Gillian Wearing

20th November 2019

As part of exercise 3.5 Photographs from text, we are asked to look at ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say,’ which is a project by Gillian Wearing.

When I first viewed Google images my immediate reaction was, ‘Oh not again!’ This initial reaction did not take into consideration when Wearing had completed this work, I actually only thought about how the internet is flooded with these type of images now, all commenting on hard hitting subjects like eating disorders, self-harm, domestic violence and mental health.

When seeing this series I also thought that the artist had copied Bob Dylans idea from his music video for the soundtrack ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues.’ Also INXS had shot a very similar video to Dylan for their music video for the song ‘Mediate.’ Both music videos can be seen below.

Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues (1965). Youtube Official Artist Channel
INXS, Mediate (1987). Youtube INXS Official Artist channel

Signs (1992-1993)

The project series ‘Signs‘, also known as Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say, was created between 1992 and 1993. Wearing collaborated with people on the London Streets, stopping and asking strangers to write down what was on their mind. She then photographed them holding their thought for all to see, a hidden message, a hidden them. Wearing found that because these people were strangers to her, that they writings were honest and real.

The participants wrote their opinions and thoughts on A3 blank sheets which showed the viewer how outwardly we portray ourself differently from our true identity within. The world sees our outward fictional characters; and our hidden individual identities, our personal thoughts and hidden feelings are masked from the world.

Gillian Wearing - Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say, 1992-1993, installation view at Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2012
Signs 1992-1993. installation view at the Whitechapel Gallery London, 2012.

The street portraits represent a varied social background of which we all have our own preconceived ideas about. These ideas are influenced, visually by peoples hair styles, make-up, body language and the things they wear or even carry etc…

Each viewer can also interpret each photographs phrase differently, therefore the variables that can be obtained from this work are many.



Message, trouble, suicide, problem, advice, aid, emergency services, distress, searching, desperate etc…


Now that the two are combined, as a viewer, has your perception changed? I now see a person, a police officer who is asking for our help with something. Not for him personally, but for him in his role as a Government civil servant. Now that I have typed this, my viewpoint has changed again. As a person, is he trying to reach out and tell us he cannot cope in his role as policeman? he needs help from the stress of the job? Again depending on the viewer the images can be interpreted in many ways, as we, the viewer bring our individual preconceived ideas to the interpretations. These individual interpretations may be influenced by our own personal status, grudges, ideas, experiences, age and gender for example.

Another important part of the images that can also alter our perceptions, are the way sentences are constructed and the handwriting in which they have been written. If we look at the signs below which I have extracted from the individual photographs, and the images that have the words and the people that have written them, would you be able to tell the persons, age, gender, sexual orientation, class or race etc without the combination of text and subject? Would the phrase work across different social types?

Images above taken from Google images page: LINK.

21st November 2019

“Hey, would you like to make a suggestion?”

With that simple question and an enormous white suggestion box, the New York Citybased collaborative Illegal Art canvassed the five boroughs, collecting suggestions from passersby of every stripethe young, the old, the filthy rich, the homeless, the mouthy, and the shy. “Love each other or perish.” “Take breath mints when offered.” “Give me a break!” In true New York style, the suggestions are by turns hilarious, nonsensical, angering, and heartwarming. Some people held the suggestion box prisoner while they wrote suggestion after suggestion; others ignored the box, but then came scrambling back with a sudden idea. One woman scribbled as she walked down Wall Street: “More time in the day.” One man in Harlem, when asked if he would like to make a suggestion, said, “Isn’t it obvious? World peace.” Or at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, a woman sadly wrote her misspelled suggestion and then held it up for all to read: “Never brake up with someone on a bridge.” With over 350 entries and 50 photos of the suggestion box in action, Suggestion is authentic, honest, and totally appealinga testiment to the the public’s innermost desire, whether it’s free beer, free daycare, or free pumpkin pie every Thursday.

Illegal Art (back of book blurb)

I have a few books and articles in my collection that are about similar projects which use the general public as contributors to their art project. One of my favourite group of artists is the collective, ‘Illegal Art‘ from America.

The book that I am showing some pages from above, show cases one such project of theirs. However, although there are photographs of some of the people that took part in their project they do not show that which each individual wrote.

Each person was given a piece of paper and they were allowed to write on it any suggestion on any topic that they so wished, (see the rest of the description for this project in the quote above).

It enabled anyone to speak their mind on any subject and then it was placed within the box. Suggestions ranged from humour and the absurd, intelligent and wise, belief, religious and political etc… Again because people were approached on the spot and this time because their writing would be anonymous, people spoke what was on their mind and in their heart on many subjects and on many levels.

Another quite similar project that Illegal Art have created which use people and their words is ‘The Last Word.’

The Project: The Last Word

There are always things left unsaid. The perfect ending to a conversation with a stranger. A clever comeback in a debate with a colleague at work. A farewell bid to a loved one. Missed opportunities to get in the last word. What do you wish you had said? Now is the time to say it.

“The Last Word”, a project by the public art collaborative Illegal Art, provides a private moment to recapture what was never uttered. Hundreds of tightly rolled pieces of paper, dyed red on one end and left untouched on the other are placed white-side out within the honeycomb chambers of a cardboard wall. Participants remove one of the pieces of paper, write down their “last word”, and then replace the paper with the red side exposed. The public may write their own unfinished business or read how other people’s conversations might have ended

Illegal Art, 2001

Some of the photographs show the public participators taking selfies of themselves producing their piece of written paper or of the words that they have chosen to read. I would have liked to see more of these photographs plus the selfies themselves, it would have provided a secondary visual reference, that could have been exhibited within its own space of the exhibition by allowing selfies to be uploaded to screens within the space.

Here, the anonymity and the process of placing and reading the pieces of paper makes the project stronger and our curiosity is unrestrained as we look at individual people and make up words and phrases that we think perhaps that individual has written.

However the photographs of people taking photos of the work and themselves, using the installation is intriguing but the problem is there are not as many variables here due to the type of people frequenting an art gallery in terms of social status and age.

The photographs that show the project being created, the process and end installation, are very informative and interesting to see. In fact, directly I saw them I had images of The Wailing Wall in the old city of Jerusalem where visitors wedge small slips of paper into the cracks between the stones on which they have written prayers and petitions.

Top three images from the website, and the bottom image from

I have thoroughly enjoyed this research as it has opened some new avenues for me to develop within my own art practice. I have produced an installation where the general public participate by writing a word on a piece of card and place it within one of my sculptures, but I have not produced work that uses photography within this process.

Very exciting indeed!

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