Photographer Diane Arbus had a phrase for distinguishing between the way you think you look and what you actually look like: “The gap between intention and effect”. On the one hand lies pretense and projection; on the other hand, the inevitable but unintended slips. Now Gillian Wearing, Arbus’ self-anointed disciple and the subject of a solid, sporadically transfixing mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim, is rushing through the same direction to a different conclusion. Arbus was interested in revelation. The wear indicates that there are more masks behind each mask – that even confession is an act.
Wear masks is so cleverly complicated that it’s almost as if she’s organized her entire career around that great title. Unlike Arbus, she is less interested in observing others than in having them observe her. She is her own main obsession, and the question she cries in the existential darkness – “Who am I really?” – is one she tackles with the help of an army of collaborators. As both photographer and subject, she slips from costume to costume, from imitation to imitation, until the wearing and taking off of masks is finally worn a bit.
The show ends where it should start, with a 2018 project called “Wearing, Gillian” outlining the terms of her career. She worked with advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy and produced a five-minute video about herself. Or maybe it’s about someone pretending to be her.
“Turner award-winning artist Gillian Wearing is selecting acting actors to play her in a short film,” read the online ad she posted. “Male and female talent, 22 and older, are wanted to play Wearing, although the actor does not have to look alike.” The result is a mesmerizing and disturbing whirlwind, in which the faces of more than a dozen non-identicals digitally recombine with the artist’s face to form a conglomerate personality. The only constant is a hairstyle.
This chorus of avatars makes provocative statements like “I was only faithful to one partner” and “I was adopted and my parents do not know that I know.” We also do not know – whether these uncorked secrets belong to the actors or to the character they all play, and whether they are just inventions. Carrying is determined to keep the water of identity cloudy. “One of my hopes is that the artists will be able to convince me more than I can,” she said. The piece is an expansive realization of a fantasy that I suspect many people have shared: sending others into the world in our place and making them suffer to our death.
Carry also performs the reverse trick to succeed as a whole series of aliens. In the photo series “Spiritual Family” she is the star of a one-woman show with the ultimate costume box. Equipped with custom wigs, silicone prosthetics and creepy lifelike masks (courtesy of Madame Tussauds artisans), she transforms into artistic heroes: Arbus, Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol.
There is a chain of references and meta-references at work. Warhol and O’Keeffe were virtuoso in cultivating their own image, and on one occasion they teamed up in each other’s mythical tastes. Warhol photographed the semi-fossilized O’Keeffe in 1980, then screened the image on canvas. Now Wearing calls them both for her own greater glory.
Warhol was the prophet of displaced exhibitionism. Even before Arbus, he looked at the crack between persona and personality and always hoped that it would get bigger. He trained his film camera on the faces of his subjects and left it there for long periods of time, confident that they would eventually reveal it. . . something. His relentless concentration on surface did not exactly yield depth, but a feeling that we all always look at each other through a brittle screen.
Arbus was more analytical. She had a talent for sniffing out the importance of environment and stuff, and gathering detail until it illuminated her subjects’ place in the social order. Wearing pays tribute to a statue that the Public Arts Fund has temporarily erected near the entrance to Central Park, at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. A vigilant bronze Arbus hangs in the square in a leather jacket and tennis shoes, camera ready.
The Guggenheim performance sharpens the contrast between idol and idolater. Wear slips in Arbus’ face, but the effect is flat and dead. The real eyes we see under the synthetic skin reveal nothing. Curators Jennifer Blessing and Nat Trotman insist on Wearing’s deep empathy, but they try unsuccessfully to fend off a set of often-cracked charges: that she exploits, invades and manipulates. She does all three.
Wearing made a fuss in 1992 with the project “Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say”. She caught random Londoners on the street and photographed them with handwritten screams and confessions. A young businessman with a slight grin stops the square scribble: “I’m desperate.” “HELP,” signifies a bobby with a helmet. “My grip on life is pretty loose,” admits a beautiful young woman. The series is astounding, a composite portrait of a UK in crisis, broadcasting the anxiety lurking beneath polite public softness.
That success whetted her appetite for more ominous revelations, and she placed ads inviting members of the public to disguise themselves in store costumes and then spill their deepest secrets on camera. These early works were progressive, and as social media and its culture of self-disclosure took hold, she continued to produce confessional extravagances. After “Secrets and Lies” (2009) comes “Fear and Loathing” (2014), a two-screen video filmed in Los Angeles, complete with high-tech prosthetics and extensive backgrounds.
No matter whose story she tells or whose face she has, what gives Wearing’s work its energy is a core of melted narcissism. Perhaps this is why she works at her best with professional actors, who sacrifice their claims to identity and whose thoughts and behaviors she can write.
In the black-and-white video “Sacha and Mum” (1996) a mother and daughter wrestle violently; the older woman’s attacks border on abuse. Yet they comfort each other too. The two whip between love and hate to a soundtrack of muffled growls and cackles. In another gripping video, “Bully” (2010), a young man directs a re-enactment of a traumatic scene from his childhood. After seeing how it unfolds, he breaks out in a tearful rage and hurls accusations at the actors playing the victim, the torturers and bystanders who make it all happen. It is here, in this nightmare-like realm between achievement and dream, where the haze of memory yields a work of art of unbearable power, that Wearing becomes fully herself.
Until April 4, guggenheim.org