New York

Gillian Wearing

Jay Gorney Modern Art

“I’M DESPERATE,” proclaims a small, handwritten poster held up by a young man in a business suit. A woman with her face covered by bandages makes her way down a crowded London street, attracting the startled reactions of passersby. Two long-haired dudes play furious air guitar to a thrash-metal song. In these previous photographs and video works, Gillian Wearing has explored the flexible contours of “self”-expression and the ambivalent predicament of witnessing and recording it. In this, her first US solo show, she turned her quasi-documentary gaze upon young adolescents, who confess to her some of their deepest fears and most banal preoccupations. Wearing intervened by displacing these confessions, and the results were by turns engaging, insightful, and ethically troubling.

In the show’s central piece, the video 10-16, 1997, Wearing recorded narratives from seven people, ages ten through sixteen; on screen, adult actors lip-synch their words. A naked dwarf in a bathtub explains, in a twelve-year-old’s voice, how he wants to kill his mother for being a lesbian. Two middle-aged women sitting on a lawn tell of their schoolyard squabbles. A placid-looking businessman, posed as a patient in a psychiatrist’s office, relates how he is mercilessly teased for being overweight, acne-scarred, and sexually confused. These sequences—which borrow from the title and logic of Michael Apted’s well-known “7-Up” documentary series—are formally well-executed and emotionally nuanced; they are adroit in questioning the exalted status of confessional discourse in contemporary culture while using it to address important topics of class, urban geography, and social destiny. Yet Wearing’s own role in obtaining such confessional performative utterances is largely left unexamined. At times the children in the piece seem to be reading their own words, at other moments engaging with Wearing in genuine conversation (though we don’t hear her voice). Did she coerce these expressions of pain and trauma, or did they come in a sense ready-made? The piece could have done more to confront such vexing issues.

Other videos in the show included Sacha & Mum, 1996, which explores a mother-daughter relationship that is by turns loving and physically abusive; and Boy Time #I, 1996, and Boy Time #2, 1997, which picture the same group of working-class boys recorded over two consecutive years trying to hold their pose for an hour. (Wearing has used this “hold a pose” technique more effectively with policemen.) In Sacha & Mum, her intervention was to make the actors in the abuse scene far older than one would expect—a fifty-year-old beating a twenty-five-year-old—and to run the video in reverse with staccato pacing. The “Boy Time” videos were accompanied both by photographs of some of the subjects and by their letters to her concerning where they thought they would be in the year 2000. The photos disrupted the group mentality, and the letters demonstrated how the boys’ thoughts and feelings about their lives and destinies contradicted their nascently loutish mien.

Wearing’s work can be visually impressive, conceptually provocative, and politically astute. In this important show, she effectively raised questions about language, social space, and the role of private memories in the public sphere. Yet there is an inherent tendency in such an enterprise to aestheticize (someone else’s) suffering. Wearing is careful not to do so frivolously; she clearly recognizes how compelling, in both senses, the camera can be. Now that it is no longer viable to propagate the myth of the tortured artist, however, one wonders whether some of that affect is cathected in works like Wearing’s onto the object of the video gaze, who is allowed—even expected—to be “desperate.”

Nico Israel