"Gillian Wearing: Mass Observation," Oct. 19, 2003-Jan. 19, 2003, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Opening at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, Sept. 4-Dec. 12, 2003.
With the current craze for reality television, Gillian Wearing's "Mass Observation" would make a great addition to the Fox Network. I can imagine the capsule description in TV Guide: "The worst of human nature served up as slick, artsy entertainment." The problem is that "Mass Observation" is not a TV show but a touring art exhibition, whose several videos and photographs provoke a visceral reaction in the viewer but seem to affect the artist not at all.
Broad Street (2002) is a 40-minute-long, five-screen color video projection that documents the events taking place in the area surrounding a Birmingham nightclub. Drunken couples argue, someone gets kicked out of the bar, a stranded woman tries to get a ride in the street. The videos are beautifully colored, and the large size of the screens is impressive, but Broad Street fails to expose the artist's perspective, and the huge installation is merely an oversized illustration of life.
For Trauma (2000), Wearing posted a newspaper ad inviting people to talk about traumatic childhood experiences in front of the camera. She disguises her subjects' identities with plastic pre-adolescent masks. The video is presented in a small confessional-like space that forces her audience to crowd together while watching the intimate confessions.
Trauma does create a sense of pity, sadness and even repulsion on the part of the viewer. But does it transcend? Does it give any insight into Wearing's way of thinking? In Trauma Wearing seems to be exploiting the subject's post-traumatic experience for the sake of an artistic gesture. Some might say that the process of exposing secrets in public could be cathartic. All I could think about was the sanity of the subjects and the seeming lack of compassion Wearing displays for them.
Issues of the artist's ethical responsibility loom especially large in Wearing's 23-minute video projection Drunk (1999), a pseudo-documentary of a group of alcohol-abusers from the streets of London. Wearing asked the drunks to go about their usual activities while being videotaped in the studio. The result is a sad scene in which they argue, fight, sleep and act like fools in front of the camera.
Whether the viewer feels repulsion or sympathy, the video piece lacks a moral perspective on the lives and acts of these people. And because they are not credited as collaborators or actors, and because this piece is not a theatrical production with a logical narrative to it, the viewer can't relate to or empathize with the drunks. Drunks plays more as a heartless Jerry Springer-like freakshow than as a disinterested study of social behavior.
Artists such as Santiago Sierra and Rineke Dijkstra take a pronounced ethical stance in their focus on contemporary society. Sierra actually hires low-wage subjects whose manual labor is exploited in public as part of his artwork. Wearing's justification of her artistic practice, on the other hand, is considerably more uncertain. In fact, in Self Portrait (2000), she hides behind the mask of art-making, just like her subjects in Trauma. In the process her intentions are never revealed in her work, leaving a uncertain moral gap. Whether that's good or bad, it's up to the viewer to determine.