Furtive Moves: Gillian Wearing’s Identities and Sara VanDerBeek’s Dancers
Report from… London
Gillian Wearing approaches identity furtively. This even applies to her self-portraits where she is rarely fully present, instead flickering in and out of the frame, oscillating between herself and an older self, or another family member, or another photographer. It seems fitting, therefore, that the retrospective of her work at the Whitechapel Gallery, (March 28 to June 17, 2012) curated by Daniel Herrmann and Doris Krystof (it will travel to the K20 in Dusseldorf and then the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich) starts plaintively with a ceiling hung monitor showing Dancing in Peckham. This seminal early work that so perfectly expresses alienation and the raw nerve of hidden, unspeakable secrets is not alone in the main ground floor gallery, but because the other films in the room have their own self-contained theaters, Dancing in Peckham dominates the room, and gives us our only glimpse of the artist, herself, doing a weird lonely dance in a crowded, South London shopping mall.
Wearing’s most recent film on display, Bully (2010) is a staged performance of what might be either an acting exercise or some kind of psychological role-playing. The question of what genre the films actually fall into is an important element of her work. Most are interviews, but with whom? Often the main character has been switched out with another, who lip-synchs their voice, or the speaker wears a mask. The monologues are morbidly fascinating, but again, who they are aimed at is equivocal, as much of the time it seems the characters are more interested in seeking absolution than entertaining an audience. The main protagonist of Bully coaches his fellow actors into re-enacting an altercation on the playground from his youth. He then chastises those who intimidated him and those who stood by watching, but whether this is a cathartic release for a real person or a figment of Wearing’s imagination is never revealed.
Upstairs, the series of photographs, Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say are virtually given a room of their own. Even after numerous advertising campaigns over the years have borrowed or stolen Wearing’s imaginative vehicle of pure self-expression, these pictures of average Londoners, many again photographed in Peckham, retain their original energy and power. The attractive young man in a suit holding the words “I’m desperate” or a man with facial tattoos whose sign reads, “Have been certified as mildly insane” are a tremendous leveler of humanity, in the face of superficial appearances. The room also contains Crowd, a video on a small flat screen created in imitation of Dürer’s still life with weeds and wildflowers of 1503, a reenactment of sorts, and several small, precisely executed sculptures of individuals who have distinguished themselves: a rooky police officer, Gervais (2010) and Terri (2008) who was injured during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2011 but still rescued several others that day. In the sculptures, Wearing inverts the traditional tropes of heroism, instead creating a small delicate trophy-sized replica of an individual, rather than a large monument.
The exhibition ends with a series of self-portraits of Wearing as members of her immediate family, or masquerading as various members of the historical family of photographers. The eerie portraits which strive for realism through prosthesis show Wearing as Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus , Robert Mapplethorpe and August Sander, among others, and as her father and brother, as well as a particularly disturbing image of herself as a chubby-cheeked toddler in Self Portrait at three years old, (2004). These costume changes and disguises seek to question who Wearing herself is, literally referencing where she came from but also questioning where it is that the personality of the artist rests within the context of photography.
Sara VanDerBeek’s exhibition at The Approach (May 24 to June 24, 2012;) follows a methodology of transmogrification between concepts and sculptural forms. This may seem like one of the textbook definitions of sculpture, but for VanDerBeek, there is a poignant directness. . Until recently the objects that she fabricated were at third-stage removed through the filter of photography. Thus a sculpture that was a physical interpretation of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”, for example, still did not exist in the viewer’s space (Sara Vanderbeek: Of Ruins and Light, Whitney Museum 2010). This lead to a seductively fictitious art practice that involved layers of creation that were in the end relegated to a two-dimensional medium, an art practice that functioned through traces rather than objects. VanDerBeek’s exhibition at The Approach is a 2 stage process, the first involving a series of photographs the artist took working with ballet dancers from her native Baltimore, and the production of cast and painted plaster sculptures based on these images.
VanDerBeek hurls herself into the debate as to whether architecture is actually frozen music as Goethe would have it. The questions and criticisms that arise in deriving one art from another, in this case sculpture from dance/photography or in her past work, poetry, add up to whether the work stands on its own, references its origin point, or even needs to. The black and white photographs are of dancers performing short choreographed interludes. “Baltimore Dancers 10” is a stark white photo of a dancer flexing her leg, the contrast of the pale leg against velvety black background reduces the movement of the dancer to a series of stresses and vectors. It is a visually engaging image, but more mathematical than organic.
These images are then referenced by the cast plaster sculptures. The totemic towers each have their own unit, stacked one on top of the other. Untitled VII presents a column of plaster rectangles with a single transverse from corner to corner, to the best of it’s simple plaster capabilities mimicking the dancer’s calf and thigh in Baltimore Dancers 10. In a very literal way the mass-produced units of these totems are reminiscent of uniformly garbed dancers in a corps de ballet, interweaving and executing identical movements.
The static white of the plaster, and the right angles and sharp corners of the simple geometric volumes bespeak the mathematical precision of choreography, and do form a palpable physical counterpoint to the clean lines and undulating shades of the dancers’ legs arms and backs. While the dancers are soft and their bodies a mass of curves and shadows, living, breathing and in flux, the sculptures exist as the other side of dance, the rhythm meter and the absolute fact of ballet that it must be learned and repeated. Though the sculptures have emerged from their original hiding place in the space of the photograph, they still engage the images of the dancers and their movements in the space of the gallery.
Whitechapel Gallery: 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX. +44 (0)20 7522 7888
The Approach: 47 Approach Road, Bethnal Green, London E2, +44 (0) 20 8983 3878