Making a Scene curated by Eleanor Nairne and Rebecca Lewin
Southampton City Art Gallery, 5th October – 2nd January 2012
Making a Scene is an exhibition about breaking decorum. Gillian Wearing’s video Dancing in Peckham (1994) is brought into dialogue with works by artists including Chris Ofili and Gilbert & George, which play off expectations of restraint in the public realm. Eleanor Nairne and Rebecca Lewin are the first Starting Point Curatorial Fellows and their exhibition is the result of a period of twelve months researching the collection at Southampton City Art Gallery.
Interview with Gillian Wearing
by Rebecca Lewin
The project’s central idea came from the Dancing in Peckham video, and it was something that informed the selection that we made from the rest of collection. A lot of the other works in the exhibition are responding in some way to misbehavior, or implied misbehavior. The way that sounds are made and received are an important part of that, and one of the things we liked about the video is that it doesn’t quite make sense because there’s no music, there’s just you moving. Your explanation of the inspiration for the film, having seen a woman dancing by herself to a jazz band in the Festival Hall, gave her movements some context. But you chose not to play music, neither while you were filming, nor as a soundtrack added later.
Even if I had been wearing a Walkman I really wouldn’t have wanted to add a soundtrack afterwards, either…the relative silence of the environment is far more strange and interesting, because you hear people walking past, the shuffling of feet, the little bits of traffic noise, and you realise that there is no music. I wanted that sparseness. I just wanted to have the music memorized in my head. I thought a Walkman would be too rational. Particularly when they first came out there were a lot of people who used to sing out loud on buses, to themselves. That inspired my video installation My Favourite Track, which was 5 monitors of people singing with their Walkmans on full volume. Because they can’t hear themselves they are out of tune. For this work I wanted to do something that awkward but with dancing and to try and be without inhibition in a place where normally all your natural inhibitions come out.
Did your consciousness of the fact that the work would be in a gallery that was quiet contribute to the decision to make it more awkward in the first place?
I made Dancing in Peckham around the same time as My Favourite Track, there was only a couple of months’ difference, and when I showed it originally at Maureen Paley’s gallery you had on one side a bank of monitors of people singing with their walkmans on – and on the opposite wall a monitor with me dancing wildly in Peckham, so there was a implied relationship between the two, and both were about unpolished performances in incongruous settings. I hadn’t thought about the relationship between the work and the gallery space however, since I had been thinking about relationships of performance on the street and in disparate environments.
This did become something I wanted to explore in 1995 through my film Western Security, where I employed a cowboy re-enactment society to improvise a shoot-out throughout the entire Hayward Gallery. That was very much breaking the decorum of the space…galleries give that sense that they have to be treated church-like, and people immediately become quiet when they are in these big dominant spaces. I wanted to be quite anarchic with the cowboys. That was in 1995, a year after Dancing in Peckham.
Throughout the course of our preparation for this project we wanted to include another work that had sound in – something that would emphasize the fact that there is no sound in your film. It’s interesting that direct action, live movement, is the most disturbing thing you can do in a gallery; sound and the lack of sound is a tension that has appeared in several of your film works.
I wanted the audio that was available [in Peckham] but it wasn’t something I had thought about in any great depth. I think at one point a car goes by and you can hear a little bit of music in the background…I’m sure the sounds in Peckham shopping centre are different now; traffic, cars, engines change, and all that is kind of important as a part of history. Apart from the car passing I was glad that there wasn’t sound coming out of shops – that would have been distracting. I think it’s good that there’s a kind of neutrality to it.
There’s also a sense of very human-made sounds that have a great resonance with a gallery; you’re in a space that is quiet enough for you to be able to hear those sounds in the film but which has a reflexive effect on the viewer, who begins to notice those sounds in the gallery.
Absolutely; the gallery is a great place to watch it because everything becomes magnified, and I think that’s what happens when you’re watching someone doing in action in a space that does not relate to the use of that environment…It becomes uncanny.
Looking at other works of yours, this is one of the few where you’re not covered, or obscured in some way. Does the dancing take the place of that, or does it have more to do with the idea that as you’re dancing you are playing someone else because you have this other story going on in your head.
I just realised that I was the only person that could possibly do this piece, because there would have to have been a strong narrative for why I had chosen someone else, and so it was easier to say ‘it was my idea, I’m the artist, I should do it’. I’m quite conscious of that idea of inhibitions, I’m quite inhibited myself.
How about the work that you’ve done where you are heavily featured or the main figure depicted – how does that relate to using other people? I haven’t seen your recent work Self Made but it seems that there’s a link between the way that you have treated your own biography in some of your works and the way that the people in Self Made were given the opportunity to do that.
When I initially started to work I was asking people to write their thoughts down on pieces of paper, so I was always interested in other people, and portraiture, and then along the line I decided I should look at myself as well…I’m not that egocentric to want to do certain works about myself – I’ve got an ego, everyone’s got egos – but my main interest from the beginning has been people and portraits, and even the work that features me are on the whole about other people.
The testimonials of the people who participated in Self Made seemed to suggest that they felt transformed by it; whether or not it’s a therapy or an opening up of self, or a confessional like Confess all on Camera… the reason that you’re asking people to do it is because they’re everyday people. They live the kind of lives that most of us have, but the process of making a film about a normal person transforms them into something that is a little bit more than that. There’s a nice paradox to it.
The idea of the project was once a participant chose a character they would get greater understanding of that choice by creatively playing with their alter egos through workshops that built on the biography of their fictional or real selves.
But I didn’t imagine that it would turn into a journey for everyone. The film is partially performance, it’s partially workshop, it’s partially documentary, it’s partially fiction. I went in quite open minded with regards to the process of the film, it has to be a natural evolution, a lot of it organically grew with the help of Sam [Rumbelow] because he was the Method acting teacher and his relationship with the participants was pivotal as well as how he conducted the workshops. To a certain extent, particularly with the workshops, I was looking in from the outside because I didn’t want to disrupt the chemistry that was building, amongst everyone, it was like having two directors on set.
It seems as though Self Made is a crossover between documentary and feature, as though it would have been closer to a reality TV documentary than anything else had it not had the constructed, written section at the end.
It is a hybrid film. In film festivals it has been entered into fictional film categories and documentary ones, there isn’t a suitable enough label at present, so I tend to say long form film. It’s certainly not a documentary or fictional film, but neither is it reality TV, although you could say it has elements of all those things. A lot of my work is also about the line between fiction and reality.
The trajectory of reality TV seems to have begun with Big Brother, where participants were very passive, to a reality that’s completely constructed, and participants are virtually actors. There’s even now a disclaimer at the start of several of them that says ‘some of these scenes have been put together for your viewing pleasure’. Is that a genre that interests you?
I find ‘The only way is Essex’ really fascinating, because I think it’s quite conceptual in many respects. They’re sort of playing themselves, but the scenes are orchestrated, and the audience knows that. I was intrigued – there’s an element of method really. Method is really about saying ‘look, we’re all performers; why would you, if you’re an actor, not use something in your own performance of how you are in real life to create a character.’ I think that’s one of the great things of reality television, it’s really challenged acting, it’s changed it into something more sophisticated. There’s a lot of editing that goes on, but there’s a sense that it’s getting closer to reality all the time. I love the fact that people want to look to fiction as well to close that gap, which is where ‘The only way is Essex’ or ‘The Hills’ is working because it gives you the best of both worlds.
The way in which that translates into artworks and art films is interesting, because it has so much to do with the differentiation of content. The most nostalgic films, super 8 and 16mm have such a specific quality and now such a specific period associated with them; do you use specific film stock in this way?
I wonder if when people first used super 8 cameras whether they thought it was beautiful and evocative, or whether they thought ‘that looks like reality’. When I first had a video Hi 8 camera, the one I filmed Dancing in Peckham on, I thought ‘oh God, that just looks like reality, it’s too much like reality,’ it’s not that beautiful sense of reality which 16mm gives, or that nostalgic sense of reality which would have been super 8. If I look at Hi 8 now though it does have a nostalgic value to it, but at the time because it was the medium of then I couldn’t see it but as no one shoots on it now it encapsulates a certain era of the 90’s. Now it really has a nostalgic value.
Click here to download the publication for Making a Scene
Click here to visit the website for the exhibition
About Starting Point Opportunity
Starting Point is an annual opportunity open to recent graduate curators to work with public collections of modern and contemporary art.
Each year we plan to work in partnership with a different museum from across the country to offer exhibition opportunities and curatorial experience to curators interested in working with public collections.