British artist Gillian Wearing is famed for work that explores family constructs, challenging traditional and perhaps outdated notions of family and identity. Back in 2008, she delved into the realms of northern Italian family life with A Typical Trentino Family, revealed in the form of a life-sized statue, depicting a real family from the area. She then initiated a similar project, A Real Birmingham Family (2014) just outside of the new Library of Birmingham and depicting two sisters (one of whom is heavily pregnant) along with their two sons.
Coinciding with her first solo show in Scandinavia, Wearing has now given sculptural form to her vision of the Danish family outside Copenhagen’s National Gallery (SMK). The project, titled A Real Danish Family, is a collaboration with SMK, Kunsthal Aarhus and DR, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. Nearly 500 families of varying configurations from 14 different cities across the country applied to model for her work last autumn, a jury then selected the winning family. The entire process was followed by DR in the form of family interviews, and three exclusive programmes that featured the jury’s deliberations.
Self Portrait at 17 Years Old, 2003, by Gillian Wearing. Courtesy of Maureen Paley, London; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. © The artist
Michael, a 29-year-old man born to Danish parents in Italy, and Yenny-Louise, a 28-year-old woman who was born in Colombia, but raised in Denmark with adoptive parents, were crowned as Wearing’s Real Danish Family. The pair met, moved in together, opened a coffee shop and had their baby daughter all within a year, and like many of the families who participated, their story is at once unique and emblematic of contemporary Denmark. Their selection exposes the changes to the nuclear Danish family in the last 20-25 years, questioning whether all constructs that defy the traditional norms are regarded as equal.
Inside the SMK, Wearing’s exhibition, ‘Family Stories’, was a collaboration between the artist, the museum’s designers and RBS Studio. It takes visitors from a darkly-lit space, displaying Wearing’s most famous works from 1992 to the present day, to a noticeably smaller, white-washed room explaining the making of A Real Danish Family. This shift not only serves as a literal representation of important topics that were previously left in the dark and are now being brought to light, but also encourages an open and honest discussion.
By immortalising Michael and Yenny-Louise’s family in bronze, Wearing highlights the enduring importance of family as a social unit, while concurrently portraying the fragility, vulnerability and strength of modern-day family life. A Real Danish Family does not suggest an ideal formulation for the 21st century family; rather, it celebrates the unique story behind each one.