Gillian Wearing is a conceptual artist who uses photography or video to record her / her subjects’ performances. Her breakthrough piece “Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say (1992-93)” is an exercise in breaking through the perception of English reserve. The device of having subjects hold up a piece of paper expressing their innermost thoughts has penetrated popular culture to the extent of becoming a scene in Richard Curtis’ film ‘Love Actually‘ (2003).
She continued to explore the theme of emotional honesty and confessional with the videos ‘Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry You Will Be in Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian.‘ (1994), ‘Secrets and Lies‘ (2009) and ‘Trauma‘(2010) in which her subjects’ anonymity is protected by masks bought from a fancy-dress shop.
Masks are the major feature in Wearing’s so-called self-portraits, several of which can be found in the Maureen Paley online gallery. The set referred to in the course notes is ‘Album‘ (2003) in which she recreates images of her family members from various photo albums. She has also portrayed herself as some of her artist-heroes, such as Diane Arbus, Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe and, earlier this year an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (Searle 2017) in which she parallels the mask-disguise work of Claude Cahun.
A common feature of all of these works is the thick silicone masks that Wearing wears, usually only her eyes disconcertingly visible through deliberately rough-cut holes, and this is where I find myself in difficulty with the definition of ‘self-portrait’. Unlike the work of Cindy Sherman, who is recognisably herself, whatever persona she is portraying in her images, Wearing’s mask images appear more as disguise than self-portrait.
Wearing explains the process of creating the masks and the photographs in an extended Guardian piece (Wearing 2012). These are thick silicone masks, created by a mask-maker with training from Madame Tussauds, intended to remove the contours of Wearing’s face and almost every other piece of visible skin. This image is of the mask representing her sister, and includes coverage of the throat as well as the face.
This is taken to extremes in the image portraying Wearing’s brother, Richard, naked from the waist up and combing his hair. The torso, described as a body mask, is several inches thick and causes me to ask at what stage does something cease to be a mask and become a piece of sculpture in its own right. I have to conclude with a personal opinion that these images are not self-portraits at all and may not even be disguise, but that Wearing is using her body as an armature for a piece of sculpture created by (and presumably photographed by) somebody else. She is the mastermind behind a production team and a piece of performance art, but she appears to have more in common with Gregory Crewdson than with Elina Brotherus.
Maureen Paley (s.d.) Gillian Wearing [online] Available at <https://www.maureenpaley.com/artists/gillian-wearing> [Accessed 1/10/2017].
Searle, A (2017) A ghost in kiss curls: how Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun share a mask [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/jan/08/gillian-wearing-claude-cahun-mask-national-portrait-gallery> [Accessed 1/10/2017].
Sooke, A (2012) Gillian Wearing: Everyone’s got a secret [online] Available at <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/9149522/Gillian-Wearing-Everyones-got-a-secret.html> [Accessed 1/10/2017].
Wearing, G (2012) Gillian Wearing takeover: behind the mask – the Self Portraits [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2012/mar/27/gillian-wearing-takeover-mask> [Accessed 1/10/2017].