Created by the British artist Gillian Wearing, The Garden 1997 is a screenprint on white wove paper featuring a photograph of four women wearing only long white t-shirts bearing different comic statements. The smiling women are shown standing in a row facing the camera in descending height order from left to right against a backdrop of flowers and trees suggestive of the garden referred to in the title. The image is black and white with the exception of the slogans on the t-shirts, which appear in a range of bright colours and bold fonts. The artist appears second from the left in the line-up, wearing a shirt featuring the cartoon character Garfield exclaiming, ‘Am I cool or what!’. The work is signed by the artist on its reverse.
The photograph employed for this screenprint was taken during the production of Wearing’s video The Garden 1993. Wearing invited a transvestite, a prostitute and an escort to choose from a range of t-shirts she had bought, and in the unscripted video the four participants are seen drinking wine and messing around in the garden.
The conspicuous statements on the t-shirts – their effect heightened by being the only colour elements in The Garden – seem to raise questions about the relationship between the women’s visible, public identities and their private lives, especially in terms of gender and sexuality, with one of the slogans reading: ‘I may not be brilliant but I have great breasts’. In an interview with the curator Donna De Salvo in 1999, Wearing said, ‘We all start making up our minds when we see someone; we all get ideas based on how people look, even though we know these ideas can be knocked out of us as soon as we get close to them or start talking to them’ (quoted in Ferguson, De Salvo and Slyce 1999, p.8).
By including herself in The Garden, Wearing extends the work’s exploration of identity into a consideration of her own role. In 1997 the curator Virginia Button countered suggestions that Wearing’s practice involves voyeurism or the exploitation of the people it features, pointing out that ‘her collaborators are always consenting and Wearing, aware of her own fallibility, is never patronising or judgmental, often including herself in a work to prove the point’ (Virginia Button, The Turner Prize, London 1997, p.138).
Born in Birmingham in 1963, Wearing trained in London at Chelsea School of Art (1985–7) and Goldsmiths College (1987–1990). Completed in 1992–3, the series Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say comprises over fifty photographs featuring people in south London holding signs that they have written themselves (see, for example, ‘I’m desperate!’ 1992–3, Tate P78348). In Confess All on Video. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian… 1994 (Tate T07329), a video containing ten confessions made by people wearing various forms of concealment, Wearing first employed masks, which have since become a prominent feature of her work. For instance, the series Album 2003–6 consists of photographs of the artist wearing highly realistic masks and wigs to produce portraits of members of her family and of her younger self. In focusing on a performative notion of identity, Wearing’s work may be related to the highly constructed photographic portraits created by the American artist Cindy Sherman (see, for example, Untitled Film Still #17 1978, reprinted 1998, Tate P11516).
The Garden is part of Screen, a portfolio of eleven prints by London-based artists that was published in 1997 by Charles Booth-Clibborn under his imprint The Paragon Press. The works were all made between February and July 1997, and are presented together with a title page and colophon by the graphic designer Phil Baines in a black buckram-covered wooden case. The title of the portfolio refers to the technique of screenprinting and also alludes to the fact that many of the featured artists work with screen-based media. Each print exists in an edition of seventy-five, with the first forty-five produced in portfolio sets, of which the portfolio owned by Tate is number thirty-three.
Jennifer Higgie, ‘Gillian Wearing’, Frieze, no.33, March–April 1997, p.80.
Russell Ferguson, Donna De Salvo and John Slyce, Gillian Wearing, London 1999, p.32.
In Print: Contemporary British Art from the Paragon Press, exhibition catalogue, Cvijeta Zuzoric Art Pavilion, Belgrade, London 2001, p.22.
Supported by Christie’s.