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>> The VANITY of Allegory
>> Interview with Nan Goldin
>> An Eye to the Self
>> Confess All: Gillian Wearing

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Confess All:
The Revealing Art of Gillian Wearing

Private feelings, secret yearnings, obsessions: the people in the videos and photographs of the British artist Gillian Wearing reveal much about themselves – and yet they remain anonymous. The Turner prizewinner frequently works with costumes and masks to unveil the hidden. Louise Gray on Wearing’s way of dealing with sex, lies, and videotapes.

Self-Portrait as my Father, Brian Wearing, 2003,
Deutsche Bank Collection
©Gillian Wearing, Courtesy Maureen Paley, London

At first, or even second, glance, there’s nothing exceptional about the man in Gillian Wearing’s portrait shot from the Deutsche Bank Collection. The photograph shows him to be still young, although of an indeterminate age; the greasy lock of hair falling across his forehead suggests that the answer lies on the more youthful side of, say, 35. We could speculate about who he might be from any clues that his clothes – a dinner jacket and bow tie – allow. Maybe as a teenager he was a follower of the kind of working-class British pop band – Spandau Ballet or perhaps the Human League – that mixed street-culture fashion with upmarket suits. Whoever he is, he doesn’t look comfortable enough in his jacket and tie to be truly elegant. He wouldn’t, in current parlance, pass.

Self-Portrait as my Mother, Jean Gregory, 2003
©Gillian Wearing, Courtesy Maureen Paley, London

The unease lying at the heart of the photograph is due to the fact that what we see is very far away from what we get. Self-Portrait as My Father, Brian Wearing (2003) is, in reality, a portrait of Gillian Wearing herself. Short-haired, square-jawed: her disguise and make-up are good. And just to show the facility with which she inhabits other peoples’ skins, here are five other photographs in the same Album series that reiterate the masquerade: Self-Portrait as My Brother, Richard Wearing; as My Sister Jane Wearing; and Uncle Bryan; as well as the picture that launched the series, Self-Portrait as My Mother, Jean Gregory.

Self Portrait at 17
©Gillian Wearing,
Courtesy Maureen Paley, London

Compare the mixture between carefully poised portraiture and the casual in these pictures with the shot of Wearing herself: as a sullen 17 year-old photographed in an automatic photo-booth. We cannot speak of any genetic similarities between the subjects as we only have Wearing’s portraits to guide us, but looking under the skin, created, incidentally, with the aid of professional make-up artists, they make up a family simply in the chain of coincidences: these are social pictures, taken for a reason. They define a group. The one that stands alone is that of Wearing herself: how better to define adolescent solipsism than by having your portrait produced by an automated machine?

Sixty Minute Silence, 1996, Video Still
©Gillian Wearing, Courtesy Maureen Paley, London

Passing, that is, the ability to appear to be the real deal, is a complex performance. At an extreme end, one thinks of the black and Puerto Rican drag queens featured in Jennie Livingston’s documentary film Paris Is Burning (1990), whose performances as women, as executives, or even as soldiers are judged in the New York ball scene on their "realness" quotient. Although Wearing’s Album photographs demonstrate a masterful approach to subterfuge, these are not portraits interested in passing, at least not in the Livingston sense. Instead, they are exercises in deception. The primary question they raise – who is it that we see? – is not just about identity, but also about social roles and networks of relationships.

If Wearing’s art disguises itself in order to reveal, then this has long been a modus operandi in her photographic and video art. The best known, perhaps, is Sixty-Minute Silence (1996), an hour-long video of 26 police officers arranged in three ranks for a formal shot. As time goes by, the uniformed ranks waver slightly. The officers glance at each other. Some stifle giggles. Minute by minute, the control the uniforms signify erodes. It is a warm film, one that individuates and humanizes a uniformed mass.

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