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"A lot of people told me to fuck off, especially in South London." says Gillian Wearing of her 1992-93 photographic series Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say. The series, in which Gillian approached members of the public in the street with the simpler request of writing down what they were thinking on a piece of paper, holding it up, and posing, captures a slice of London identity in one of the most recognisable photographic endeavours of the nineties. Taken during an era marked by political, financial and cultural unease, Signs... encapsulates the ins and outs of the Great British identity with a reflexive, transcendent power that touts a unique sense of self. Thirty years later it is still a bitingly moving and emotive reflection of a London on the edge. FETCH takes a look back at Wearings' influences and how they what make her work so powerful.

Wearing's story starts some fifty years ago: "It was a Pop art show in Birmingham City Museum in the 1970s." she says of her first major cultural experience and its' inspiration "It made me realise art does not have to be a carefully composed painting. I started making clay sculptures after that in my bedroom at night, so it was the beginning of a long road to being an artist." She explains how she came to be obsessed by the concept of document people: "Years ago, I used to be really impressed by fly-on-the-wall documentaries such as Franc Roddam and Paul Watson's The Family, which was first screened in 1974 and followed the life of a working class family in Reading. Watching it for the first time I couldn't believe how revealing it was. The film crew, the presenter, and the whole Wilkins family were so naive in front of the camera. Brought to the screen, even the most normal scenarios suddenly seemed horrific. Everything about their lives was exposed. It was as if the whole thing were an experiment where no one knew what was going on. Nowadays, people get all nervous when you stick a camera up their nose. They want to look their best or come across as being witty and clever rather than just being themselves, which is far more interesting."

Wearing's Signs... simultaneously embraced and overcame this fault of human nature. From scribbles of Queer + Happy to the deeply moving Music tells me things that never were, and cannot be to the Will Britain Get Through this recession?, the series captures a litany of British thoughts ranging from the emotionally vulnerable to the politically emblematic to the delightfully mundane. One particular photograph of a well-dressed businessman, touting a resigned smile and a sign saying I'm Desperate, manages to combine all three:

"I’m Desperate is a defining image, I know I am biased." she admits. "But it came at a time that we didn’t expect someone to be so brutally honest or vulnerable and yet look so in control. It is always going to work as an image, and the beauty of it is that it can speak of different politics over the years. In the 90s it was associated with the recession and now it could be the sense of many people feeling disempowered. That is what a good artwork should do; be open to many interpretations, and therefore it is much more universal. I hate to use this word but it is an ‘iconic’ photograph." Iconic is certainly accurate: the brutal honesty of the sign contrasts richly with the quiet look of resignation upon the subjects' face; the formality of his attire with the richness of the natural space behind him. Wearing set out with the aim of proving the stereotype of the cold, unapproachable Brit: "In 1992, we were still being fed this line that British people are reserved and don't like to express what they are feeling. The idea of Signs is that if you approached anyone they would have something interesting to say. I never picked people. If they grasped the idea I was making art rather than a survey, then they tended to be intrigued." She achieved the opposite. The mix of political and personal vulnerability is both a rejection and reflection of a Britain that was very much on edge: the subjects scribbles are hopeful and afraid, sanguine and timorous, terrified by the future and enthralled by the past. There is something of 2020 in every image and all sentiments, a sharp reminder of the relationship between country, citizen and culture and the spaces between.

"Being an artist, I have to go through life accepting certain situations and making a lot of compromises." says Wearing of her work and the characters she captures and explores. "I'm attracted to all sorts of people, average as well as extreme. But above all, I really love people who go through life without compromise and stick to their character, even when it means they remain unemployed, or they don't have any friends or relationships... In a world which is willing to be elastic, [people that I am attracted to photographing] stick resolutely to this one path, this fixed belief in themselves. We all have a certain madness about us and these people don't mind showing it. Which leads me to believe that the most insane thing you can ever do is try to be sane."

Image Credits: Gillian Wearing


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