New York

Gillian Wearing

Gorney Bravin + Lee

AREN'T YOU ALLOWED TO WIN THE TURNER PRIZE TWICE? Gillian Wearing should have been a shoo-in again this year (she won in 1997) on the strength of her three-channel video projection Drunk, 1997–99. Wearing's plan—to cultivate a bunch of skid-row types over a period of years, give them the run of her studio, and film the proceedings—sounds like a recipe for disaster, not only for practical and aesthetic reasons but on ethical grounds as well. Yet the artist's formal rigor makes the work a minimalist masterpiece: at once somnolent and keyed up, like its subjects—a cross between Andy Warhol and Samuel Beckett, if such a hybrid were possible.

Wearing has always demonstrated a knack for simple yet effective ways of formalizing what would otherwise be recalcitrantly naturalistic material. Think of the adolescent confessions of 10-16,1997, lip-synched by adult actors (including that now-notorious dwarf). Drunk, though, needs no such verfremdungseffekt; its formalization is all in the eye. The three large black-and-white projections are, in fact, mostly white—a blank backdrop against which what little action there is takes place, usually on just one screen at a time and in relative silence, with the occasional bit of addled dialogue. Throughout, there's a powerful underlying sense of nothing happening. But the gestures of these broken-down figures are compelling and oddly theatrical: Profound inebriation has stylized their movements so that they are invariably too slow, too intricate, too careful, too distracted, or too unpredictable; these rhythmic motions and routines add up to a sort of pageant with Wearing's studio as the stage. Sometimes the characters engage in a sort of Punch-and-Judy violence; sometimes the action is abstractly balletic; in one segment it becomes achingly romantic yet manipulative, when a male drunk tries to seduce another who'd rather not. Some scenes seem almost virtuosically elaborated: A relatively well dressed guy wanders into view from the right; it looks like he's trying to reach the left edge of the far-right screen (he actually gets there a couple of times) but he always ends up back near the center of the frame as if drawn by some invisible force; finally he disappears off to the right where he came from. (In a later sequence, he makes it across all three screens quite expeditiously.) It's a dance beyond the devising of most choreographers.

Is it heartless to see these derelicts (one can imagine them dead from drink in five years' time) in aesthetic terms? On the contrary: Here, the aesthetic rigor of Wearing's rock-steady camera—it neither voyeuristically follows nor abashedly turns away from these unlovely subjects-means showing things as they are, unblinkingly, without sentimentality or condemnation, excuses or moralism. The issue becomes a bit more complicated, though, in A Woman Called Theresa, 1998, a group of seven photographic diptychs related to the Drunk project. In the left panels, the corpulent Theresa, a member of Drunk's little band who didn't make the final cut, appears in bed with a series of lovers; the right panels display each man's handwritten memoir of her, sometimes sincerely affectionate but more often scathing (“She dose not respect herself. i mean anyone who sells themselves for a can of beer has got to stupid”. It's hard stuff, and the relative modesty of its formal mediation somehow makes one feel a party to the creepy relations involved. It takes me a little closer to voyeurism than I'm prepared to get—closer, perhaps, than an unimpaired subject would countenance.

Barry Schwabsky