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Review of "Behind the mask, Another mask"

“Under this mask, another mask. 

I will never be finished removing all these faces.”

. Claude Cahun

Cahun and Wearing by Gillian Wearing, 2017.
(Image from ArtJobs.Com)
“Behind the mask, Another mask”, curated by Gillian Wearing for the National Portrait Gallery, Wearing places her work alongside Cahun’s in a comparative (or parasitic - depending on your perspective) manner. The first image you’re faced with is a large print of a well known self portrait of Claude Cahun- only there’s something “off” about it. The eyes seem too bagged, too sunken, and the quality of the image disconcertingly digital- and then you notice the mask in her hand. Isn’t that Gillian Wearing’s face? That’s when the discomfort sets in.

. Comparison:

Me as Cahun holding a mask of my face, by Gillian Wearing,  2012.
(Image from the National Portrait Gallery)
I Am In Training Don’t Kiss Me by Claude Cahun.
(Image from the Guardian)

Gillian Wearing has created a body of work in which she appropriates people’s identities, subsequently replacing their spirits by the insertion of her eyes, peering out from other people’s faces. There’s a theme of “The Talented Mr.Ripley” to her work, with her eyes gazing out of the iconographic cadavers of those who came before her and those who she knows best (for example various incarnations of herself and of her family). She’s based her career off of the literal interpretation of her last name, she’s “Wearing” other people’s identities and thoughts.

Me As Mapplethorpe, 2009. (Image from the Guardian)
The most questionable piece of hers was her self portrait “Me As Mapplethorpe, 2009". The plaque beside the image read (paraphrased), “In this image, I really wanted to channel Robert Mapplethorpe’s fear as he was dying of aids”. Wearing wore Mapplethorpe’s fear of death in the face of a aids as though it were an instagram filter, lacking any empathy or respect for his personal or spiritual experience. This gesture of spirit impersonation and spiritual reproducibility has very sinister undertones, by reducing the complexity of people down to mere costumes and spectral images.
Robert Mapplethorpe championed photography as a visceral and authentic way of concretising and shaping his world and his vision- and to have his spirit “worn” in such a way is disturbing.

Wearing uses the aesthetics of narcissism as her medium, and a featured collection of work in the exhibition, “My Polaroid Years, 1988-2005”, appears like a prophetic forecast of how social media encourages it’s users to curate “profiles” of themselves. The day by day archiving of our spiritual and lived experiences into 2D self portraits has become a daily routine, and as an emerging generation we take pleasure in the reduction of ourselves into these hollow pictures of how we want to be seen by others. By disassociating ourselves (through constantly documenting our lives through images), we alienate the connection we have to time passing and our relationships to others through our narcissistic projections, and Gillian Wearing is the one of the great perpetrators of this trend. (Bar, maybe, the Comtesse de Castiglione’s impressive collection of selfies circa 1800s).

Pictured: Gillian taking Kate Middleton on a tour around her exhibition.
(Picture from Vogue)
Gillian Wearing represents the trope of the “Corporate Cannibal” (a term coined by Grace Jones), turning people’s skins into outfits, and displaying the final images as art to be bought by the upper classes. In my research on the dissociating of ourselves from communities and time through the lens of our cameras, I came across an article discussing a term coined by a Native Amazonian tribe, the Karamakate. For me, the term “Chullachaqui” describes Gillian Wearing’s portraits and subsequently describes the intention of what she’s expressing through her images.

Nilbio Torres in Embrace of the Serpent, 2015.
(Photo by Andrés Córdoba / Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)
“One concept the film explores is the legend of the “Chullachaqui” or “Chullachaki,” a mythological figure that looks like a copy of a human being and waits in the jungle with the intent to deceive. When young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) sees a picture of himself, shot by ailing German ethnologist Theo (Jan Bijvoet), he believes that his photographic image is his Chullachaqui. When Theo looks at him in confusion, Karamakate explains that everyone has a Chullachaqui, which looks exactly like the person but is empty and hollow, a copy that drifts like a ghost.”

With her portraits, Wearing channels the end-phase colonialist attitude of appropriating, stealing and suppressing other people’s experiences, but instead of culturally appropriating from specific nationalities, she appropriates the spirits of western cultural figures, along with her own relatives. Whether she has the critical intention to criticise this colonial impulse through her portraits, or whether she sincerely embodies it, I can’t discern. In my personal opinion she should push this further and make her criticism evident in the work. The murkiness in her intentions behind these works, for me, is the most disturbing aspect of them.

Antonio Bolívar Salvador in Embrace of the Serpent, 2015,
( Photo by Andres Barrientos / Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

There is a further passage from the article above that puts words to what I think our colonialist (white) culture has been developed from: “When the second explorer, Evan (Brionne Davis), arrives in 1940, the older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar Salvador) now believes that he has lost his true self and become his Chullachaqui. Unable to remember many of his tribe's basic rituals, the shaman feels like a shell of his former self, lacking the important knowledge, dreams and connection to nature that once animated him. He notes that the rocks, mountains and nature used to speak to him, but he has lost this hearing. “The line is broken,” he says. “The memories are gone. Rocks, trees, animals, they all went silent."

I feel that through our use of analogue and subsequent digital technologies, we have removed ourselves from the connections to one another that make us human. We’ve identified with the machine and the surface, we’ve idolized the sleek and consumerist selfie presentations of ourselves, and we’re addicted to it because we feel we can have control over the unpredictability of our lives. At the root of Wearing’s work is an impulse of narcissism. A belief that she is everyone and everyone is her.

Claude Cahun, Self portrait (in cupboard), c. 1932
(Image from Another Mag)

Self-portrait (with Nazi badge between teeth), 1945.
(Image from the Gaurdian)
Inversely to Wearing’s hellish-hall-of-mirrors work, Claude Cahun made the focus and content of her work inextricable from her spirit. Cahun never appears to lose her sense of self despite the alchemical transformations of her identity within her self portraits. She swung like a pendulum between genders, presenting multiple and surreal incarnations of herself, while always staying authentic. The power of Cahun’s work is that she frees the spirit from the limitations of the surface. Through her surrealist work she defies categorization.
I find the comparison of the two artists to be a huge reach. To compare Wearing, who creates portraits that violate people’s right to their own identities, to Cahun, who liberates the self from continuity and turns herself into a surrealist dream, is a huge gesture of narcissism from Wearing. Not to mention that Cahun survived the second world war while being a lesbian and a jew, continuously making her life’s body of work from an authentic perspective, unlike Wearing’s very privileged experience of profiting from the YBA movement in 1990s Britain. Another comparison was between Cahun's piece, Self-portrait (on sea wall), 1949, and Wearing's performance, Dancing in Peckham, 1994, and curatorially the show appears to compare Cahun's celebration of the Nazi defeat upon a german fortification in her own garden to Wearing's uncomfortable performance piece in a mall.. Authenticity where?

Claude Cahun, Self-portrait, 1928.
(Image from the Paris Review)
Cahun was an explorer of feminist ideas before feminism became a cohesive movement, using photography to deconstruct archetypes of gender and self presentation. She remains a fundamental member of Surrealist movement, and her images retain their modernity (more so than some of Wearing’s work does).

I will give Wearing credit for creating work that’s so disturbing. The degree to which she embodies disembodiment within her images is haunting to the point of spiritual discomfort. She forces herself into the bodies of history and collapses those histories into her narcissism.

“Rock ’n’ Roll 70 (wallpaper)” (2015) by Gillian Wearing.
(Image from 1843 Magazine)


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