Gillian Wearing
'We need to approach life with the notion we are all mentally ill'

Conceptual artist Gillian Wearing emerged in the 1990s as part of a bold generation of artists that helped define modern British art. Since that golden era Wearing has chosen to stay out of the spotlight, rather allowing her deeply reflective work to speak for itself.

Her work challenges widely held beliefs about identity and one’s public/private persona. Her most enduring piece, titled I’m Desperate from the ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say’ series, is still frighteningly relevant even 25 years later. Wearing herself admits she did not expect to capture such “honesty and vulnerability”.
Her latest show ‘Behind The Mask, Another Mask’ features her work as well as that of Claude Cahun, an early 20th Century artist and photographer who was ahead of her time in exploring the idea of self representation, taking ‘selfies’ long before the term existed.
Wearing is shy by nature, rarely revealing herself in her work, she chooses to use other people as vessels instead. Whether that hints at a deeper conflict within herself we’ll never know, but in this rare interview she allows us a peek into her enigmatic world, one in which we never really get to know the true Gillian Wearing but maybe that’s the point.

Self Portrait of Me Now in Mask, 2011 | framed c-type print 124 x 98 x 3 cm |  © Gillian Wearing courtesy Maureen Paley, London

The current exhibition of your work at the National Portrait Gallery, alongside that of Claude Cahun, seems really poignant at a time when questions of identity are so rife in society. Do you aim to make people question their own self-image when they encounter your work?

I wouldn’t say my work is just abut the surface, as the term self-image implies. To me it is much more about the psychological dimension.  If I am wearing a mask of Robert Mapplethorpe, the last portrait he took of himself, I am thinking about death – how did he feel trying to compose this image of himself whilst knowing he had only months to live? I am trying to understand the physical and mental pain he must have been going through and also the range of thoughts he might have had, from the technical and aesthetic aspects of being photographed to the last dreams or hopes he was thinking of. He might have been imagining how the eventual photograph would have an impact on its viewers. I detach myself as much as I can in imagining being Mapplethorpe, so it’s about him even though it is physically me. I think anyone viewing the photographs will think of their own lives, whether it is the genetic elements that physically bind them to others or about the closeness to people they are interested in; what traits, thoughts have they picked up from people either close to them or that have influenced them.

You chose to feature Claude Cahun in your self portrait series as part of your ‘spiritual family’, and there are a lot of similarities that can be drawn between your work and hers despite the difference in eras. What drew you to Cahun’s work?

It is only in the last few years I got close to Claude’s work, primarily because there weren’t many books on her. Through this exhibition and working with the curator Sarah Howgate, we discovered many affinities between our works. For instance I did a self portrait of myself at 3 years old in 2004, Claude did a photograph of herself where she appeared as a young girl curled up in a cupboard asleep. It was a lovely surprise to see this image for the first time in 2015.  In 2012 I did a self portrait of myself as Cahun based on one of her emblematic images where she is dressed as a strong man but has a feminine face with painted on bow lips. I love that disparity in the image and when I decided to recreate it I replaced the weights she held with a mask of my face. Without eyes, eyelashes or hair, my own face looks more gender neutral, but also the whole image plays on the layering of masks – my actual face, the mask I am wearing as Cahun and the one I am holding of my face that appears as if I have peeled that off to wear Cahun’s face.

‘I think anyone viewing the photographs will think of their own lives.’ – Gillian Wearing

Me As Mapplethorpe, 2009 | framed bromide print | 159 x 131 cm | © Gillian Wearing courtesy Maureen Paley, London
Me as Arbus, 2008 | framed bromide print | 156 x 133 x 3.2 cm | © Gillian Wearing courtesy Maureen Paley, London
Me as Warhol in Drag with Scar, 2010 | framed bromide print | 156 x 133 x 3.2 cm | © Gillian Wearing courtesy Maureen Paley, London

The ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Wallpaper’, featuring different images of an older version of yourself, is so intriguing. Is there a particular persona that you felt to be your true self or are these all aspects of your personality?

The images were mainly altered by forensic and age progression artists so some of them feel very alien to me. But that is what also interests me, how others perceive me. We think of old age as something with very little change occurring, but I wanted to tackle that as an idea of future, the way you would look at a young person and think that’s the future. Why can’t we think of old age in the same way? Some people find it very hard looking at this topic. If I relate to one image I would say it is the one in the frame with the t-shirt saying ‘rock n roll till I die’, I look much cooler there at 70 than I do now so when I grow up that’s how I hope to look.

Would you call life theatre in a way?

We are all performers, we perform ideas of ourselves in our heads, project our future selves. We re-enact moments from our lives in our memories, have different ways of interacting between those we know and those we don’t. Every inch of us is a performer. Theatre is edited life, but we edit ourselves in our own lives so we make more sense of it to ourselves.

Your work deals with people’s darkest desires and wishes – an existential anxiety if you will. When you represent yourself in art it’s generally through other people, whereas when you use other people as the subject they are revealing things about themselves, sometimes deeply painful memories and thoughts. Is there ever a motivation to open up and show the real Gillian Wearing in your art?

One of the reasons I originally chose people to wear masks in my early confession work, is this idea of giving people the opportunity to be free of being identified. I grew up in a family where you weren’t allowed to tell anyone about your life. Although I do, I feel a great responsibility that some people don’t want their faces and stories to be associated. I wouldn’t put myself in a work confessing as it is too self conscious. It’s also not what I am interested in.  Around a dinner table I am the least anecdotal of people, and prefer listening; it’s my trait, my vocation and what I love. In terms of a real Gillian Wearing, I am a myriad array of personas, like everyone else.

Do you think your exploration of humans is, in a sense, a process of exploring yourself? Is self-enquiry something you would promote as healthy?

It’s not just self-enquiry, learning about other people gives you a better understanding of different perspectives; you might not agree with everyone but you can begin to learn how their backgrounds have shaped their thoughts. One of the luckiest things about my work is that I have met people from backgrounds that I would never have had access too if it wasn’t for my work. I create a structure, an idea and it gives me the doorway to many different worlds.

‘We are all performers, we perform ideas of ourselves in our heads, project our future selves.’ – Gillian Wearing

Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say | I’M DESPERATE, 1992 – 3 | c-type print mounted on aluminium | 44.5 x 29.7 cm | © Gillian Wearing Courtesy Maureen Paley London

Working with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, are there any universal truisms you have found?

I am not really looking for universal truisms. If I ever have an preconception of someone, based on my knowledge of other people, it disappears when you meet them.

Having observed so many different types of people throughout your career, what would you say are some of the current trends or idiosyncrasies in human behaviour that you find troubling?

I imagine you’re referring to what’s happening in terms of the right-wing politics in the US and here. I feel it is like a form of suggestion – hypnosis. If you make people believe that you are talking for them, and then encourage extreme right wing beliefs and thoughts, yes it is extremely troubling and leads to behaviour and rhetoric that wouldn’t be acceptable even a year ago. It’s like the Stanford experiment, where people were given roles as either guards or prisoners and behaved against the morals and ethics they had outside that fake role they were given.

I’ve heard you comment on British culture and how traditionally we are a culture that keeps things to ourselves rather than sharing our inner thoughts. Do you think that is still true and there is still a disconnect between the public/private persona, or has the digital age and social media permanently changed our culture?

There should be a word that expresses the universal culture of social media, which does shape those that use it. British culture has changed because of this and reality TV. What I discovered from doing the signs back in the early 90s though was how willing people were to be open. But that has grown exponentially, particularly as it is normal now to show your personal images online and share them with strangers, giving people glimpses into your life.

Your iconic “I’m Desperate” image from the Signs that say what you want them to say, and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say is still incredibly impactful, even today. Does this series have something to say on the very fractured socio-political communities we are experiencing today?

I’m Desperate is a defining image, I know I am biased. But it came at a time that we didn’t expect someone to be so brutally honest/vulnerable and yet look so in control. It is always going to work as an image, and the beauty of it is that it can speak of different politics over the years. In the 90s it was associated with the recession and now it could be the sense of many people feeling disempowered. That is what a good artwork should do; be open to many interpretations, and therefore it is much more universal. I hate to use this word but it is an ‘iconic’ photograph.

Self Portrait of Me Now in Mask, 2011 | framed c-type print | 124 x 98 x 3 cm | © Gillian Wearing courtesy Maureen Paley, London
Self Portrait at 17 Years Old, 2003 | framed c-type print | 115.5 x 92 cm | © Gillian Wearing courtesy Maureen Paley, London

I love the incredibly authentic review you gave of Antichrist, you said “I sometimes wonder if Von Trier’s films have led to his nervous breakdown – the fact that he allows himself time and time again to go to the very dark side of human emotions to try to show us the tormented mind, and in this case getting the actors to enact his own demons.” You’ve also said “We all have a certain madness about us”. Do you think mental health has a difficult relationship with art and its perception with the public?

That film really got me. I was very lucky to see it at the premiere in Cannes with Von Trier sitting a couple of rows away.  I was asked to write something about it for the Guardian and I was so pleased because I had a raw visceral feel for the film, I felt this transference from him to his characters. In terms of mental health, we need to approach life with the notion we are all mentally ill and it is how we adapt and function with that. For artists it is perfect because you can channel those feelings into your art. But art can also be the worst place, because you need to be comfortable with yourself for many hours of the day, creating your own structures and ideas.

Some people are really creative but they can’t ruminate with themselves, so it gets too dark with them and they are better in many respects being in a different environment with someone else creating the structure.  When I was at Goldsmiths there was 3 suicides, and in the intervening years I know of several more, some brilliant people who couldn’t handle things.  There are certain artists in history who are the torch bearers for the tortured souls of art like Vincent Van Gogh or Edvard Munch. I think people are drawn more to their work because of their biographies; people relate because they will have brushes with their own mental health. We have over 2000 thoughts per hour from our conscious mind and many many more from our unconscious mind, so we are always in conflict and therefore our state of mind is always vulnerable.

Feature image taken by Mike Massaro
Gillian Wearing is represented by Maureen Paley, London Tanya Bonakdar, New York and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Her photographs of the Twins made me realise the subtle duality that photographs can unveil and that you have to really look to find it. I don’t mean duality because the image is of twins, but the fact one twin looks extroverted and the other introverted just by the slight changes in the expression in their eyes. It’s almost imperceptible if you were to concentrate on the whole, this image that looks as if it is about sameness but it isn’t.

My husband. Break Down 2001, where he destroyed all his belongings, made me realise you can rejoice in destruction on rare exceptional occasions like in this work.

The long takes, the improvisations, these aesthetics seeped into early reality TV like ‘An American Family’ that then shaped documentaries.