‘I’m Desperate’: How Gillian Wearing Revealed Our Innermost Thoughts | Art and design

AND a man in a suit holds a sign that says “I’m in despair.” Policeman’s sign: “Help.” A man in jeans and a striped shirt asks: “Will the UK survive this recession?” The two beaming women write: “Best friends for life! Let us live together.” A couple standing on the side of a highway holding a sign. The man says, “I like being in the country,” and the woman says, “Last vacation abroad was great, but I can’t afford it.”

In 1992-93, Gillian Wearing took her camera to the streets of London. She would photograph passers-by and ask them to write their innermost thoughts on a piece of white paper to hold up for us to see. The work “Signs that say what you want them to say, 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 us behavior.

By revealing the truth about how someone feels in a private moment, while showing how they would like to be perceived by society – through their hair, clothes, jewelry, shoes – Wearing forces us to question our expectations of how we perceive 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, speaking our truth and showing ourselves to the world?

Truth Revealed… couple holding signs on the side of the freeway. Photo: 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 careless thoughts are powerful because they can contradict the views we have had of ourselves. In an interview, Wearing said that the man who wrote “I’m Desperate” was “shocked by what he wrote, which shows that it was true. Then he got a little angry, gave the piece of paper and rushed away.” His sudden moment of candor makes us wonder what we might write ourselves.

By connecting with real people in real moments, Wearing’s Signs becomes universal and timeless. Speaking to the Guardian in 2012, she said: “The idea behind Signs is that if you turn to anyone, they’ll have something interesting to say. I never chose people. If they accepted the idea that I was making art and not a survey, then they were usually intrigued.”

The signs were made in the wake of the recession of the early 1990s, when Britain was experiencing uncertainty. Markets were volatile, oil prices soared to record highs, and unemployment rose nearly 4% in three years. In context, Signs is a record of people whose lives were shaped by this time. By talking to people on a personal level, he reveals their thoughts on the state of the current social, political and financial climate. This is something that is remarkably similar to today’s world 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 top £4,200 from January, the words ‘desperate’ or ‘help’ are being heard more than ever. The cost of food, clothing and other essentials is rising at an alarming rate, while oil and gas conglomerates post predatory profits. Meanwhile, an apathetic government refuses to take the urgent measures that are clearly needed. We are witnessing a domino effect, where one part of the economy affects another, as another Wearing volunteer argued, who wrote 30 years ago: “Everything in life is connected, the main thing is to know and understand.”

The power of Signs lies in its ability to demonstrate how global politics can affect people as individuals. Like the man in the suit who wrote, “I’m in despair,” Wearing shows us that no matter how strong someone or something may appear to the outside world, there is always a fragility underneath.

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