‘What I love about photographs is that they give you a lot and also they withhold a lot.’ GILLIAN WEARING
‘I was interested in the idea of being genetically connected to someone but being very different. There is something of me, literally, in all those people – we are connected, but we are each very different’ GILLIAN WEARING
Executed on a dramatic scale, Gillian Wearing’s Self-Portrait at 17 Years Old (2003) is an iconic work from her celebrated Album series. Wearing a silicone mask with holes cut out for her eyes, the artist –forty years old at the time – reconstructs a photograph of herself taken in a photo booth as a teenager. Replicating the clothes she wore for her junior office job at the time, she stands against an authentic orange curtain acquired from the company who ran the booths in the 1980s. With others from the edition held in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo and La Caixa Collection, Barcelona, the work’s startling trompe l’oeil effect draws together the themes of identity, self-image, concealment and revelation that lie at the heart of her conceptual photographic practice. Evolving from the sequence of polaroids that she took repeatedly from the late 1980s, as well as her 2000 Self Portrait, the Album series saw Wearing restage photographs of herself – at the ages of three and seventeen – as well as her mother, father, brother, sister, uncle and grandparents. Many of her source images depicted her subjects at an age before she knew them: most notably her parents, whom she portrays before they were married. ‘I was interested in the idea of being genetically connected to someone but being very different’, she has explained. ‘There is something of me, literally, in all those people – we are connected, but we are each very different’ (G. Wearing, quoted at https://www.guggenheim.org/artscurriculum/topic/gillian-wearing [accessed6 September 2017]). In conjunction with experts from Madame Tussauds, clay masks were created from the photographs: a lengthy process that took up to four months per mask. Once worn, the silicone began to deteriorate, thereby transforming the photo shoot into an unrepeatable performance. By attempting to inhabit her personal and familial past, Wearing sought to shed light upon the ways in which we recognise our own image. Concealing everything but her eyes, she asks how identity is transmitted, obscured and twisted through the medium of photography. At the point of capture she is both herself and a shadow of her own history: a psychological and physical duality played out through her piercing, un-doctored gaze.
Coming to prominence as a member of the Young British Artist (YBA) movement in the 1990s, Wearing embodies the Zeitgeist of a generation who flooded the realm of high art with irreverent self-exposure, candid introspection and subversive cultural critique. Like many of her fellow artists – in particular Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas – Wearing placed the concept of self-portraiture at the heart of her practice. Writing herself into a centuries-old tradition that took flight with the Renaissance invention of the flat glass mirror, Wearing was particularly fascinated by the idea of hidden truths: the thoughts, feelings and motivations that emerge only when we believe no one is watching. ‘I really loved Rembrandt’, she recalls. ‘That sense that there was something far richer going on underneath the surface of those oils, that there was somebody really there’ (G. Wearing, quoted in A. Sooke, ‘Gillian Wearing: Everyone’s got a secret’, The Telegraph, 28 March 2012). Between 1992 and 1993 she produced her breakthrough work Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say: a series of photographs in which passers-by held up personal messages written on sheets of A3 paper. The following year she created the landmark thirty-minute film Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian, in which participants poured out their deepest secrets whilst wearing masks from a fancy-dress shop. Wearing was intrigued by the liberating, empowering effect of the masks upon her subjects – a revelation that would inform the Album series, as well as her 2000 work Trauma and her 2009 film Secrets and Lies, in which eight disguised figures recalled troubling experiences from their childhood. Awarded the Turner Prize in 1997 – two years after her contemporary Damien Hirst – Wearing anticipated the rise of many of today’s confessional cultural trends: from selfies to reality television. ‘Artists are like seismographs registering quakes to come’, writes the curator Daniel Herrmann. ‘Gillian coined a number of aesthetics during the Nineties that are mainstream now. She was twenty years ahead of her time’ (D. Herrmann, quoted in A. Sooke, ‘Gillian Wearing: Everyone’s got a secret’, The Telegraph, 28 March 2012).
The present work may also be contextualised in relation to the photographic practices of artists such as Cindy Sherman and Claude Cahun – with whom she exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, London, earlier this year. In the work of all three artists, the performative act of being photographed in disguise becomes a means of investigating the relationship between image and identity. In a world saturated with staged photographs, Wearing believes, the tropes of film, advertising and popular culture are almost impossible to escape in attempting to capture or observe oneself. Speaking of her early Polaroids – candid, mundane snapshots of herself taken over many years – she recalls how ‘I was looking at myself as if I was studying someone else. I rediscovered all these images and was trying to decipher who this person was. There is a similarity in my posing and the poses of a lot of young women you now find on Instagram and Twitter, etc. Whilst thinking we are, or wish to be “unique” we find that the collective resembles one another in poses that are learned and/or copied from an early age’ (G. Wearing, quoted at http://www.tanyabonakdargallery.com/exhibitions/gillian-wearing-my-polaroid-years [accessed 6 September 2017]). In the Album series, this sense of inherited identity is magnified by the genetic relationship between the subjects. Wearing would subsequently extend her explorations of imprinted lineage through a similar series of masked works in which she portrayed her ‘spiritual family’ of artists: notably Diane Arbus, Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe. ‘We never get to know ourselves’, she explains. ‘We are forever changing and contradicting ourselves. We’re always evolving’ (G. Wearing, quoted at https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/magazine-identity-paradegillian-wearing-claude-cahun [accessed 6 September 2017]). In the present work, Wearing exposes photography as a complicit tool in the barrier between self and image. Mediated by screens, props and set-ups, the question of what lies beneath the surface – or indeed behind the eyes – becomes ever-more elusive.