Gillian Wearing is a 42-year-old photographer and video installation artist based in London England. In 1997 she was awarded the prestigious Turner Prize from the Tate Gallery, which is awarded to British artists under 50. She describes herself as shy.
Althea Thauberger is a 34-year-old artist also working in photography and video installation who lives and works on the West Coast of Canada. In 2004 she was short-listed for Canada’s version of the Turner, the Sobey Award.
Although both Wearing and Thauberger document their projects with photography and video, I think their medium, the stuff with which their work is made, is actually collaboration. Another way to say this would be that the work is made of empathy.
Sacha and Mum is a large-scale black and white video projection. When the viewer enters the gallery, she sees a fully dressed ordinary looking woman in her middle-fifties engaged in a physical struggle with her underwear-clad daughter. It’s not a fistfight—the impression is much more of restraint than assault.
It takes a few minutes to process the scene. It’s both highly charged and undramatic, and although it suggests narrative, it provides the viewer neither climax nor resolution. There is an overwhelming sense of strangeness as well a kind of banality. The movements, and especially the sound, are unfamiliar and unsettling, but the details are patently ordinary. The two women are in a pleasant room with a picture of cherubs on the wall and a potted plant on the bureau; the mother holds a clean white bath towel in her hand; the daughter’s bra and panties are the kind one finds at Sears. But strangeness prevails. The soundtrack, which is comprised only of the ambient sound of the struggle, is the clue that allows the viewer to determine what’s “wrong” with the scene: both sound and image are running backwards, rubbing out the causal logic we expect from the cinematic image, and leaving the viewer with raw, uncanny emotion.
Songstress is a video work for the monitor. To make the tape, Thauberger placed an ad in a Victoria weekly newspaper seeking young female singer-songwriters to collaborate with her on an “art film”. She selected eight girls from the respondents and began working with them toward the audio and video recording that would become Songstress. Each of the participants chose a song she had written, recorded it in a sound studio, and then lip-synched it in a single take, in a location of Thauberger’s choosing—almost obscenely picturesque natural settings in beautiful British Columbia.
The resulting work is incredibly poignant. The girls are not flawlessly beautiful, and each is responsible for her own personal presentation. They are shown in all their touching, idiosyncratic awkwardness, singing their patently unexceptional songs in their tremulous, moody, unexceptional voices. Consequently, the viewer is allowed to love them without the sense of inadequacy that so often attends the love of the pop-singer (for the songs are, in essence, pop songs).
The work allows us to consider the following possibility: if these girls are special (and they unquestionably are), maybe we are special too.
Perhaps if a work is made of empathy then it can also be said to be made of emotion. In any case, I think it’s clear enough that these works are emotional in nature. What’s less clear is what makes these works of realism.
At first glance they appear to be anything but realistic. Both Wearing and Thauberger have mediated the performances of their collaborators with rather a heavy hand, Wearing by reversing the footage of the mother-daughter struggle, Thauberger by placing her subjects in such preternaturally natural settings. But this mediation effects an interesting shift in the viewer’s relationship to the document. By making no attempt to conceal their own artifice—by in fact making that artifice explicitÑthe artists allow their collaborators’ performances to have a greater, more tender authenticity.
There’s a principle from quantum physics (and anthropology) that relates: when a process is observed, it changes. This principle holds at the level of the photon as well as for human behavior. Thauberger and Wearing acknowledge this rather than trying to conceal it, which allows the viewer to trust in the integrity of the works.
Take, by contrast, the multitude of “confessional” video works generated by earnest young artists, in which the maker speaks directly to the camera about her or his alienation, rage, despair, etc. Somehow these works never succeed at eliciting the empathy the kid so desperately desires. Instead, the viewer has a sense that the artist is being not candid, disingenuous. Phony.
Or take the example of contemporary reality television, where the subjects work hard to maintain the illusion that they are simply living their lives as they normally would. Again, the overwhelming sense is that the participants are not sincere, not open (no matter how much rank laundry they air); that in fact they are a bunch of awful fakers.
The intensity of feeling the viewer feels when engaging with Sacha and Mum and Songstress is not achieved despite the artists’ meddling. Quite the contrary. It’s these distortions and contrivances that allow the works to have the emotional realism that makes them so powerful.