‘I’m desperate’: how Gillian Wearing exposed our innermost thoughts | Art and design

A man in a suit holds up a sign saying: “I’m desperate”. A police officer’s sign says: “Help.” A man in jeans and a striped shirt asks: “Will Britain get through this recession?” Two beaming women write: “Best friends for life! Long live the two of us.” The couple standing on the side of the motorway each hold up a sign. The man’s reads: “I like to be in the country,” and the woman’s sign says: “The last holiday abroad was nice but I can’t afford it.”

In 1992-93, Gillian Wearing took her camera to the streets of London. She photographed passersby and asked them to write their innermost thoughts on a piece of white paper to hold up for her and us to see. The work, Signs That Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say removes the veil between the things we think in private and the way society expects us to behave.

By revealing the truth of how someone feels in a private moment while displaying how they would like to be publicly perceived – through hair, clothes, jewellery, shoes – Wearing forces us to question our expectations of how we view others in society. Should a man in a suit be desperate? Should a police officer ask for help? Should we – and can we – be vulnerable in public, by expressing our truths and exposing ourselves to the world?

Revealing the truth… the couple holding up signs by the side of the motorway. Photograph: Gillian Wearing/© the Artist and Maureen Paley/Interim Art, London Tate Liverpool: Making History: Art and Documentary in Britain from 1929 to Now

Quick and unguarded thoughts are powerful because they can contradict the views we thought we had. In an interview, Wearing revealed that the man who wrote “I’m desperate” was “shocked by what he had written, which suggests it must have been true. Then he got a bit angry, handed back the piece of paper and stormed off.” His sudden moment of candour makes us think about what we might write ourselves.

By engaging with real people at real moments, Wearing’s Signs becomes universal and timeless. Speaking to the Guardian in 2012, she said, “The idea of ​​Signs is that if you approached anyone they would have something interesting to say. I never picked people. If they grasped the idea I was making art rather than a survey, then they tended to be intrigued.”

Signs were made in the wake of the early 1990s recession, when Britain was in the throes of uncertainty. Markets were vulnerable, oil prices had jumped to a record high and unemployment had risen nearly 4% in three years. When put into context, Signs acts as a record of the individuals whose lives were shaped by this time. By speaking to people on a personal level, it reveals their thoughts about the state of the current social, political and financial climate. This is something that feels unnervingly similar to the world today and the cost of living crisis we are facing.

As we prepare for one of the worst winters on record, with average annual household bills expected to reach more than £4,200 from January, the words “desperate” or “help” resonate more than ever. The cost of food, clothes and other necessities are rising at worrying rates while oil and gas conglomerates disclose extortionate profits. Meanwhile, an apathetic government refuses to take the urgent action that is clearly required. We are witnessing a domino effect of one part of the economy affecting another – as posited by another one of Wearing’s volunteers who, 30 years ago, wrote: “Everything is connected in life, the point is to know it and to understand it”.

The power of Signs lies in its ability to demonstrate how global politics can affect people as individuals. Just like the man in the suit who wrote: “I’m desperate”, Wearing shows us that no matter how robust someone or something might appear to the outside world, fragility always lies beneath.

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