The different projections vary from stylish, youngish 70-year-olds to weary-eyed, dishevelled women, and others that are desperately attempting to claw back the years. In one image, a relaxed Wearing is wearing a cheery yellow jumper, her arm around her partner, artist Michael Landy. In another, she resembles a harried professor. “There’s one with facial reconstruction, as if I’d had plastic surgery, and other ones where I’ve almost abandoned life”, she says. “Personality wise, you wouldn’t necessarily connect them all together”, she continues. “Some feel quite alien – could I possibly be like this person they had imagined?”
The wallpaper project is loosely reminiscent of Cindy Sherman’s self-transformative series on well-heeled, mature women ageing. The key difference is that Sherman fiction-alised a cast of characters, whereas Wearing has explored the various possibilities that could exist in her own future life. What motivates her is contemplating how an individual ages, along with their changes in appearance, lifestyle, and clothing. “I’ve always been interested in programmes like Seven Up! [the British documentary series that traced children growing up, in seven-year intervals – the participants now being in their 60s]”, she says, citing American photographer Nicholas Nixon’s four-decade-long study of the Brown sisters as a source of inspiration.
“Claude was a political artist and archivist and her photographs are incredibly playful, with a real sense of experimentation”, enthuses Wearing. “Her archive is held by this small Jersey Heritage trust and museum, and we were very lucky to obtain her unique images – they’re so delicate that they had to be flown over with somebody sitting on an aeroplane with them.” At Cahun’s gravesite, Howgate, guided by Wearing, photographed her adopting 30 different poses, including one where she covers her face with her long, straight, black hair, and cups her hands over it – a re-enactment of a self-portrait with a masked face that Cahun made in 1947.
Does Wearing see a social endeavour in her work? “When people create family albums, they’re creating an anthropological document of their lives, historicising themselves”, she replies. “I’m going back and editing my version in a way that makes it much more complex and multi-layered.” She also has staged portraits of herself impersonating other artists, such as Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, Diane Arbus, Weegee, and August Sander. “When you look at them, they look quite convincing, like a snapshot, but I spend about eight hours photographing, getting a sense of what’s going to work”, she informs.
An aspect of Wearing’s oeuvre seems underpinned by an obsessive, scrutinising degree of vanity. Covering one wall are the Polaroids she took of herself from 1988 to 2004, beginning with the striking poses of her as a teenager with her friends. Elsewhere, there’s a masked portrait of her reinterpreting a photograph taken in 1984 when she was working as a production assistant/secretary by day and making clay figures and masks in her free time, prior to studying at Chelsea College of Art and Goldsmiths. The wheels of her career were not yet in motion but her younger self was dreaming of becoming an artist.
Further along is the long-legged, model-like picture, Me as my ideal self (2012), the body digitally elongated thanks to Photoshop. “It’s a direct reference to that sense of trying to find your own identity through perfection, which isn’t obtainable, and the way people are [manipulating] their own visuals today”, says Wearing, adding, “When you’re younger, you don’t have an identity through work or relationships, so your physical identity is very important.” Meanwhile, the hazy apparition of her clouded in blue smoke in the enigmatic Me as a ghost (2015) refers to her background. “The smoke idea came from the way Birmingham [Wearing’s birthplace] is one of the world’s first industrial cities, and I’m wearing a T-shirt saying Heavy Metal because this is where heavy metal groups came from.”
Collaboration seeps into Wearing’s work in My exquisite corpse (2016), which fuses a head from her friend Gary Hume with Michael Landy’s torso and Wearing’s legs. It is a nod to Cahun’s Surrealist period and her collaboration with Marcel Moore. Significantly, Wearing’s interest in family and identity extends to public sculpture. She’s working on her third bronze family sculpture commission, this time for Copenhagen, having been contacted by Jacob Fabricius, artistic director at Kunsthal Aarhus and the project’s curator. A three-part TV programme about the nation-wide campaign to select a particular family in response to the question: “What does a real Danish family look like in 2016?” is due to be aired later this year. The Danish Broadcasting Corporation toured the nation, meeting 500 families. “The choice of families is narrowed down to about 20, who tell you things about their lives, occupations, and relationships”, Wearing explains. Although the site for the sculpture has not been disclosed, an exhibition documenting the process, supplemented by other works by Wearing, is planned for the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK) in Copenhagen this autumn. The sculpture is due to be installed the day of the opening.
The commission for A Real Danish Family follows similar statues in Trento, Italy, and in Birmingham. For the latter, Wearing approached Ikon Gallery with her idea of making a family-themed public sculpture. Local residents were invited to send in nominations representing how the 21st-century family might be symbolised in the city. The winners of the project were two sisters, Emma and Roma Jones, and their young sons, Kyan and Shaye. The life-sized bronze statue of the sisters, one of which is heavily pregnant, with their sons standing between them, all holding hands, positioned in front of the Birmingham Library, was unveiled in 2014.
Indeed, Wearing also works on documentaries, including videos of masked individuals confessing their tales of childhood abuse, family violence, sexual fantasies, and lies in response to adverts. The last such project was Fear and Loathing in Los Angeles in 2014, the same year she filmed people in the West Midlands talking about what their biggest regret would be if they passed away. Looking ahead, has she thought about working on augmented reality? “I went to [British artist] Jonathan Yeo’s studio and put on a virtual headset – they’re pretty uncomfortable, but I’d really like to try something out”, she replies. Certainly, Wearing has more than a decade left before she can fill the third space in Rock ‘n’ Roll 70, and as much ardour for art as ever. “Artists don’t retire, and can do some of their best work in their 80s and 90s”, she asserts. “In terms of being an artist, age is a very positive thing.”
Gillian Wearing & Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 29 May 2017
Gillian Wearing – Family Stories is at the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK) in Copenhagen, 12 October 2017 – 7 January 2018