Gillian Wearing masks, inhabiting disguises and identity as a performance


As a retrospective of his work opens at the Guggenheim in New York City, we speak to the acclaimed artist about his ongoing examination of identity, the allure of reality TV, and his love of Michaela coel

Gillian Wearing’s work continually questions the production and performance of identity in public and private spaces. Stemming from the YBA movement in the 90s, Wearing has worked through photography, film, painting and sculpture to investigate the constructions of individuality and disguises we regularly adopt. A new exhibition at the Guggenheim New York, Gillian Wearing: Wearing masks, encompasses nearly four decades of the British artist’s career and showcases more than 100 works, from her earliest photographs to her most recent “Containment Portraits” where she returned to watercolor and oil painting.

One of the most notable and enduring works of art by the Turner Prize-winning artist featured in the retrospective is Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992-1993), a series of portraits in which she invited people on the streets to have their photos taken while holding signs revealing secret inner thoughts. It is a deceptively complex idea, engaging so many contested and crucial concepts about objectivity and subjectivity, the “truth” of photography, the ethics of portraiture and documentary photography, and the creation of identity.

Here, Wearing relinquishes some of her privileges and power as an image maker by allowing her agency subjects to participate meaningfully in the creation of their own portraits. Instead of imposing a narrative on the people she photographs, she invites them to present a hidden dimension of themselves alongside their public figures. With personal revelations that range from surprising, shocking, funny and mundane, Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say confuses some of the assumptions we might make about strangers we meet on the street.

“Back then we had this idea that the Brits weren’t opening up,” Wearing told Dazed in 2011. “But I was just passing this piece of paper over to them and all of a sudden they were incredibly honest with it. me – that’s what really made the project for me, it broke all of those stereotypes.

Spiritual family (2008-present) – also featured in this comprehensive exhibition – sees the artist inhabit the guise of his heroes. In this ongoing series of self-portraits, Wearing uses silicone prostheses, wigs and lighting to present himself as the landmark figures in art history who have profoundly influenced his practice, including Robert Mapplethorpe, Claude Cahun and Andy Warhol.

The retrospective coincides with the unveiling of the Public Art Fund’s commission for Central Park of Wearing – a statue of Diane Arbus, the American photographer whose exploration of subcultures and minorities echoes many themes in Wearing’s work. and which is an integral part of Wearing’s work. Spiritual family.

Above, check out some of the works featured in her retrospective and the recently unveiled sculpture by Diane Arbus. Below, we talk to Gillian Wearing about gaining a new perspective on her work, wearing masks – both literally and metaphorically, and the allure of reality TV.

Does seeing decades of your work put together in one place tell you something new that you haven’t noticed before?

Gillian wearing: Yes, Jennifer Blessing and Nat Trotman, the curators of the exhibition, did an incredible job articulating new connections between works that I hadn’t thought of. When you create a work, you don’t always necessarily think about the previous works and the meanings that may have accumulated over long periods of time since their creation.

As an artist who has challenged documentary conventions and the camera’s capacity for truth and deception, what do you think about the evolution of reality TV?

Gillian wearing: Reality TV for me started with Big Brother, I was really interested in the first episode because it showed you aspects of life similar to the real world, but not yet explored on TV. For example, the way you negotiate work with a group of people you’ve never met before, it might be similar to office life, a new job, or a situation in college. The show quickly became something else… it was all about how to stand out in the show and make a life in the spotlight afterwards. I greatly preferred the initial birth of this format.

“At the end of the day, we are all performers with a variety of roles that we take on every day… role of work, role of friend, etc.” – Gillian Wearing

How do you think the performance of identity has changed since you started exploring this concept in your work?

Gillian wearing: I think there are many other ways that people can now explore their identity and find ways to change our perception of it.

At the end of the day, we are all artists with a variety of roles that we take on every day… role of work, role of friend, et cetera. I think if there is one change that the internet has given us, it is the ability to take a broader view of life, and in doing so, it has given people the ability to think outside the box. cultural restrictions that are and have been loosely imposed on the ‘things are meant to be’ path.

The retrospective coincides with the unveiling of your tribute to Diane Arbus. Can you tell us about how Arbus influenced you?

Gillian wearing: She was a woman and one of the most important photographers in the world. I can’t overstate how important a role model she is. To see how someone negotiated their world and brought a new way of looking at it through their lens. It makes me think, “Yes, I can also create my own world and illuminate the things that are important to me. “

Are there other people you plan to recreate in your series Spiritual family?

Gillian wearing: Yeah, but I don’t want to say it until I’ve done them.

What do you think attracted you to watercolors and oil paintings during the lockdown?

Gillian wearing: I was going to do an oil painting before confinement. This is something I have wanted to do for years. In fact, I made a few attempts in 2006 and then other ideas took over and I prioritized them. With the lockdown, like most people, my world shrank, emails stopped, there was no imminent commitment to anything. And I couldn’t initially work on an ongoing project. So I bought a lot of painting supplies and started painting self-portraits, trying to capture the uncertainty, boredom and frustration of the pandemic through the way I saw myself.

It was therapeutic, but it also realigned me with my past painting experience, when I was a student at Chelsea Art School in the mid-80s. I loved painting at the time, but when I went at Goldsmiths my ideas didn’t work in painting. But it was always something on my mind, I knew it would come back to me. The confinement was a period of introspection and it brought me back to that feeling of interiority that I was looking for in my painting in the 80s.

As an artist who has explored the notion of masks so incisively, what do you think of the recent compulsory mask wearing during COVID? In terms of how this might have affected people’s sense of identity and their interactions?

Gillian wearing: Personally, I find wearing them to be quite protective. And not just in terms of virus protection or transmission. But the idea that I can’t read other people’s expressions and that they can’t read mine is actually quite relaxing. Because, ultimately, we judge appearances and wearing a mask releases an emotional aspect in us, because we know that our faces are not studied. Of course, I will celebrate the day when we no longer need to wear them.

What are you most passionate about right now, in terms of music, art, television, literature and cinema?

Gillian wearing: So many things, but one that stood out for me during the lockdown was watching Michaela Coel’s Outstanding Series I can destroy you. It was just great, it was about trauma, it was also about creativity and how to convey trauma in a story. The protagonist is a writer played by Coel who is the writer in real life and the story is based on events that happened to him. Thus introducing a meta-narrative that Coel explores to the fullest. The program is multi-layered, complex, extremely emotional, but still surprising.

Gillian Wearing: Wearing masks is at Guggenheim, New York, until November 4, 2022. You can find more information on Diane Arbus’s Gillian Wearing sculpture for the Public Art Fund here

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