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Gillian Wearing: A Real Birmingham Family

Birmingham-born artist Gillian Wearing is working on a project to find and immortalise in bronze, ‘the real Birmingham family’ in collaboration with the IKON Gallery, Birmingham. The sculpture of everyday life and simulacra is becoming a popular genre amongst artists and commissioners. Cornelia Parker’s The Folkestone Mermaid (2011) is a lifesize bronze of local resident Georgina Baker. It represents a reversion to the tradition of bronze establishment and military memorial but with a sociological interest towards recording a more democratic representation of ordinary people who are not usually celebrated. Wearing is known for her enquiries into the parameters of social anthropology and social history. “It is the historic moment to ask ourselves what a family is because the common visual concept is the one which comes from the media. An artificial image which has nothing to do with a real family. I am trying to objectify and monumentalize reality itself to fight against the stereotype”. Gillian Wearing. There is an irony in the commissioning of such a traditional work for the city amidst civic bronze commemorations to Queen Victoria and Boulton and Watt. Especially as a more visionary, but unpopular work, Raymond Mason’s Forward (1991-2003), a polyester resin sculpture representing the march of Birmingham from its industrial past into the future, was set ablaze and destroyed. The question of visual relevance for what is likely to become an irrelevant work for the city once the media and political interest has passed does not appear to be a priority in the work. “Thousands of families are expected to nominate themselves, but rather than choosing the statistically average family, there will be a comparison of value judgments about authenticity, locality and what it is that essentially constitutes a family. Issues arising out of sexual politics (e.g. gay parenting), fostering, cultural diversity (embracing notions of the extended family), surrogacy and countless variations on the theme of marriage will be taken into consideration.” A Real Birmingham Family. Press Release. It already has a tired hand-me-down quality of the politics old new labour and the notion of an audience widening politically correct art. While at the same time a largely unacknowledged and truly democratic and non-ironic parallel movement is occurring with the hundred memorial sculptures of soccer players outside football stadiums created in the last twenty years, and a populist movement to celebrate celebrities in cities that they associated with is worthy of sociological study.

A Real Birmingham Family is a development of the bronze Family Monument to the typical Trentino family of 2007, inaugurated at 5pm on July 16th 2008, in the Gardens of Piazza Dante in Trento, Italy. Wearing’s family monument, curated by Fabio Cavallucci and Cristina Natalicchio, ‘immortalises’ the Giuliani family in life-size proportions, who were selected by a jury after a media competition and calls for participation involving the compiling of statistical profile to represent the characteristics – number of family members, age, job, lifestyle, assets – of the Trentino family.

Residents of Birmingham can nominate their families to represent how the twenty-first century family might be symbolised in the city. After short-listing, a panel of judges will select a single family to be represented on a bronze life-size sculpture to be placed in Centenary Square, near the new Birmingham Library in 2013. Ikon has been touring the city with project information to encourage nominations including mock-up photographs of families taken on a replica plinth. Nominations remain open until 1 April 2012.

Nine photographs from Gillian Wearing’s A Real Birmingham Family project, selected from the series of portraits taken at the Ikon temporary drop-in centres showcase the diverse nature of Birmingham’s 21st century families. The exhibition is on display at the Mint Hotel,1 Brunswick Square, Brindleyplace, Birmingham B1 2HW. Free entry – until 20 November 201.

Image: Gillian Wearing. Family Monument Trento, 2008; A Real Birmingham Family.


About jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space



  1. Pingback: Personal reflection’s from Duration, Newcastle « Institute for Cultural Practices - April 29, 2012

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