Profoundly empathetic and psychologically intense, Gillian Wearing’s photographs, videos, sculptures, and paintings probe the tensions between self and society in an increasingly media-saturated world. Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks is the first retrospective of Wearing’s work in North America. Featuring more than 100 pieces, the exhibition traces the artist’s development from her earliest Polaroids to her latest self-portraits, all of which explore the performative nature of identity.
Wearing’s work often involves her asking a diverse group of volunteers to represent their authentic selves, a process that highlights distinctions between public and private identities, and spontaneous versus rehearsed behaviour. For her landmark piece Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992–93), Wearing photographed strangers holding placards with messages they wrote themselves. In so doing, she changed the terms of documentary street photography and performance art by giving voice to the subjects of her art. Wearing also repeatedly turns the camera on herself to examine how one’s sense of self is established within familial, social, and historical contexts, especially in the aftermath of traumatic experience. Throughout her works, masks serve as both literal props and metaphors for the performances each of us stage every day as individuals and as citizens.
For her landmark piece Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992–93), Wearing photographed strangers holding placards with messages they wrote themselves. In so doing, she changed the terms of documentary street photography and performance art by giving voice to the subjects of her images. This series established Wearing’s long-standing practice of engaging the public through classified ads, casting calls, or direct solicitation on the street in order to create platforms where people’s often very personal stories could be shared with a wider audience.
Wearing has also repeatedly turned the camera on herself to examine the ways one’s sense of self is established within familial, social, and historical contexts, especially in the aftermath of traumatic experience. Through her extensive interrogation of the self-portrait, she has pointedly expanded on Andy Warhol’s notion that “everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” predicting the rise of selfie culture. In addition to performing versions of herself, she has engaged with images of people who are closely connected to her identity as a person and as an artist. In her photographic series Spiritual Family (2008–present), for instance, she employs silicon prosthetics, wigs, and lighting to disguise herself as pivotal figures from art history who have been foundational influences on her practice. Wearing Masks will feature the first comprehensive presentation of this series, including numerous examples that have never been shown in a museum setting.
In recent years Wearing has incorporated digital technologies into her photography and video while also extending her practice to the mediums of painting, collage, and sculpture. Wearing, Gillian (2018), a short video produced in collaboration with the global advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy, revolves around an apparently candid statement of artistic purpose, delivered by actors whose faces have been digitally morphed with Wearing’s Lockdown (2020), a series of paintings made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and My Charms (2021), a sculptural self-portrait in the form of a gigantic charm bracelet, expand on Wearing’s enduring investigation into the complex tensions between authentic self-revelation and deception. These new pieces will make their museum debut at the Guggenheim.
Installed throughout all four of the museum’s Tower galleries and including screenings of Wearing’s work in the New Media Theater,
Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks 5th November 2021 – 4 April 2022 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 1071 5th Ave New York, NY 1071 5th Ave New York, NY
Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks is organized by Jennifer Blessing, Senior Curator, Photography, and Nat Trotman, Curator, Performance and Media, with X Zhu-Nowell, Assistant Curator, and Ksenia Soboleva, Jan and Marica Vilcek Curatorial Fellow. The exhibition will also coincide with a new sculptural tribute to photographer Diane Arbus by Wearing, at Doris C. Freedman Plaza, Central Park, organized by Public Art Fund.
About the Artist
Gillian Wearing (b. 1963, Birmingham, U.K.) graduated from Goldsmiths College in 1990 and was awarded the Turner Prize in 1997. Solo exhibitions of her work have been organized by Le Consortium, Dijon, France (1996); Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva (1998); Serpentine Gallery, London (2000); Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2001); Sala de Exposiciones de la Fundación “la Caixa,” Madrid (2001); Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2002); Galleria Civica de Arte Contemporanea, Trento, Italy (2007); Whitechapel Gallery, London (2012); and IVAM, Valencia (2015); among many others. Recent exhibitions include Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun at the National Portrait Gallery, London (2017); Gillian Wearing: Family Stories at SMK, Copenhagen (2017); and Life: Gillian Wearing at the Cincinnati Art Museum (2018). In 2018 the Mayor of London commissioned Wearing to create a public monument to Dame Millicent Fawcett, the first sculpture depicting a woman and the first created by a woman in London’s Parliament Square. Wearing lives and works in London.