In the studio with Gillian Wearing RA

Published 21 March 2012

We speak to the painter in her minimalist studio in London’s East End, which is filled with an unexpected riot of colour.

  • From the Spring 2012 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Gillian Wearing RA warned in advance that there was almost nothing in her studio except a big bunch of flowers. She was hardly exaggerating. On a low wooden table, a simple urn-style vase supports an ornate display of lilies, roses, carnations, peonies, hydrangeas, chrysanthemums, irises, narcissus and agapanthus, in every shade of yellow, pink, violet, blue, flame orange and crimson.

    The arrangement echoes Jan ‘Velvet’ Brueghel’s A Stoneware Vase of Flowers (c.1607-08) at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. It also has the mood of a memento mori, and brings to mind the gaudy bouquets that these days are found at roadside shrines. A heap of stems, discarded or not yet used, makes a colourful, disorderly pile on the polished wooden floor. Scissors, wire, masking tape, snippets of that flower-arranger’s godsend, Oasis Foam, surround the base of the vase, the kind of work in progress you might find in the back room of a florist.

    This arresting image dominates an otherwise empty, long, first-floor room, which looks out on a narrow street in Bethnal Green, east London. The only furniture is two white Ikea swivel chairs, a low table and an Italian-designed sofa, all very plain. The immaculate white walls are bare apart from pairs of power sockets, eight uplighters, a long, tidy work bench with a computer on it and, on a shelf above, a copy of Photoshop for Dummies. A flickering candle is the only softening feature.

    “Yes, they are all artificial,” Wearing observes of the flowers. By customising them, she has nurtured them to her own vivid artistic purposes: “In fact I have used paint and glue to bend them and paint the petals so they become individual flowers. Otherwise they would all look identical, which is not how flowers are in life. So in a sense I am making them look almost surreal, not like natural flowers but heightened, using traditional art techniques.”

    This is her second work of this kind. People (2011), a photo work of a vase of flowers, was shown last year in New York. Although at first glance these floral fantasies appear to be a departure from the tough video and photo works for which Wearing is best known, they reflect her interest in themes of personal identity. In this case, however, instead of photographing the unnamed people who are so often her subject matter, the individuals have become ‘staged’ flowers.

    This explains the presence of a couple of small jars of paint and a few brushes tidied away in a corner. They look almost incidental to the proceedings. Everything else in the studio is machine-related: computer, scanner, shredder, cameras. “Because much of my work involves photography and film, there’s a lot of research and organising to be done.” Wearing won the Turner Prize in 1997 for video work, notably 60 Minutes Silence (1996), showing 26 police officers trying to remain perfectly still as they pose for the camera. “I write ideas down by hand in an ideas book but a lot of the work is done on the computer. You may think this is minimal but it’s positively crowded compared with Michael’s studio downstairs.”

    Her partner of 15 years is Michael Landy RA, whom she met when they were both students at Goldsmiths College in the 1980s. We examine the contents of his studio: a tennis ball on a table, a larger ball on the floor, perfectly placed. Landy became famous for Break Down (2001) when he destroyed his belongings in the former C&A store in London’s Oxford Street. “Yes, Michael is minimal,” Wearing notes – if needlessly. “It makes home life quite a challenge.”

    Their studios are in a former industrial building that they converted in 2006, having previously worked at home in a tiny space in Borough. “I had the living room and Michael had the kitchen.” Now they live in Spitalfields, and each day Wearing does the half-hour walk to the studio in the company of May, their Staffordshire Bull Terrier, who is probably the messiest member of the Wearing-Landy ménage.

    The flower display, as yet unnamed, is one of the works for her new exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, a major survey of her work. Inspired early in her career by fly-on-the-wall TV from the 1970s, Wearing first made an impact with her Signs series in which she stopped people at random in the street, and photographed them holding signs bearing brief messages such as “I care” or “Hot and sexy”. Her latest video, Bully (2010), and several self-portraits, will also be on show.

    Wearing was born in Birmingham in 1963. There was no art in her background and she left school at 16 with no qualifications. Her father sold televisions and her mother was a butcher. “She eventually gave up butchering to look after her children but I can remember sitting, waiting in the car while she delivered meat.”

    Mid-1970s Birmingham was blighted by industrial action and the closure of the Leyland car plant. Aged 19, she came south with a hairdresser girlfriend, living in a hostel and working as an office clerk. After working as a secretary in a film animation company, she applied to Chelsea School of Art: “I was asked nothing about my qualifications but I was asked about my star sign. It’s Sagittarius. I don’t know whether or not that was the reason I got in.” She was expecting to pursue graphic art. “But one of my teachers thought I had a fine art sensibility.”

    She went on to Goldsmiths and by 1995 had her first major breakthrough as part of the Brilliant! group exhibition of Young British Artists in Minneapolis. By then, already shy and having been laughed at, she had dropped her Brummie accent. Other YBA participants who are now RAs included Tracey Emin, Gary Hume and Landy. Interest from Charles Saatchi, the Turner Prize and the RA’s Sensation show followed, in 1997. Wearing has since won attention for Drunk (2000), a quiet study of noisy, bored, quarrelsome street drinkers, shot in black and white on 16mm-film and shown in her solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery that year. Authenticity and attempted truth are the chief ingredients of her art.

    Were her parents, none too engaged with her work when she first left home, excited by her success? “There was neither approval or disapproval, really. The decisions about life were mine. Mum left school at 14, Dad at 13. You did manual labour or national service. You were on your own, you looked after yourself and that was that. But then, of course, they became proud.”

    Elected a Royal Academician in 2007, Wearing was surprised to get the call. “I hadn’t thought about it. It hadn’t crossed my radar. I thought of the RA as the place where Norman Rosenthal put on exhibitions that I went to in the early 1980s – on German and Italian art in particular. When Fiona Rae rang me to tell me, I had to think hard. What would it entail? Artists don’t necessarily want things that take them away from their studios.” Even when the studio is as empty as Gillian Wearing’s? “Yes. You see I think of it as a kind of office, really. It must be those early years I spent as a junior clerk, before I dreamt I might be an artist.”

  • Gillian Wearing, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 28 March – 17 June

    Fiona Maddocks is a journalist and broadcaster. She is Chief Music Critic of the Observer.

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