Gillian Wearing's work often involves collaboration with members of the public. In 1997 she became interested in working with street drinkers: 'I was interested in capturing the elements of psychological behaviour of the uninhibited… Alcohol is an obvious tool in freeing inhibition. It takes away a lot of rational thought leaving us much more physical and emotional. I was drawn to the idea of emotional swings with a cyclical pattern to them.' (Wearing 2000, unpaginated)
Wearing introduced herself to a group of drinkers whom she saw regularly near her home in South London. She explained that she was an artist and, after spending a period of time building up a relationship of trust, she began to photograph them. Wearing soon began to focus on one young woman called Lindsey with whom she established a close bond. Lindsey tragically died before their project together was realised but Wearing later made a large scale video projection, Prelude 2000 (Maureen Paley/Interim Art), as a tribute to her. Through Lindsey, Wearing was introduced to another street drinker called Theresa. In the process of trying to keep track of Theresa and her erratic life as an alcoholic, Wearing realised that she lived with a variety of different men. Unable to sustain a fixed relationship because of her extreme alcoholism, Theresa relied on these men as her means of survival. When Theresa refused to make a statement about herself, Wearing decided to ask her lovers for their own written statement about Theresa. These accounts form the basis of the photographic series Theresa and … 1998.
The series consist of seven diptychs; each one juxtaposes a photograph of Theresa with one of her lovers and a photograph of each man's hand-written statement about her. The images usually depict intimate moments, many of them centred around the bedroom. Theresa and George are shown in a tender, if drunken, embrace sitting on a wall. He writes: 'I love you Theresa because you are so wonderful, because you are so meaningful. You are so sincere.' He sees her as an angelic figure, writing: 'You always make me happy when I'm down.' In contract Theresa and Ben shows Ben grabbing viciously at Theresa's throat and holding her nose. He describes her as a 'speed freak evil witch' who 'needs her head sorted out'. Theresa's identity is formed through this patchwork of conflicting information. The differing accounts suggest the violent mood swings of Theresa's alcohol addiction, but they also illustrate how our knowledge of others is necessarily partial and subjective. In Wearing's early works, such as the series of Signs 1992-3 (Tate P78348-P78352) or Confess All on Video 1994 (Tate T07329), she explored the roles people enact in daily life, exposing the gap between public image and the private person underneath. Many of her works deliberately draw out different facets of people's characters, suggesting that these camouflages are essential to survival.
Donna De Salvo, Russell Ferguson, John Slyce, Gillian Wearing, London 1999
Sacha Craddock, Spotlight on Gillian Wearing, exhibition catalogue, South Bank Centre, London 1999
Gillian Wearing, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 2000