On 9 March, the National Portrait Gallery opened Behind the Mask, Another Mask – a large exhibition of Gillian Wearing’s work in relation to the practice of French surrealist artist Claude Cahun. Wearing is an established British conceptual artist who came to fame during the prominence of the YBA’s. Her films and photographs explore the nuances and complexities of the private and the public, anonymity and identity. Cahun’s work – one of the few known female Surrealists – remained virtually unknown until the 1980s. Her extraordinary photographic practice played with the ambiguity of identity and gender. Akin to Wearing, the use of self-portraiture and performance was imbued with methods of masquerade and role-play.
Hi Gillian, I wanted to open by speaking about your exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, which places your work in dialogue with Claude Cahun’s. In Me as Cahun Holding a Mask of My Face (2012) you reconstruct Cahun’s 1927 I am in training don’t kiss me. I wonder if you could speak about your personal and artistic relationship towards Cahun’s work? What drew you to restage I am in training don’t kiss me, specifically?
It was that Cahun plays with the dual identity of male and female in this image - the feminine painted face, with bow lips and hearts on the cheeks, along with the heavyweight attire and weights. Although I took out the weights and replaced it with a mask of my own face, which without my hair, eyes and eyelashes looks quite male. By creating a dialogue with Cahun, an individual who lived and worked in the early twentieth century, there is a strong sense of paying homage to an artist who was perhaps not appreciated in their lifetime. Cahun also worked in a very different era, when homosexuality, transgender politics, etc were forbidden. In terms of her photography it wasn’t available to be seen. She only exhibited one work, the rest were found in boxes after Marcel Moore (her partners) death. She was working in a time that was very avant-garde but also very male dominated. Her views of gender neutrality were way ahead of her time and were for decades after she died.
You mention using a mask of your own face. I’m interested in your use of masks and it’s relationship to the masquerade – masquerade and the notion of performance signifies issues of gender, sexuality and role-play. Could you talk about the physical process of making these masks, and more widely about their symbolism and significance?
All of the masks in this series are sculpted and are created to fit my face. So there is the likeness of the person fitting on the form of my face. It is quite an exacting exercise that takes several months to complete. After the sculpting there is the casting of the sculpt into silicone, and then eyebrows are inserted, and sometimes a hairline as well as a wig is created. It is a complete transformation when I wear them. They are so realistic, it was important that I feel immersed in that person physically. We are limited to how we are perceived by others and ourselves. An actual mask takes you far away from that. It also allows another level of performativity, we are all actors but our day-to-day performances tend to be routine and near enough an unconscious script. When I wear a mask I break that limitation of myself momentarily. When I view the work (weeks, months and years later) in a gallery setting I am already removed from it and maybe slightly in awe as it feels bigger than me.
I am always bemused when people complain about positive prejudice when not realising that they might have a biased prejudice based on their own experience that prevents a more equal viewpoint
Masks can also be used as a means of disguise, or to conceal and protect identities – which is something you have also explored.
Yes, starting with my confessions series in 1994, I wanted people to be able to confess without having their identities revealed. It was only when filming that I soon realised that it gave them confidence too, some people became very attracted to their masks and some wanted to take them home. To me there was a transference of their story to the mask. One person who had murdered a stranger in their youth was unable to talk about their fears with anyone they knew. They were on a licence for life and if they even spoke about to a psychiatrist about it, they could end up back in jail. Being able to talk and wear a mask gave them a respite.
You use also masks in the ‘Family Portrait’ series, where you appear in the guise of members of your family. The relationship between the family album and photography is grounded in feminist artistic theory. I wondered about your relationship with the trajectory of feminist art, particularly thinking about an institution such as the National Portrait Gallery, in which the history of gender politics is quite overt – filled with portraits of male prestige and women appearing through the lens of the male gaze.
Historically, women were always on the walls in museums, but as the Guerrila Girls pointed out, that was as nudes painted by men. There is definitely a correction that is going on, it has been slow but it is changing. In the 1990s when I started to exhibit, I thought my generation had many more opportunities to the previous generation. It felt equal, but in retrospect when you looked at group shows and solo shows it still was a male bias. That can’t be attributed to lack of women but more to do with an in built cultural prejudice. I am always bemused when people complain about positive prejudice when not realising that they might have a biased prejudice based on their own experience that prevents a more equal viewpoint.
Along with representing others, you appear in your own work in various forms, for example at both 17 and 70 years old. Could you talk about working with your own image, perhaps the most significant example of this is the ‘Polaroids’ series, which you undertook from 1988-2005.
When I was 17 my physical identity was everything, I was a Punk and then a New Romantic. My friends and I took images of ourselves as if we were posing for a magazine and part of a new group being launched. It was a teenage daydream. It was only when I went to art school that I shifted my emphasis to art and not thinking about clothes and appearance. I happily hung out in paint-saturated dungarees, looking like a real mess. I then began using myself as a kind of study, from drawing to painting myself. The Polaroids are a mix between those photos I took as a teenager and a kind of art series - though I didn’t think of it like that at the time. A lot of those images have a self-consciousness about them but they were not intended for any audience than myself, I was having an inner dialogue with them. Trying to see detect the changes in my face as I aged how I actually looked beyond the mirror.
Much of your work has been read as anticipating the proliferation of selfhood on social media. Have your thoughts on portraiture and self-portraiture changed in the age of the ‘selfie’?
I didn’t expect photographs I took of myself in the 1980s to look like images taken now in the digital age. When I first noticed that people were using phones to take self-portraits on websites like MySpace in the mid 2000s it was in a similar way to myself thirty years ago. This need to author your identity seems innate if there are the tools there to enable it. Coupled together with a trend like a meme that spreads and normalises the activity. Part of our experience of life now is to look at ourselves, over and over again. Recording and living are part of the same thing.
Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask is on view at the National Portrait Gallery in London from March 14 until May 29