Gillian Wearing and the shy face of participatory art

Sunday, November 8, 2015
Gillian Wearing and the shy face of participatory art

Unassuming and approachable she may be, but Gillian Wearing has the distinct air of a quiet person. Neither a Turner Prize award in 1997, nor an OBE award in 2011, can have done much to amplify this demeanour. Yet whatever inhibitions she might still hold, the artist knows how to overcome them. She does, after all, work with the public, enlisting total strangers in her personal and psychologically charged portraits.

Gillian Wearing and the shy face of participatory art

Unassuming and approachable she may be, but Gillian Wearing has the distinct air of a quiet person. Neither a Turner Prize award in 1997, nor an OBE award in 2011, can have done much to amplify this demeanour. Yet whatever inhibitions she might still hold, the artist knows how to overcome them. She does, after all, work with the public, enlisting total strangers in her personal and psychologically charged portraits.

Her breakthrough piece, Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992-93), has been much imitated and pre-empted the widespread online use of written placards to augment a portrait or a selfie. The best known image in the series featured a city boy who chose the phrase “I’m desperate” to say what he wanted to say, and not what he may have been supposed to.

Wearing can put herself on the line if needs be. In 1994, the artist filmed herself dancing alone in a shopping arcade and did so without music. No one who has seen the awkward result, Dancing in Peckham, or the Signs series, or indeed any of her confessional videos, will be surprised by her latest venture: the former YBA has organised the art world’s first convention for shy people. There were plenty of retiring takers for places at this event at Backlit Gallery in Nottingham.

Shy Convention masks proved popular

Shy Convention took place on 31 October and it seemed not every delegate was previously aware of the level of exposure characteristic of this artist’s work. Taking the form of two afternoon workshops and a performance in the evening, there were up to 30 participants from all walks of life. Behind the low stage was a black curtain, with the words “I’m shy”, scrawled in a nervous hand. Performers had the option of appearing in front of or behind this screen.

But however they chose to get up and give it a go, Shy Convention delegates were at least well prepped. In the afternoon life coach Isabel Mortimer drilled them on body language; Jim Hall took them for a poetry workshop; and most chose a musical backing track over which to read. Some of their poems were good, some bad. And it was often during the least accomplished that the event delivered the most drama. Two women left the stage in tears, albeit tears of relief.

Shy Convention Matthew Chesney, Backlit Director, performs in semi-anonymity

Other highlights included a local writer Emma’s poem about her favourite mixtape. She read out her verse from behind a cat mask. “I am shy,” she told me (unnecessarily): “I didn’t really know anything about this, but it sounded intriguing”. Emma admitted this was not the first time she had read in public, but she added, “I can't normally say, ‘Hi, I'm this or that’, or say what it's about. But I actually felt okay to explain the story tonight. So that's new. That's what I was hoping to get from it”.

Fine art student Chris was another game contender, reading a poem about a favourite item of clothing. It soon became clear that it was the Gillian Wearing effect that brought him here, rather than low confidence: “Once I saw her name I was like, God, I’ve got to go to that. I love her!” Chris enjoyed his day at the convention so much he said, “I feel like I could do it ten more times”. He also said Shy Convention has inspired him to seek out more new experiences like it.

Shy Convention participant braves centre stage

Shy Convention participant Chris

Shy Convention participant Emma

Which is fortunate, because experiences like Shy Convention were on offer all around the UK this weekend as part of Museums at Night and the Connect programme. At the Novium Museum in Chichester,  Yinka Shonibare MBE instigated a 24 hour ‘creative factory’; Luke Jerram created a vast ticking installation with 1,000 donated clocks at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery, Devon; Alinah Azadeh was on the famous couch at Freud Museum, London, talking with members of the public about gifts; while at the Williamson Museum & Art Gallery in Birkenhead, Davy & Kristin McGuire brought to life a classical statue with projection and sound; finally and most far afield, street artist Pure Evil was DJ-ing and screenprinting the night away for Halloween at Verdant Works, Dundee.

Being artists and not entertainers, all seven participants will have had to overcome an occupational tendency towards introversion. This is just the sort of tension with which Wearing operates. So while her brave souls in Nottingham took the limelight, the artist could be found looking on with presumable satisfaction. Needless to say, in a room full of shy performers she totally blended in.

Shy Convention plucking up courage with a drink

A solo show by Gillian Wearing can be seen at IVAM in Valencia, Spain, until 24 January 2016. The author of this piece is affiliated in a voluntary capacity was Museums at Night.

Image above: Shy Convention Gillian Wearing at Backlit

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Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Femme au béret orange et au col de fourrure (Marie‐Thérèse), executed 4 December 1937. Oil on canvas. 24⅛ x 18⅛ in (61.2 x 46.1 cm)

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Femme au béret orange et au col de fourrure (Marie‐Thérèse), executed 4 December 1937. Oil on canvas. 24⅛ x 18⅛ in (61.2 x 46.1 cm)

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