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Words Laura Bannister
Photography Daisy Walker

Gillian Wearing and her masks

As the National Portrait Gallery in London shows ‘Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask another mask,’ Museum’s editor talks identity, performance and reality television with Wearing herself. 

I discovered Gillian Wearing’s 2003 series Album in late high school. In it, the British artist painstakingly reenacted portraits of family members in their youth—her brother, sister, parents and uncle—by donning silicon prosthetics that mimicked their skin and facial features. Peering closely, I saw what Wearing had wanted: her own eyes staring through the waxy impression, the faint, unsettling outline of a mask. Wearing became a not-quite facsimile of her brother—shirtless with pinkish skin, semi-stained trackpants slung low around his waist, head cocked to one side while brushing a mass of long, shiny brown hair. In another reproduction—a professional, LinkedIn-style headshot of her uncle Brian Gregory—Wearing wore the clothes, hair and face of the middle-aged man, posed against studio blues in a shirt and blazer. None of the pictures had been digitally manipulated; the act of artifice occurred with the help of makeup artists and silicon specialists, with Wearing herself. It is difficult to tell, both physically and otherwise, where her relatives begin and where they end.

It is somewhat surreal to be interviewing the Turner Prize-winning artist, after so long watching her watch other people, giving them strange and intimate spaces to make personal disclosures. Our exchange occurred via email, which is fitting. A mask has always mediated our encounters.

LAURA BANNISTER Can you tell me about the genesis of A room with your views? There’s this uniformity in the uploads—they come from the windows of people in 167 different countries. The work is first obscured by a curtain, a blind or a roller door, which is then pulled back to unveil a vista (a brick wall, a cat, a seascape, a civilian camp in South Sudan). Why was that hide-to-reveal gesture important?

GILLIAN WEARING It was when I opened the blinds one day at home that I started to think about it in relation to the curtains going back at the cinema. The window is a viewfinder, framing the outside world. I was interested in the limitations of the views from windows, [and how these] can give us an alternative view of the world. Google Maps gives us views from a street level and Your views is multi-levelled: it could be the first, the second or the 34th floor. It is also about who decides to participate and their locations. Some people have incredible views but many of us don’t, [and that’s] OK. It is not about stunning images but a reality that exists now, today. I have been doing it since 2013 and have amassed over 700 views from 170 countries.

BANNISTER Did you include every submission?

WEARING I try to, but some submissions had technical issues, or were not filmed with the criteria needed, which is to draw back the curtain.

BANNISTER There is a new show I want to talk about, Behind the mask, another mask, which runs until May at the National Portrait Gallery. It unites your work and that of French surrealist Claude Cahun, who you dressed as for a photograph back in 2012. What were the motivations for developing the show? What kind of dialogue exists between your photographs and Cahun’s?

WEARING The National Portrait Gallery proposed the show and I jumped at the chance. I had already done a portrait of myself as Cahun, so had quite a bit of knowledge of her. But there was more to discover. Cahun’s photographs are very mysterious. We don’t have much to go on—for instance, we don’t know why she created them. She never exhibited her photographs in her lifetime. They were shot on a non-professional camera that I believe might have had some technical issues. As you can see, sometimes light glares on the photos. She saw herself mainly as a writer, but her photographs are far more radical and interesting.

BANNISTER What dialogues were you having with the curator and gallery staff?

WEARING I worked with Sarah Howgate on the show and we both went on a journey to explore the work and life of Cahun in-depth. She has an amazing biography. She sometimes feels like a character in a film, as her story was filled with conflicts and challenges. Sarah and I visited Jersey together, saw where Cahun lived through her middle-aged years and where she was laid to rest, which was right next-door to her house.

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BANNISTER You’ve produced other images that put you in conversation with art-historical images and image-makers. There is Me as Mapplethorpe, for instance, made in 2009, where your eyes stare out of Robert’s. A year before, there was Me as Arbus. Could you talk to me more about these kinds of works, which are impossible encounters of sorts?

WEARING I call them my spiritual family; they are the people that give [me] creative sustenance. When you research and get close to an artist you feel part of yourself in their work or even in the image of them. I have loved Arbus for many years, until the point came that when I would glance at an image of her I sometimes saw it as me. It was like a strange transference. After the Album series it made sense to become my other family, the ones I know so much about but can never meet.

BANNISTER 2 into 1 (1997) is one of your most affecting works, a sort of mock ethnographic study of family dynamics. In it, you separately film a mother and her two 11-year-old sons. Presumably you are asking questions—they’re edited out—prompting each to reflect on their children or parent. In the final footage, the interviewees lip-synch the comments of the other so precisely. The inversion is unsettling and a little devastating. You can see the mother’s mouth twist as it takes on the contempt of her sons. Her boys lean back in identical chairs, one miming their mother’s words: “They can be quite cruel too. They do actually say to me, ‘Now get in and make my dinner.’”

I’m interested in how you prepared for the interview—if you established parameters before filming about where you could and couldn’t go. Were the questions were purposefully structured to elicit particular kinds of responses or if it was more of a free flowing conversation?

WEARING As I never met the family until the day of the audio recording I had no preconceived ideas. My questions weren’t specific to any knowledge of them. I can’t remember the questions as it was 20 years ago. But the interview was not very long as everyone was very open and would speak their thoughts without any prompting. What was fantastic about the family is that they had a lot of humour so were able to speak frankly all the time.

I am primarily an artist, although I appreciate and have been influenced by documentaries. I have never read any books on how you should approach documentary filming. My ideas tend to stem from a concept I have, in this case it was lip-synching. Apart from people singing along to pre-recorded music and voices being dubbed in different languages in film, I had never seen someone lip-synch other people’s words in any form of documentary. So I had to devise a way this could happen. I started with a film called 10–16 where I had actors lip-synch children’s voices. I worked out a way that actors could use this technique, and they also helped me understand how the process could succeed—or not.

BANNISTER Did you know the 2 into 1 family before filming? Was the type of family—their socioeconomic standing, class background, ethnicity, etc—important?

WEARING I had interviewed many families and was coming to an impasse when Stuart—one of the actors from 10–16—recommended the family. He was godfather to the two boys, Alex and Laurence. It didn’t matter what background the family was from. The important criteria was that they understood the process and that a story could be created from the audio. Unlike conventional documentaries where the context of what someone does or says can be used in myriad ways, everyone had the text and final edited audio before filming. So the content of the film was there for the family to understand.

BANNISTER In Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992–3) and Confess all on video. Don’t worry you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian. (1994) your subjects/collaborators are ‘ordinary,’ but their involvement requires an openness about their personal circumstances that is unusual—or at least it [may have been] pre-social media. You’ve said of Signs that this way of working “interrupts the logic of photo- documentary … by the subjects’ clear collusion and engineering of their own representation.” What do you think makes strangers say yes to participating, especially in ways—like in 2 into 1—that could be unflattering?

WEARING Honesty is what we relate to more than anything else. And by honesty I mean to be really frank about your life. The most remembered image from my Signs series is of course the man saying “I’m Desperate.” It is a very enigmatic image, but one everyone can relate to at some point in their lives. I recently heard from his wife who informed me that he had tragically died in a motorcycle accident, and she wanted to let me know that he only ever liked two photographs of himself—one that she had taken and the one I took. For some people openness comes very naturally and without inhibitions. And when someone can share a thought or feeling that could be seen as taboo at the time, it actually goes somewhere to changing people’s own attitudes in what they will or won’t say in public. If I think back to the 1970s, people were too scared to even talk about divorce … When I now see people commenting on the “I’m Desperate” image today, it is along the lines of them pointing out that’s how they feel now, or have done [before].

BANNISTER In these confessional works, how do you see the power play between artist and subject? Do you share equal control in their representation?

WEARING The confessional work started with Confess all in 1994. I didn’t do any tryouts. I put one advert in Time Out, bought some masks and allotted specific times for filming to all the participants. It was important that everyone was anonymous and would not bump into each other. People were allowed to choose their mask, or I would help them if they preferred. I didn’t know what anyone was going to talk about and I could either be in the room with them or outside. Some people chose the latter … The situation was as neutral as possible without any influence from me in what they should say or talk about. I wanted it to be like a booth on a street corner that you could just walk into and turn the camera on yourself.

BANNISTER Are there certain projects that have taken longer—or haven’t yet happened—because it was difficult to convince participants to be involved?

WEARING There are many projects I would like to do still. All the ideas I have had have always garnered responses of interested participants. I think now more than ever people understand the nature of being on camera [and] having a voice.

BANNISTER Is relating to strangers something that comes naturally to you?

WEARING I would say yes. I always ask people questions, I am always curious.

“I think it started as a child, where neighbours and parents would always be very courteous with each other. I always wondered why they couldn’t be more like themselves.”

BANNISTER I’ve read the sociology of Erving Goffman has impacted you; I assume much of it was The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. He talks about social interaction as theatrical performance—the idea that we offer up front-of-house personalities to audiences, that we have backstage personalities where social role-playing can be abandoned. Does this still resonate with you?

WEARING Yes—although I think that boundary of inside and outside has now changed as social life has [migrated] indoors via the computer screen. So if someone is Skyping [or] on iChat, there is always a heightened performance of self …

BANNISTER Have you always been hyper-aware of how this public-private dichotomy plays out in your own life?

WEARING [I’ve been aware of it] with everyone’s life. I think it started as a child, where neighbours and parents would always be very courteous with each other. I always wondered why they couldn’t be more like themselves. [That said], the way I look at it now is that even our performative selves are real. We are products of the culture we’re in; our emotions and personalities are dictated by the times we live in. Social media has loosened a lot of that up.

BANNISTER Do you watch a lot of television?

WEARING A lot of reality shows. TV series. Documentaries. When I first started watching reality TV I found it really fascinating—it showed how people adapt in confined situations. It’s not unlike working in an office. [Now] I feel the TV format comments much more on itself than the world outside of it, as if a new reality of being a ‘reality star’ is that you’ve found a unique occupation in itself, one that requires certain televisual qualifications.

BANNISTER You’re right. I’m also enamoured by a newish generation of bawdy British reality shows with artificial living environments (Geordie Shore, Ex on the Beach), which, despite their purported lack of scripting, adopt the conventions and tropes of any other genre … Episodes develop with narrative arcs, characters progress. It is a well-oiled machine. I know you used to watch Big Brother, what other reality shows are you watching now?

WEARING I do love structured TV shows like The Only Way is Essex. A lot of reality programs have been criticised by audiences for being fake, or structured too much by producers. [In The Only Way is Essex], TV acknowledges that. Along with the cast, you then question what is improvised for the dramatic effect of the show, as opposed to improvised with real life implications involved. Are these [outcomes] dissimilar or both the same? Do we say things in order to structure the future of our own lives as if we are in a TV show or film ourselves?

BANNISTER I guess that could bring us to masks. They’re everywhere in your work (physical disguises, silicon prosthetics, voice dubbing). They are a means for obfuscation, protection, self-improvement, construction. There’s an interview with you—I think it was for AnOther—where you discuss selfies and the fact they’re masks in themselves: retouched via beauty apps to correct imperfections, eyes enlarged and brightened, noses straightened. Thinking about this simple act of artifice, and Cahun’s quote: “Behind the mask, another mask,” I want to ask: do the masks ever end?

WEARING We are all masks, and to ourselves we are a mystery too. It is easier to have an opinion about someone else than yourself. Anyone who truly believes they know themselves has stopped growing or experiencing things. Part of being human is to contradict yourself, be a hypocrite and go through moments when you feel lost.

BANNISTER In most of your portrait images that use masks—like Self Portrait of Me Now in Mask (2011), you embrace simple, formal compositions of traditional portraiture, usually cutting the body off below the shoulders. Why is that?

WEARING Some self portrait images are based on existing old photos, so 1950s studio shots or snapshots that are more mise en scène. It depends on the prevalent genre of that time that I am trying to echo. Self Portrait of Me Now in Mask is an exception—in that I did create a formal shot of myself in a mask in 2011. I really love the traditional three-quarters pose that you see in school photographs or classical paintings by Rembrandt. It has many associations. It’s seen as a flattering way of posing someone, although in my mask shot I don’t think it flatters in a traditional sense.

BANNISTER I find death masks from the 1800s fascinating … features of unidentified, deceased bodies could be preserved so relatives could recognise them. The first CPR training mannequin’s face was modelled of a famous French death mask. As someone who has posed behind masks of her younger self, I wonder if you would ever consider making one—of someone else you know, of yourself, arranged to be created many years from now, after death?

WEARING I have two of those CPR mannequins, and yes, I am also fascinated by death masks. I made one already of my own face in 2004. And I am about to make some new images in that manner.

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BANNISTER In a recent interview, the Russian director and former painter Dmitry Krymov said: “I don’t analyse myself, in order to avoid traps. I trust intuition. I never think, ‘Now I’ll do a sophisticated show,’ or, ‘Now I’ll go back to naivité.’” He is not talking about his improvised works, of course, but the natural undulations of his ever-expanding body of work, the one you make and make and make until you no longer make works anymore. I wonder if this attitude resonates with you?

WEARING Intuition is an important part of art-making. I do a lot of thinking and from that it infects what I think about until an idea resonates with me. I don’t know any artists who think like that about shows, or have calculated ideas. You spend so much time working on a work [that] you have to feel the passion for wanting to do that.

BANNISTER In that same interview, Krymov is discussing how to live and work against a backdrop of continual unrest in Russia—each morning his wife and he rush to beat the other, turning the radio onto either Euronews or Bach. “This is the air you breathe, like it or not” he said. “Even if, like a tree, you take in carbon monoxide, you must exhale oxygen. Art is oxygen. An artist must exhale oxygen.”

How do you—as an artist in post-Brexit Britain … amid a world teeming with forced migration and closed borders and unholy camps— how do you cope? How do you keep working, and maintain focus on the same strategies? How do you decide which works must be made?

WEARING After the Brexit result I want into a period of mourning and was very angry, more so than ever before in terms of politics. I want somehow to address this situation but when events like this occur you don’t want to give the expected answers that will come over time. It is [difficult] because the language being used by politicians is so simplified and manipulative, no one really addresses complexity in any of the political parties. However, I have read a lot of good journalism since the result. So in once sense, I am more politically informed than ever before, and in the other helpless as to how this Brexit scenario will play out. Elements of my work deal with the now, with the political, so I don’t need to change how I make work. I just have to ask the questions that illuminate these times.

BANNISTER Are you an optimist?

WEARING Yes, most definitely.

This interview appears in Issue 6 of Museum, themed ‘Sorry… have we met?’ You can order a copy here. Gillian Wearing is represented by Maureen Paley, London, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

All artwork images © Gillian Wearing courtesy Maureen Paley, London. 

 

Right

Sleeping Mask, 2004, wax

Left

Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian… (stills), 1994, colour video for monitor with sound, 30 minutes

Right

Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian… (stills), 1994, colour video for monitor with sound, 30 minutes

Left

2 into 1 (stills), 1997, colour video for monitor with sound, 4 minutes and 30 seconds

Right

2 into 1 (stills), 1997, colour video for monitor with sound, 4 minutes and 30 seconds

Left

Rock ‘n’ Roll 70, 2015, framed c-type prints, 131×192 cm (Me at 50, 2014; age processed to 70, 2015; Me at 70, 2034)

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