“Happy families are all alike”, claimed Tolstoy, while “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same could be said of individuals. Happiness, a sense of well being, involves a feeling of rightness with the world, of belonging in one’s own skin, while unhappiness and dysfunction have their own infinite variety. The mind’s response to emotional pain is ever inventive. Self-destruction is a creative business. In many cases it turns out to be a life’s work, as those who give their true confessions to the artist Gillian Wearing attest.
In his book I’m Ok, You’re Ok (1969), Eric Berne’s post-Freudian model of transactional analysis, the relationships between internal adult, parent and child are explored so that the maladaptations embedded in old childhood scripts can be confronted in order for an individual to become free of inappropriate emotions that are not a true reflection of the here-and-now. Because people decide their stories and their destinies, attitudes, it is argued, can be changed. That is the ideal anyway. Yet for many of those who chose to answer a small ad placed in Time Out in 1994, which read: ‘Confess all on video. Don’t worry, you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian’, they may have felt that they had little choice when it came to addictive, sad or compulsive behaviour.
It was this act that set in motion the artist Gillian Wearing’s work with strangers. Whilst she explores cultural notions of production versus the finished work such technical niceties are much less interesting than the stories that her sitters have to tell and the apparent compulsion that they have to share their pain, on record, with whoever happens to be listening. Wearing first began to use masks, along with joke shop wigs and false beards, in this 1994 video in which variously disguised figures speak straight into the camera. Confess All on Video… consists of ten voices edited into a continuous 30 minute piece. There is an array of confessions from the admission of a first visit to a brothel to an incredibly sad narrative from a nervous man disguised as George Bush who tells of an incestuous relationship with his siblings that has quite literally ruined his life. Protected by their anonymity and free of any judgmental response the participants are remarkably candid. This seems to connect back to the use of masks in ancient Greek drama. The mask, then, was a significant element in the worship of Dionysus and is known to have been used since the time of Aeschyluss by members of the chorus, who were there to help the audience know what a character was thinking. Illustrations from 5th century display helmet-like masks, covering the entire face and head of the actors, with holes for the eyes and a small aperture for the mouth, as well as an integrated wig. It is interesting to note that these ancient paintings never show actual masks on the actors in performance; they are mostly shown being handled by the actors before or after a performance, emphasising the liminal space between the audience and the stage, between myth and reality. The mask melted into the face allowing the actor to vanish into a role. Research suggests that the mask served as a resonator for the head, thus enhancing vocal acoustics and altering its quality leading to an increased energy and presence that allowed for the more complete metamorphosis of the actor into his character. Many of these aspects remain true in Gillian Wearing’s work.
The use of the video camera and the mask, which confers anonymity, occurs again in two later works, Trauma (2000) in which the participant wears a mask that reflects the age at which they suffered their pertinent trauma. Often too small for the adult wearer’s face the smooth mask barely covers a grey beard or wrinkled neck, poignantly reminding us that both child and adult are the same person. In Secret and Lies (2009) the Alan Bennett style ‘talking heads’ appear in inside a specially made video screening box that evokes images both the confessional and the police cell.
It is an early video work from 1995, Homage to the woman with the bandaged face who I saw yesterday down the Walworth Road that provides evidence for Wearing’s early fascination with masks. After videoing a woman with a bandaged face she saw in the Walworth Road, Wearing decided to bandage her own face and go out into the street to record the reactions of those passing by with the aid of a hidden video camera. In so doing she set about subverting the relationship between the observer and the observed. The following year she made 10-16, which remains one of her most affecting projects. Here she recorded children between the ages of 10 and 16 talking about their lives, their fears and dreams. These voices were then lip-cinched on video by adults so that they appear to be talking with children’s voices. The effect is disturbing, affecting and often very sad, reminding us, yet again, that trauma and dysfunction in childhood remain evident within the adult personality.
The adaptation of different personae in order to explore aspects of the self is familiar device from the work of artists such as Claude Cahun and Cindy Sherman. In her series Album (2003-6) Wearing takes on and inhabits the members of her family, including her parents and brother. In this apparently conventional set of family portraits she explores not only aspects of herself but also the dynamic social roles within the family group.
I will admit to a certain coolness on my part towards Wearing’s Turner prize entry, Sixty Minute Silence, 1996, where actors were dressed as police and to her 1994 Dancing in Peckham, which seemed both self-conscious and contrived. But Wearing has matured as an artist and this exhibition at the Whitechapel charts her progress from the clever one liner to a body of work that explores the way in which we construct social roles and images of ourselves. Self-Portrait of Me Now in a Mask (2011) is her most recent self-portrait of herself wearing a mask of her own face. In it she poses questions about the multi personae that go to make up any one individual personality. For we all wear masks and construct versions of the self to fit different circumstances. Behind one mask there is often another. Wearing questions the assumption that there is such a thing as an ‘essential essence’. Hers is a landscape of shifting mirrors and partial truths.
Gillian Wearing at Whitechapel Gallery, London from 28 March to 17 June 2012
Kunst Sammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf from 8 September 2012 to 6 January 2013
Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich from 1 March to 9 June 2013