All is not always as it appears in the work of Gillian Wearing. The British artist emerged in the 1990s helping position video work with a mainstream audience. At the heart of everything she has done – filming herself dancing in a Peckham shopping centre, photographing strangers holding their inner emotions on placards, transforming herself with prosthetics into each member of her family – sits the idea of the portrait. Often Wearing herself is her material, but that does not make her projects reductive or just a form of self-obsession. Instead, her work unpicks what it is to live at this moment: to be human.
This year she was the first female artist to be commissioned to create a statue for a public London square. Her bronze creation of the suffragette, Millicent Fawcett, now stands outside Parliament. This is an artist, who in her intimate, thoughtful way has become one of the great artists of the century.
Words FRANCESCA GAVIN
Francesca Gavin: Can you tell me a bit about your process? How do you come up with ideas for projects?
Gillian Wearing: There are so many different ways. It could be something I recall from my past or reading up on a subject of interest. For instance, my Millicent Fawcett statue was a mixture of research and instinct. On the other hand, my Album series came after looking through a box of old snapshots many years ago. I saw one of my mother when she was younger and I immediately had the idea that I wanted to recreate it but with me as her, so that idea just came out the blue.
FG: Let’s talk about your relationship with portraiture. What first drew you to the face?
GW: It’s what we all communicate with. I loved drawing or making faces out of papier-mâché from school onwards, then at art school doing self-portraits taught me to really look at it.
FG: Are you interested in the historical aspect of portraiture as a genre? Does that influence your work in any way?
GW: Absolutely, I love Rembrandt’s self-portraits and James Ensor’s painting of masks. I love the honesty and lack of vanity in the late Rembrandt’s and the strangeness of Ensor’s work. They’re both about looking for a truth whilst bringing in something new to how we see things. I didn’t know much about the history of art until I did a foundation course at Chelsea Art School in the mid 80’s. There I really became steeped in it, and on reflection, I can see how that education really helped. I would go to the National Gallery and draw other artists’ work, getting to understand the decisions they might have taken in composition or content. How ageing (as in Rembrandt) seemed to bring more honesty to his work and how his painting skills towards the end of his life had become more technically sophisticated.
FG: How and why did you first start experimenting with masks?
GW: Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry You Will Be In Disguise (1994) was my first work. People wore masks to confess to the camera anything they didn’t want to reveal to people they knew. I discovered a lot from this: how those wearing the mask felt liberated; being able to talk without the assumptions they feel when someone tries to read their face. In the early days of the internet, I had some reviews that spoke of this work as being close to how people were beginning to adopt other personas on online.
After wearing a mask all day, you remember only seeing yourself in that mask and I think the brain tries to make a connection with you as this other person. So for a while you feel physically different, it has that kind of impact. Your face after all is the main focus of your identity.
FG: What interests you about the concept of inhabiting another identity or individual?
GW: It frees you momentarily, allowing you to get closer to the person you’re portraying. For instance, I have always been a huge fan of Diane Arbus, and almost a part of me sees something of myself in her. When I “became” her, that amplified that feeling. That’s why I called the series My Spiritual Family. After wearing a mask all day, and only seeing yourself in that mask, I think the brain tries to make a connection with you as this other person. So, for a while you feel physically different. It has that kind of impact. After all, your face is the main focus of your identity.
FG: How have you used waxworks and prosthetics?
GW: I always use masks that I make specifically. I only once used a waxwork head as a prop in an image.
FG: You have worked with Method Acting, I believe? What interested you in using acting techniques within your work and how do you think these affected perceptions of identity and character within?
GW: With method, you can bring a part of yourself to the character you are portraying. So, there is this interesting slippage between real and fictional. The premise of the film was about that too. Some people chose stories to explore that were seemingly nothing to do with their lives until they brought themselves to it. Others were looking at a moment in their past and creating a story that they could add fictive elements to. Our lives are very similar to how we might view a story or a film. We use filters to create a narrative that makes some kind of sense to us. Then we live according to those assumptions and this builds our character. But sometimes those assumptions are detrimental to us and one of the interesting aspects of method is that it challenges you to look for a truth rather than the assumption.
FG: What interests you about inner life and the emotional aspects, and how is that projected through the face?
GW: From a child, I would always look at someone and think, ‘What are you really thinking?’ Our outward projections are always concealing many stories and routes that are incomplete – introspective analysis, worries, concerns, hopes etc. When I did my sign series, you have some of that inner reflection being brought to the forefront. For me, that was the reason it was so successful. As you view the images in two parts – one being the declaration, confession or thought written by the person on the piece of paper, the other being the face and body language – the two can be at odds and you wouldn’t necessarily have imagined the same person would have written the text. These are some of the most successful images as they give you richer understanding of that person. We all have narratives that are not so easily seen when we present ourselves in a social situation.
FG: Looking at Family Stories, what interested you about inhabiting their faces?
GW: I am genetically connected. I have a sense of who the members in my family were to me; how the era’s we were born in shaped us differently. By becoming them and bringing myself to the disguise it is still a family portrait – one where I am showing you what I know of who they are and how I recognise myself in others.
It wasn’t too long ago that twitter was breaking boundaries, where people were tweeting confessional things about their life. Now we have the flipside to that. Instagram is about making it look greatly interesting and trauma free.
FG: Often, they seemed to be based on photographic representations, particularly from the past. What did you find interesting about exploring that side of the photographic image, dissecting the idea of representation itself on a social level?
GW: We go from the studio portraits of my mother and father right up to the snapshot style image of my brother, which was taken by my mother. Of course, there is a generational change in how images are taken and how the next generation becomes more relaxed in front of the camera. With my photo booth image that I took at 17, I am posing in the way I want to look – it is a bit like a selfie. My brother on the other hand is unselfconscious, as my mother just came into the room and took the image, catching him off guard. I wanted to be all the members of the family at around the same age, so everyone is portrayed between 17-28. The series is unified in age but the clothes, hair and photo style imposes the era and gives a brief history into the evolution of photography and our own response to it.
FG: The Suffragette memorial statue is perhaps one of the more straightforward pieces you have made. (I kept looking for you behind the eyes of the work inhabiting the character within the piece!)
GW: I disagree, I think it is a work with many layers. It is a composite of elements that interested me about Fawcett and her work. Firstly, I wanted her to hold the sign, ‘Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere’. As well as this being a wonderful quote of hers, it also brings together the two large groups fighting for women’s votes: the non-militant Suffragists, that Fawcett led, and the militant Suffragettes. Fawcett wrote those words after Emily Davison died by the Kings Horse at Epson Derby. Emily was a Suffragette and her death was one of the most tragic acts within the struggle for women’s suffrage. So, by Fawcett holding this sign, she is acknowledging this sacrifice, as well as giving hope to others. I had my own hands cast and scanned to hold the banner, drawing comparison with my own Signs collection, where people held their self-penned words up on a piece of paper. I wanted Fawcett to wear a walking suit as she was known for walking – sometimes even up to an hour and a half to go to a meeting rather than catching any form of transport. It speaks of a strong stoical woman. On the plinth I etched images of 55 women and 4 men that were pivotal to the cause. There are now more women than men represented in Parliament Square. So I am not doing a straight up representation of Fawcett, but one that brings conceptual elements together to give a message of both Fawcett and the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
FG: Claude Cahun, as last year’s amazing show demonstrated, is a fascinating pairing and influence on your work. What similarities and inspirations do you find in her work?
GW: I came to Claude’s work quite late. I had read about an exhibition of hers in the 90’s and was so interested in the fact she worked with disguise. I should use that word loosely though, as some of the photographs were of her as she would have been in her day to day life. It is in the playful images that Claude is shown in many guises. We don’t know the concepts behind a lot of the images, as they were never exhibited, nor do we know if they were for private use or images for collages. The titles on the works have been written by scholars and the content is at times guessed. I love the mystery to that, because even though her work hasn’t directly influenced me, it has given me sustenance and that is why she is part of my ‘spiritual family’.
FG: How do you feel your work relates to the history of photographic portraiture – I’m particularly thinking of August Sander and Diane Arbus?
GW: I do feel that Signs will be viewed historically as part of the advent of a change in direction of photograph and film. The work was made decades before social media but there is a connection – in the sense that the people photographed are mediating their own images as they do on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc. As I mentioned before, a lot of ideas come from being intuitive and then you see in 20 to 30 years down the line how it relates to contemporary culture. If you look at the confessions videos, they are like online forums. I was asked in the early 00’s to submit an idea for an animation commission. I proposed a face that could be animated on a real person with the eyes cut out, my idea was turned down but now I can get an app with just that. I wish I had pursued that idea more vigorously.
How we are in the media is part of humanity. When walking out the front door in the morning we are mediating our behaviour, we are performing. It is important to know that everything around us shapes us, even if it is another person just walking by.
FG: You have mentioned Michael Apted’s Seven Up as an influence on your work – is that still true? How do you feel it impacted your work?
GW: Seven Up was an amazing ground-breaking documentary that followed children from the age of 7 upwards. I think the participants are now in their 60’s and are still being interviewed every seven years – it’s like Rembrandt’s self-portraits that show us his own aging process. I love the concept of duration being recorded; that things change. I made a work called Rock N Roll 70, where age progression and forensic artists aged me to 70. I have left a space in the work where, if I were to reach that age, I will have my portrait at 70 next to the impression of the others.
FG: What are your feelings about contemporary media and how has it changed over your career from TV to social media?
GW: I am fascinated by it. More than ever it has become transparent how the media shapes us as a person, whether as a user or a viewer. Only recently in the news they mentioned the decline of the 18-30 holidays, which were known for lots of drinking and partying, to be superseded by the “ego holiday”, which is to make your holiday snaps appear glossy magazine worthy. That’s because we are currently living in Instagram times. Yes, it’s a trend, it’s fashion, but also it changes who we are. The benefits are that it makes you feel better – the sense of reward when someone notices and likes your image. The negatives are that it is suppressing the traits we try to disown and despise in ourselves. It wasn’t too long ago that twitter was breaking boundaries, where people were tweeting confessional things about their life. Now we have the flipside to that. Instagram is about making it look greatly interesting and trauma free. I don’t want to sound moralistic – I think both are really interesting – it obviously fills some need in us. I am interested to know where it will go next.
FG: Are you interested in unpicking how media functions? Would you say you are drawn to how humanity portrays itself or is portrayed in media?
GW: How we are in the media is part of humanity. When walking out the front door in the morning we are mediating our behaviour, we are performing. It is important to know that everything around us shapes us, even if it is another person just walking by.
FG: Much of your work has moved from video to the photographic and sculptural. Are you still making films? What kind of works are they?
GW: I am open to all forms of art making, and yes, I will be making films again.
FG: What do you like about including yourself in your work in a more physical way? (Obviously, all artists are implicit in their works in some way!)
GW: I always ask myself when I have an idea, can I do it or does it need to be someone else?
FG: What makes you happy?
GW: Making art and being with people I care about.
FG: What are you currently working on?
GW: I am working on some new photographs for Cincinnati Art Museum exhibition in October.
FG: What do you feel the role of the artist is?
GW: There isn’t one specific role. Art is, by definition, radical because it doesn’t propose it has to be anything, but at the same time can be anything.
Published in Beauty Papers Issue Six
Gillian Wearing Limited Edition Cover available here