Behind the mask: Gillian Wearing RA

Published 15 October 2014

Shortlisted for a major European art award, the Royal Academician tells us about her recent work on show in The Hague.

  • Royal Academician Gillian Wearing looks coquettishly out at the viewer through her newest photograph Me as an Artist in 1984, composed this year. She has entered this work, along with four other pieces, to the Vincent Award, an international art prize of 50,000 Euros awarded biennially to a mid-career artist.

    A stellar cast of art critics, curators and museum directors chose the five nominees, whose work is currently on show at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. As you might expect, there’s healthy competition from the other four internationally-renowned artists: Pierre Huyghe (representing France) has entered a highly-produced, surreal and dark video work, Manfred Pernice (Germany) a stylish architectural installation, from Willem de Rooij (Netherlands) an involving sound work and Anri Sala (Albania/France) has made an politically themed film using the theme of The Clash’s ‘Should I stay or should I go’.

  • Gillian Wearing RA, Me as an Artist in 1984

    Gillian Wearing RA, Me as an Artist in 1984, 2014.

    C-type print. Collectie G + W, The Netherlands, Courtesy the artist and Maureen Paley, London.

  • Wearing is representing the UK. She often explores notions of identity through the veil of a mask, and Me as an Artist in 1984 is no exception. She peers through a hand-crafted mask of herself as a 21-year-old, created from studying an old photograph. She explains that “the title of the work is a bit tongue-in-cheek, because in 1984 I hadn’t even thought about becoming an artist. I was into Salvador Dali at the time.”

    Is it strange to wear a mask of yourself 30 years younger?

    “There’s a lot of nostalgia involved because I can remember the story behind the photograph. So I know exactly how I was living at the time, that we didn’t have any chairs so I was sitting on drawers in that photo. It was a very cold, damp and gloomy flat with lots of snails’ trails.”

    Although famously shy, Wearing doesn’t seem shy of a challenge. Another work on show is Me as Arbus (2008) where she poses as the photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971): “There are very few photos of Diane Arbus so I just had to look at as many as I could to create that mask. The most important thing is the profile, because that’s how we get an idea of what someone looks like. There’s no depth looking at a face straight-on, and every camera lens slightly distorts it.”

  • Gillian Wearing RA, Me As Mapplethorpe

    Gillian Wearing RA, Me As Mapplethorpe, 2009.

    (based upon the Robert Mapplethorpe work: Self Portrait, 1988. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation).

    Framed bromide print. © the artist, courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

  • Arbus was difficult to recreate because of the lack of material, but physically, Wearing explains, “the most difficult suits are the male ones because they’re so painful. A man’s body is generally bigger in muscle mass than a woman’s so those suits are likely to dig in to my body a lot. All the suits I wear are made from silicone, but I quite often have to shallow-breathe through my nose because there’s no mouth opening. I had a lump on my shoulders for a month after wearing a suit of my brother, because it pushed my flesh into all the wrong directions.” Presumably Wearing went throughout a similar process to create the image of Robert Mapplethorpe on show for the Vincent Award.

    There are also two non-photographic works on display at the Gemeentemuseum; one is her film Bully (2010) where a man reenacts a situation in which he has been bullied – Wearing gives him the opportunity to direct the scenario in real time.

  • Still of: 'BULLY', 2010,  Kleurenvideo voor projectie met geluid | Colour video for projection with sound, Duur | Duration 7 minutes 55 seconds, Courtesy the artist and Maureen Paley, London

    Still of: 'BULLY', 2010, Kleurenvideo voor projectie met geluid | Colour video for projection with sound, Duur | Duration 7 minutes 55 seconds, Courtesy the artist and Maureen Paley, London

  • Whether Wearing delves into her own identity or other people’s, her artistic stamp is clear. She demonstrates a profound psychological involvement with her subjects, but whimsy is also intrinsic to her work, so it’s apt too that she has made a playful cast of her own hand with “nails varnished in Mondrian colours” especially for the Vincent Award.

    The Vincent Award exhibition is at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, The Netherlands until 1 February 2015. The winner is announced on 21 November 2014. Gillian Wearing has a solo show of new work (including a film) at Maureen Paley, London, until 16 November 2014. Pierre Huyghe shows at Hauser & Wirth Savile Row until 1 November 2014.

    Eleanor Mills is Assistant Editor of RA Magazine