Born in Birmingham, Wearing moved to Chelsea, London to study art at the Chelsea School of Art and later at Goldsmiths College. She exhibited in the shows which brought the so-called Young British Artists into the public eye, Brilliant! (1995) in Minneapolis and Sensation (1997) in London and New York.
Wearing has acknowledged the influence of 1970s English fly-on-the-wall documentaries such as Michael Apted's 7-Up, and many of her works have a similar concern with discovering details about individuals. She says, "I'm always trying to find ways of discovering new things about people, and in the process discover more about myself".
This concern can be seen in one of her best known pieces and her first major work, Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992-93), initially shown at Wearing’s first solo exhibition at the artists-run London gallery City Racing, in 1993.
Signs… has become something of a modern icon, consists of a series of photographs, each showing a member of the public who Wearing had stopped on the street and got to spontaneously write something down on a piece of paper, before being snapped holding the paper up in front of them.
Some of the results are a little surprising: a policeman has written the single word "Help!", while a smart young man dressed in a business suit holds a sign which reads "I'm desperate" (which became the name of the show).
In Wearing's words, "A great deal of my work is about questioning handed-down truths"; like so much of her output, Signs… is close to the life of the street, and to the everyday lives of people who do not normally provide the audience for art.
This piece was so well known as to be virtually completely copied in a television advertising campaign for Volkswagen (whose UK advertising agency were later ordered to pay Wearing compensation as the artist had not been contacted over the use of her idea).
In 1994, Wearing made a series of videos of people who responded to an advertisement in Time Out asking for people to "Confess all on video". Several people came forward and confessed to various things, some to past wrong-doings, some to on-going vices. All were disguised by wearing comic masks. Also in 1994, Wearing made Dancing in Peckham, a video of herself dancing in the middle of a shopping centre in Peckham.
As well as these pieces which concentrate on individuals, Wearing has made pieces that are more concerned with groups of people. One, Sixty Minute Silence (1996) is a video of people dressed in police uniforms sitting as if for a group photograph for an hour. Their initial stillness eventually gives way to fidgeting. Her film Drunk (2000) is of four drunk men staggering around a studio.
Wearing won the Turner Prize in 1997.