Gillian Wearing: Confessions and Masks

Gillian Wearing's "Me in My Mask"

Into our discussion of authenticity comes an artist whose work addresses this head on.  Sort of.  Gillian Wearing, whose name I did not know, is the first in Newsweek’s list The 10 Most Important Artists of Today.   A swift look at photographs of her work online suggest a woman interested in hidden layers of common human expression.   The work that caught my eye?  Her penchant for self-portrait photography while wearing rubber masks modeled on family members and herself at various ages with eye-slits cut into the mask.   The result is an arresting visual puzzle: who am I looking at here?

Gillian Wearing's "Self Portrait at 17-Years-Old"

Just so you’re not confused, Gillian Wearing was in her mid-to-late 30s when the shot above was taken.

I love this next one.   I was complaining the other day about looking in the mirror and seeing old Berrymans.  This image of Wearing as her mother gets at that sensation visually.

Gillian Wearing's "Self-Portrait as My Mother Jean Gregory"

Oddly enough, and I haven’t done the research to know that this is true, but I would bet Wearing’s work has an impact in Evangelical circles.  Take a look at this image from a series called Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992–93).   Remind of you anything?

Gillian Wearing's "I'm Desperate"

Go to YouTube and type into the search engine, “Cardboard Testimonies.”    (As you can see, I did it for you.  Just click, pick one and watch.)  Imagine this guy in the picture turning his sign over and it says something like, “for God.”

Back in the early 1990’s, Wearing asked strangers to allow her to photograph them holding a piece of paper on which they had written anything they wanted to write.    Reminds me a little of PostSecret, the post card confessions I find so stunning. (Talk about being in tension with the authentic.)  Wearing also did another series of videos called Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry You Will Be in Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian.   People called, she gave them comic masks to wear, and they confessed.  The Tate Collection describes it like this: “This work was inspired by ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentaries and confessional TV chat shows, but it also evokes the religious ritual of confession and its modern secular equivalent, psychoanalysis.”

There’s always something going on “on the surface” and there’s always something going on “underneath.”

From Gillian Wearing's Current Show "People"

Wearing’s new show at the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York is called People.  The New York Times review of People states that Wearing works at “coaxing out the unstated feelings, scarring experiences and hidden personalities lurking beneath the surface.”   There are video confessions and masked portraits as she continues to explore the interaction of aesthetics, portraiture, and self-revelation.

But it’s no wonder that in a media, ad-saturated world where youth, physical perfection, hipster cool, and cynicism rule, the conversation is all about what, in the end, is real.   And the “what is real” question cuts deep into the dilemma of identity.   And when and if I find the real “me” or the real “self”, how in the world do I ever get it out into the world, and will anybody care?

That’s the question, isn’t it?  If I were to find my real self, and let it out, via confession and unmasking, would we be heard?  Known?  Accepted?  Cared for?  Affirmed?   Loved?

We kick it around in a million different ways.  And it’s the ongoing conversation, the ongoing war, the ongoing question of civilizations.

What is a human being, and how best to live?  And who in the world cares?  

Gillian Wearing kicks it around with masks, portraits, videos, and confessions.  I kick it around by writing plays and creating conversations.

Off to kick it around….

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