The first thing you notice about David Hall’s End Piece … is the noise. A low-level roar, somewhere between a playground and a party, it reaches out to greet you at the door. Step inside, and the source becomes apparent: 1,001 chattering television sets have been shoehorned into Ambika P3’s vast subterranean space in central London.
The exhibition is designed to mark the end of analogue broadcasting in the UK. The sets are old-style, cathode-ray-tube TVs – but they make quite a spectacle. Arranged face-up on scaffolding, they stretch into the distance, ultimately spilling out of the main space into a smaller room. With this river of flickering pictures, Hall brilliantly evokes the passing of an era. The monolithic style of media consumption tied to the box in the corner of the living room is fragmenting in the face of the digital onslaught.
In terms of the switchover, London is near the end of the line. On Wednesday April 4, when the analogue BBC2 bows out, 20 per cent of the sets in this installation will go blank. Two weeks later, the rest, tuned to the other four analogue channels, will subside to a hiss and a flicker of white noise.
Hall’s “1,001 TV Sets (End Piece)” began life in 1972 as “60 TV Sets”, which saw the monitors banked floor-to-ceiling on three walls. This grew to become “101 TV Sets” for The Video Show, a landmark exhibition at the Serpentine in 1975. P3’s curator Michael Mazière initially invited Hall to mark the switchover by restaging “101 TV Sets”, but the artist rightly insisted that the installation would only make an impact today if it was on a far bigger scale. Accordingly, the logistics group DHL was commissioned to sift 1,001 working sets from the 12m being scrapped.
For many people, video art began in the 1990s with the Young British Artist generation. But video had a past, a more radical one and, as this show illustrates, Hall was one of its pioneers. Born in 1937, he initially made his mark as a minimalist sculptor, winning first prize at the Biennale de Paris in 1965. He began to photograph his work and from there gravitated to the moving image. Two additional pieces in this show give a sense of his early work. The earliest is “Interruptions” (1971), seven short pieces transmitted by Scottish TV, unexplained and unannounced, between programmes, during the Edinburgh Festival – to the dismay, I imagine, of many viewers. In one, a TV set burns in a field; in another, water pours from a tap, steadily filling the monitor.
These days, video art takes so many different forms that it seems misguided to discuss it as a single entity. In Hall’s work, from the now-quaint “Interruptions” to the thoroughly contemporary “1,001 TV Sets”, the notion of the monitor is fundamental. Like that of his more famous Korean-American contemporary Nam June Paik (1932-2006), Hall’s work is primarily sculptural. And its reference point has always been television. In Britain, the pioneers of video art set out to challenge television’s commercial nature. And by placing something as mundane as a TV monitor in a gallery, they ruffled the art world’s feathers too.
Hall’s sculptural approach contrasts sharply with that of Gillian Wearing, a retrospective of whose work opened last week at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. Wearing, 48, uses video liberally, but she uses it simply as a language, a medium for her ideas. She flits between still and moving images and, like her YBA contemporaries Sam Taylor-Wood and Steve McQueen, has begun to make feature films.
Wearing, who won the Turner Prize in 1997, first made an impression with “Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say” (1992-93), a photographic series in which she asked people to write some words on a card and hold it up for the camera. Some comments are flippant; others feel real. A City worker says: “I’m desperate”. A relaxed-looking woman says: “I am depressed”. It seemed like a riff on Bob Dylan’s famous shuffling of the cue cards in his “Subterranean Homesick Blues” film sequence, but Wearing gave it a deeper, more personal twist. In a sense, “Signs” laid the foundation for almost everything she has done since.
Still exploring the tension between the face people present to the world and their “true” sense of self, it wasn’t long before Wearing was using masks, to conceal and reveal. For the 30-minute video Confess All … (1994) Wearing advertised for people to make a confession on camera, offering them the anonymity of a series of outlandish masks. The desperate sadness of some of the tales, such as that of the 36-year-old virgin who explains how the sight of his siblings kissing as teenagers (“I’ve never been able to work out whether this is a common or a rare thing”) destroyed his life, can’t fail to draw you in.
The risk is that this work will begin to feel repetitive. What’s saved it thus far is the sense that Wearing’s artistic knowledge is broadening and deepening and that she is bringing it to bear on her art. With a nod to Renaissance portraiture, she now places herself in the frame. The centrepiece of the Whitechapel show is a series of large-scale images apparently of her family. Then you notice the labels say “self-portrait”: Wearing has gone to elaborate lengths to recreate family snaps, playing each role herself behind a silicone mask and, in the case of her brother, a heavy sculpted body suit.
Over the past 20 years, as she has explored the nexus between public and private, Wearing has delved ever deeper into the lives of the marginalised souls she involves in her art. I found parts of the short film “Bully” (2010), an improvisation about bullying staged by a young man who had suffered as a boy, too tough to watch. In their different ways, both this exhibition and End Piece … show what a force video can be.
David Hall, ‘End Piece … ’, until April 22, www.p3exhibitions.com
Gillian Wearing, until June 17, www.whitechapelgallery.org