A girl in a shopping mall dances alone, without music; swaying to private rhythms audible only to her. British shopping precincts are the last redoubt of the lonely and the desperate, and have become the public day-wards of the Care in the Community scheme. Which is why no one stops or pays any attention to Gillian Wearing, doing retro dance steps in the Peckham Arcade. After all, she might be crazy, and the mall is no longer safe, no longer a place where you can let your kids wander. A camcorder witnessed the event and in Wearing's entertaining, disturbing, voyeuristic show, the image emanates a tawdry, urban calm.
On a row of five monitors five people sing their favourite track, badly, and all at the same time. Christ, it's awful - like that irritating guy who always manages to sit in front of you on the bus, droning along to the mosquito-hum of his Walkman. Christ, it's awful - Bryan Adams, Gloria Gaynor, Bob Marley and Crystal Gayle are all murdered by their anonymous amateur interpreters. My Favourite Track (all works 1994) is an incoherent babble of inarticulacy, a celebration of ineptitude. Like Dancing in Peckham, it is touching because it gives a small insight into our commonplace, endearing fantasies: that we possess within us an ability to dance and sing, despite the most telling evidence that we can do neither. (My Bob Dylan impressions are banned, and a fancy that I am a great disco dancer is belied by friends pretending not to know me on the dance floor).
Recently, Wearing placed an ad in Time Out. 'Confess all on video. Don't worry you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian.' They called, and here they are on screen, these few anonymous men who trouped, briefly, through Wearing's life with their delusions, their incomprehensible pain, their boasts and weirdness. They face the camera in fancy dress masks (chosen from Wearing's collection) and stumble through their guilty secrets. Some are sad, some creepy, some ridiculous: sometimes all these things. A man in a rubber Neil Kinnock mask, who broke into a school and nicked some computer equipment; a guy with a Pinocchio nose who once (only once) betrayed his girlfriend; a very boring transvestite who talked at length of the joys of cross-dressing; a chap who became the willing butt of a trivial sexual humiliation game.
Then the creepy guy who makes obscene phone calls, and insists that some women like it. After his turn was over, he wanted to keep the disguise he'd chosen, and later started phoning the artist, making his calls, doing his little routine.
There's another, a middle-management type, whose sex life is a stopped clock. He's never had a girl and he's even gone to the police and asked to be arrested - because he's obsessed with the memory of watching his brother and sister playing a snogging game in their teens. He's obsessed with being 'abnormal', and can't explain his experience. A hole goes deep, right through him, a chasm covered up with this sibling game. 'I just don't know how to categorise it, I've tried and I've tried...' He too, has started calling Gillian Wearing up, to talk about it all, again and again.
Wearing has her own routines and strategies for getting strangers to talk about themselves, to display and reveal a little of themselves to us. In the past she's handed blank placards to people on the streets and photographed them posing with the slogan of their choice. She's asked businessmen and hoorays and down-and-outs and the blokes down the pub what they regret buying and what they wished they had. Some tell her they've got all they want: they've got big dicks, and how about it, darling?
She gets in close, with her charm and her guile, and people just spill, they show off, they chat her up, and sometimes they come apart. Yet she can be conspiratorial too, and encouraging, as in a recent sequence of photographs of herself in bed with a series of transsexuals. One, who shared her lipstick, looks like her twin.
The viewer looks and listens as though to a play, a Mike Leigh monologue or an Alan Bennett vignette. But this is real, the product of a one-woman Mass Observation team, done partly in fun (Esther Rantzen territory, or the Mad Git half-hour from the BBC Sound Archives), but mostly for reasons no less complex than those that drove her subjects to collude with her. These people exist. Wearing's work could be seen, with its behavioural games playing on our vicarious voyeurism, as a kind of smart exploitation of the unwary: but one must remember that all these people have offered themselves willingly to our gaze, there's nothing covert in Wearing's activities. She's putting herself at risk too. It pays off.