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Gillian Wearing, Self-Portrait (2000)
Gillian Wearing, Self-Portrait (2000), Framed chromogenic print, 67 3/4 x 67 3/4 x 1 in. (172 x 172 x 2.5 cm)© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

Gillian Wearing on masks, inhabiting disguises, and identity as performance

As a retrospective of her work opens at the Guggenheim New York, we speak to the renowned artist about her ongoing examination of identity, the allure of reality TV, and her love of Michaela Coel

Gillian Wearing’s artwork continually interrogates the production and performance of identity in public and private spaces. Emerging from the movement of YBA’s in the 90s, Wearing has worked across photography, film, painting, and sculpture to investigate constructions of selfhood and the disguises we regularly adopt. A new exhibition at the Guggenheim New York, Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks, encompasses almost four decades of the British artist’s career and features over 100 works, from her earliest photographs through her most recent “lockdown portraits” where she returned to painting with watercolours and oils.

One of the Turner Prize-winning artist’s most notable and enduring artworks which features 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 famously invited people in the street to have their photographs taken while holding signs revealing secret inner thoughts. It’s a deceptively complex idea, engaging with so many contested and crucial concepts regarding objectivity and subjectivity, the ‘truth’ of photography, the ethics of portraiture and documentary photography, and the creation of identity. 

Here, Wearing forgoes some of her privilege and power as an image-maker by allowing her subjects the agency to participate in the creation of their own portraits in a significant way. Instead of imposing a narrative on the people she photographs, she invites them to present a hidden dimension of themselves alongside their public persona. Featuring personal disclosures 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 confounds some of the presumptions we might make about strangers we encounter on the street.

“Back then, we had this idea that British people didn’t open up,” Wearing told Dazed in 2011. “But I would just pass them this piece of paper and all of a sudden they were incredibly honest with me – that’s 
what really made the project for me, it broke all those stereotypes.” 

Spiritual Family (2008-present) – also featured in this comprehensive exhibition – sees the artist inhabiting the guise of her heroes. In this ongoing series of self-portraits, Wearing uses silicon prosthetics, wigs, and lighting to present herself as the seminal figures from art history who have profoundly influenced her practice, including Robert Mapplethorpe, Claude Cahun, and Andy Warhol

The retrospective coincides with the unveiling in Central Park of Wearing’s commission by the Public Art Fund – a statue of Diane Arbus, the American photographer whose exploration of subcultures and minorities echos many of the themes of Wearing’s work and who is very much part of Wearing’s Spiritual Family

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

Does seeing decades of your work gathered together in one place reveal anything new to you that you hadn’t noticed before?

Gillian Wearing: Yes, Jennifer Blessing and Nat Trotman, the curators of the exhibition, have done an amazing job of articulating new connections between works that I hadn’t thought of. When you make a work you don’t always necessarily think of previous works and the meanings that may have accrued over long periods of time since first making them. 

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

Gillian Wearing: Reality TV for me started with Big Brother, I was really interested in the first episode as it showed you aspects of life similar to those in the real world, but not yet explored on television. For instance, how you negotiate working with a group of people you have never met before, that could be similar to office life, a new job, or a college situation. The series soon became something else… it became about how you could stand out in the series in order to forge a life in the spotlight afterwards. I much preferred the initial birth of this format. 

“Ultimately, we are all performers with a variety of roles we carry out each day… work role, friend role, etcetera” – Gillian Wearing

How do you feel that the performance of identity has changed since you began exploring this concept in your work?

Gillian Wearing: I think there are many more ways people can now explore their identity, and find ways that can change our perception of it.

Ultimately, we are all performers with a variety of roles we carry out each day… work role, friend role, et cetera. I think if there is any change the internet has given us is the capacity to see such a wider view of life, and in doing so it has given people opportunities to think outside of cultural restrictions that are and have been loosely imposed on the way ‘things are meant to be’.

The retrospective coincides with the unveiling of your tribute to Diane Arbus. Could you tell us about the ways in which Arbus has 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 has negotiated their world and brought a new way to look at it through their lens. It makes me think, ‘Yes, I can create my own world too and illuminate things that are important to me.’

Are there any additional individuals you plan to recreate in your series Spiritual Family?

Gillian Wearing: Yes, but I don’t want to say until I have made them.

What do you think drew you to watercolours and oil paintings during lockdown?

Gillian Wearing: I was going to do an oil painting before lockdown. It is something I had been meaning to do for years. In fact, I made some attempts in 2006 and then other ideas took over and I prioritised 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 any project that was in the pipeline. So I bought lots of painting materials and started to paint self-portraits, trying to capture the uncertainty, the ennui, and frustration of the pandemic through how I saw myself. 

It was therapeutic but also it realigned me with my past experience of painting which was when I was a student at Chelsea Art School in the mid-80s. I loved painting then but when I went to Goldsmiths my ideas didn’t work in paint. But it has always been something in the back of my mind I knew would come back to me. Lockdown was an introspective time and it drew me back to that sense of inwardness I sought in my painting in the ’80s.

As an artist who has so incisively explored the notion of masks, what are your thoughts on the recent compulsory wearing of masks during COVID? In terms of how it may have affected people’s sense of identity and their interactions? 

Gillian Wearing: I personally find wearing them quite protective. And not just in terms of protecting from the virus or transmitting it. But the idea I can’t read other peoples expressions and they can’t read mine is actually quite relaxing. Because, ultimately, we do judge appearances and wearing a mask frees up an emotional aspect within us, as we know our faces are not being studied. Of course, I will celebrate the day when we don’t need to wear them anymore.

What most excites you right now, in terms of music, art, television, literature, and film?

Gillian Wearing: So many things, but one stand-out to me during lockdown was watching Michaela Coel’s outstanding series I May Destroy You. It was just brilliant, it dealt with trauma, it was also about creativity and how to convey a 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 her. Thus introducing a meta-narrative that Coel explores to its fullest. The programme is multi-layered, complex, extremely emotional, but always surprising.

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