Monsters and myths

The Gillian Wearing exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery has had a lot of airplay. I had an hour or so (after one of my frequent visits for hand treatment at the London Whitechapel Hospital) to visit. It reminded me what a wonderful gallery this is and I wished I’d taken longer.

Would I have spent longer in the Wearing exhibition? It’s extremely hard work. seeing people reveal themselves so painfully, to see them eviscerated without pity, if also without judgement. It’s not that she does the disembowelling. She hands them the knife, the space, the permission and then stands back. She is behind the camera, steady and unflinching.

Many of these films are so difficult you can’t sit through them.

In one booth there are a series of adults speaking the words of children. The numbers come up on the screen. 10. 11. 12. 13. Quite quickly you realise this is the age of the script-persona. These, as always in Wearing’s work are ‘real people’ who told her these stories. She does not make them up. The face on the screen is much older than the words, usually middle-aged or more, lip synching these dreams and confessions and tortured aspirations. Usually the actor sits very still, telling these extraordinary stories. The boy of 13 who wants to kill his mother for falling in love with another woman, a woman he finds physically repulsive. The boy of 16, portrayed as a middle-aged man who looked very like George (of G&G), talking in graphic detail about his experiments in masturbatory sodomy. A girl of 12 as a middle aged woman, describing her abhorrence of abortion.

In another booth a man talks of his desire to have his penis cut off. A woman talks of the years of incest abuse. A man in a huge beard and wig describes how he visited a prostitute. These speakers are themselves but hidden behind masks and wigs. Liberated by the artist to tell these frightening stories.

I came out exhausted after my hour. I sat in the (excellent) Whitechapel cafe bar for a brief snack and could barely look at the people around me. What lies are they telling by their very appearance of normality? (And what stories are curled in me?)

When I was a child I loved George McDonald’s Curdie books. (Re-reading them as an adult, I found them terrifying.) One gift Curdie gains is to know the true monstrosity of a person when he shakes their hand. A snake, or a rat, or a pig. The goblins by contrast show their true natures every day in the bodies they wear. For the people who answered Wearing’s call for subjects, she reversed Curdie’s gift. They have, she has, shown their goblin natures. Along with her, we love them for the truth they reveal.

About Sarah Tanburn

I'm a writer, a sailor and a strategic adviser to public organisations. Visit my websites to find out more.
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