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Gillian Wearing: Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say WORK TOWARDS WORLD PEACE, 1992

© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Work / Art

We speak to Gillian Wearing about making the first statue of a woman in Parliament square

There might be a woman at Number 10 – for now at least – but the green of Parliament Square, arguably the UK’s most politically loaded public space, remains male dominated. Why? Well, take an eye to the nine statues on the green: Sir Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, the Earl of Derby, Lord Palmerston, Field Marshal Jan Smuts, Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi – and you’ll find an all male cast.

Last month, it was announced that following an online campaign by activist Caroline Criado-Perez, which attracted 85,000 signatures and the support of London mayor Sadiq Khan, former Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing would be commissioned to make a statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett, who held the position of president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies from 1897 to 1919.

Not only will the commission become the first statue of a woman in the square, but it will also be the first statue made by a woman on the green. We caught up with Gillian Wearing to find out why.

How were you first approached to make a statue of Millicent Fawcett for Parliament Square?

I was invited to put forward a proposal alongside other artists.

What can you tell us about your ideas for the statue so far?

Sorry I can’t say anything yet, apart from it will be a bronze statue.

This isn’t the first time you’ve created a public sculpture — back in 2014 you made A Real Birmingham Family. Why do you think the medium remains important?

Public sculpture takes up so little space but it has a permanence that can exceed many buildings. It captures the public’s imagination because of this.

Why do you think we’ve had to wait until 2017 (and an online campaign backed by 85,000 people) for a single statue of, and by, a woman in one of the UK’s most crucial public spaces?

I don’t really know why. But it goes to show that even today there has to be a high profile campaign to acknowledge imbalance, and the praise due here is to Caroline Criado-Perez who campaigned to have a female statue in Parliament Square. Campaigning is I believe a creative act, it is about wanting to change something and suggesting what can be improved.

Part of that change is changing perception some people don’t realise they have certain prejudices and that the choices they sometimes make are based on what they already know and understand, sticking within a current status quo.  I was in the first all female Turner Prize and that got a lot of criticism back in 1997, but the year before being all male hardly lifted an eyebrow. I think the art world is trying to work much harder now in addressing inequalities in terms of cultural and gender backgrounds, but it still has some way to go.

You could make a sculpture of anyone, past or present, who would you choose and why?

I am pretty happy with doing Millicent for now.

What do you consider to be the greatest challenge faced by women in the creative industry today?

Getting equal earnings.

What else are you working on at the moment?

Apart from the monument for Parliament square. I have an exhibition coming up at SMK museum in Copenhagen, it will be a solo show plus I am creating a sculpture of a real Danish Family.

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Gillian Wearing: A Real Birmingham Family

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Gillian Wearing: Family Monument