding a clay figurine splattered in red paint. Behind her is an abstract painting, a naïve Surrealist-like composition.

Wearing re-visits herself at 21, during a period that she lived in London, working as a secretary in an animation studio. Interested by her colleagues’ work, she enrolled in an art and design course at Chelsea School of Art. Wearing later graduated from Goldsmiths College, one of a cohort of artists in the 1990s, including Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas, who became known as the ‘Young British Artists’ or ‘YBAs’.

Self-portraits traditionally allow us to control how we appear to others. In Wearing’s photograph there is a sense of reticence on the brink of what became a successful career. It is almost as if she is ‘trying on’ the guise of artist. Incorporating prosthetic masks in her work, either worn by herself or by others, Wearing invites us to think about the relationship that exists between a person’s ‘real’ self-identity versus an ideal version projected to the outside world. As she commented in 2014:

It’s like Oscar Wilde says, “Give someone a mask and they will tell the truth.” When we talk with our faces, we are very aware how people are perceiving us. Masks protect you quite a lot actually. They give you a little bit of empowerment.

Birmingham-born, Gillian Wearing exhibits her work internationally. Winner of the Turner Prize in 1997, she has had numerous solo exhibitions including shows at the Serpentine Gallery (2000); the Institute of Contemporary Art in Pennsylvania (2003); and a major retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2012, that toured to Düsseldorf and Munich. In 2017, the National Portrait Gallery exhibition, Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask explored the work of French artist, Claude Cahun (1894–1954) and Wearing – artists of different generations who both used photography and performance to explore shared themes of identity, self-portraiture and gender.

Further Information

In My Shoes: Art and the Self since the 1990s
Longside Gallery
Yorkshire Sculpture Park
West Bretton
Wakefield WF4 4LG
United Kingdom
(SatNav WF4 4JX)

Telephone: +44 (0)1924 832631
Email: vet@ysp.org.uk