It may not have been until 1997 that Gillian Wearing’s 'Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say’ was shown collectively, but the individual photographs that made up the work were certainly created throughout 1992 and 93. The first photograph from the series that I came across was the shot of a bespectacled, tousled-haired chap holding a sign that said ‘everything is connected in life, the point is to know it and to understand it.’ You somehow felt that the chap would have been familiar with the film for Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and that his sign was a kind of Postmodern meta-critique. Certainly I used both Wearing and Dylan as reference points for my own take on the concept when I made a video for Jasmine Minks’ ‘Daddy Dog’. I imagine many others have done the same in a myriad of contexts.
Whilst the ‘everything is connected’ image continues to amuse me (and is endlessly powerful as a learning tool) it is instead this ‘I’m desperate’ shot that lingers longest in my thoughts. It is this one that continues to itch, asking questions to which the answers always feel so pertinent. The image works so well, I think, because it is a picture of contradictions and because deep down we recognise that contradictions are part of what makes us human. There is something unexpected in seeing a smart young man admitting to desperation; in expressing what we believe to be truth and honesty. It’s so unexpected because our immediate connection for suited young men is to Big Business and The City (particularly in the context of the early ‘90s) and as such conjures thoughts of deception and slippery avoidance. But here the mask has slipped. Reality sneaks through and somehow it’s what we suspected all along: that the neoliberal revolution of the eighties and nineties was fired by greed, fear and yes, desperation. Twenty four years on that desperation resonates stronger than ever.
This work of Wearing’s is another of those where photography is a means to an end, and I continue to be intrigued by that. I remain intrigued by the challenge of identifying the point at which the technical proficiency of the photography hinders or enhances the work. In Wearing’s case it seems to me that the line is walked pretty much to perfection: The photographs have enough rough charm to feel as though they might be everyday snaps (I refuse to say they look ‘authentic’ for hopefully you know by now how much I mistrust that word and notion) and yet are so well composed and executed that they equally clearly are not. That tension between the composed and the instinctual, between truth and expectation is of course a key element in the work, and it’s a tension I find endlessly intriguing.
There are some people, no doubt, who would argue for Jonathan Richman’s ‘That Summer Feeling’ more accurately belonging to 1983 or 84. Yet whilst that earlier recording is certainly special, it is this six minute re-make from Richman’s 1992 ‘I, Jonathan’ set that nestles closest to the very centre of my heart.
Was Jonathan Richman the prototype ‘cutie’ artist? If you were to consider his records from the late seventies and into the eighties you would say certainly, yes, perhaps... although much would depend on your definition of such a concept and particularly on the connections you might go on to draw. It would certainly be true to suggest that Richman’s carefully considered naiveté was a primary post-punk mover in terms of defining a space that was categorically non-Rock. Yet if Richman’s songs could be considered non-Rock they were also simultaneously celebratory of early Rock-n’Roll, and this was part of their charm. They were songs and records that appeared to yearn for simpler times whilst recognising that nothing is quite so simple as that.
So Richman’s songs for children were a blueprint perhaps for groups like The Pastels in as much as they sketched out the possibilities in the rejection of accepted notions of adulthood; a revolt into eternal youth as a means of subverting broken traditions and failed systems. Of course some others mistook it all for an excuse to suck lollipops and play at being fey but perhaps those were simply embarrassing phases of growth and development...
‘That Summer Feeling’ then acts almost as a self-reflective commentary on the very process that Richman was exploring through many of his songs. It is a record that brims with nostalgia, yes, but much more crucially it is a record that acknowledges the way nostalgia is used to manipulate meaning. As such it is essentially a wickedly knowing record that manages to escape from being both obnoxiously clever and from being cloyingly, artificially naive. ‘That Summer Feeling’ is a record that treads the line between discomforting honesty and homely warmth with aplomb; is a record that, like Wearing’s photographs, plays on the tension between the carefully composed and the instinctual. Treasure forever.