LOS ANGELES — For her exhibition Everyone, Gillian Wearing hired palm readers to tell her fortune without knowing her professional identity. Each one came up with drastically different predictions, suggesting the fallacy of set-in-stone definitions of destiny and fate. In the gallery, the artist presents three right-hand resin sculptures and one left hand. On them we see a variety of statements such as, “You could certainly write a novel,” “You are a practical person who does too much thinking,” “Your soul has chosen a beautiful path,” and “You will always serve people.” It’s as if to say: choose what you want to believe, and if you believe it enough it may come true. The viewer becomes the voyeur of these palm readings, picking the statements she’d most like to hear. This is typical of Wearing’s work, in which the artist serves as a conduit for other peoples’ confessions while concealing her own subjectivity. In this exhibition, everyone becomes a stranger — both the visitors to the gallery and the people involved in making the work. Words linger longer when we cannot put a name to a face.
None of the people in Wearing’s works are directly identified by name. Those featured in the video “Fear and Loathing” (2014) responded to online advertisements that offered them an opportunity to confess their secrets and fears on camera, and ultimately to whomever would watch the video. Filmed in single photographic images, each confessor wears a mask of a face over his or her real face, creating a sense of protection and reduced emotional vulnerability — although panoramas of LA’s smog-covered skies and low-rise downtown buildings make apparent where the video was shot. The stories recount police brutality, sexual assault, fear of both success and failure, and even an absurd, irrational fear of mayonnaise. Viewers experience the emotions of the confessions only through voice and eye movement.
Wearing’s confessors are a healthy mix of men and women, but there’s an odd absence of people of color (the masks only just cover the confessors’ faces, and their arms and hands are visible). The experience left me wondering about the racial and class contours of fear. In a moment when racial tensions are raging post-Ferguson and the Eric Gardner verdict, making apparent the cognitive dissonance between the real world and art world, the lack of people of color in Wearing’s first US video seems to hint at who feels comfortable volunteering themselves to be filmed confessing on camera, even if (or perhaps because) they’re wearing white-skin-toned masks.
Twenty years prior, Wearing made a similar piece called “Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry You Will Be in Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian Version II” (1994). People who responded to the advertisement in Time Out London followed the same formula as with her most recent video: they wore masks and confessed private secrets to the camera, and the video was then presented publicly. Despite the fact that this isn’t a new concept for the artist, the 2014 piece is still fascinating because it reflects a specific time and place, and tells stories of the people who live there.
Before the focus on faces and identity, words served as masks in Wearing’s practice. Her 1992–93 Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say is a series of framed color photographs of people whom the artist approached and asked to write down what they were thinking about in that moment. A kind of predecessor of Facebook status updates, Wearing’s series was a public performance of everyday thoughts and the rejection of an idea or moment as “precious.” Today the line between public and private continues to shift online, but not everyone is content or comfortable with the internet. Some would rather confess to the camera, to a screen, to a room full of art viewers they’ll never meet. It is this premise that keeps Wearing’s exhibition feeling completely contemporary — social media will never overtake the power of a bigger, better, or more personal-seeming screen.
Wearing’s interest in collecting the shared stories of strangers is a conceptual thread that she shares with Miranda July, specifically the project Learning to Love You More; for that, July and collaborator Harrell Fletcher offered assignments to strangers via the website learningtoloveyoumore.com, then collected responses and posted them publicly. Above all, both Wearing and July are fascinated by the shifting definitions of public and private, and what happens when we choose to share — to become more publicly connected to a private thought, and thus to other people who are having similar ones.
What is left after people purge their fears and loathings? The show also includes a lightbox photograph of flowers, “Everyone” (2014), which seems decorative but given the context could be part of a symbolic funeral arrangement. Finally, masks of Wearing’s own face round out the installation. A haunting, oversize silver chain with painted mask, “Me As Necklace” (2014), hangs on the wall, peering back at the viewer, while at the front of the exhibition we see the framed portrait “Me as an Artist in 1984” (2014). It is a portrait of the artist in her studio, surrounded by work she made at age 20, wearing a skin-colored mask of herself. We don’t see Wearing the person; we see her as the idea of the artist, knowing only what she sees through the slits of her mask, a vision of and for someone else.
Gillian Wearing: Everyone continues at Regen Projects (6750 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, Los Angeles) through January 24.
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