My daughter has lately been adopting a Northern Irish accent for large stretches of the day. The new persona isn’t quite random. She’s been watching “Derry Girls.” She also has a grandmother from near Belfast. So maybe her fake (but uncannily accurate) accent is a way of claiming a distant identity? (Teenagers: six characters in search of an identity.)
In truth, though, it doesn’t feel that way. The accent, which irritates her older brother (a definite plus), feels more like an escape from identity into the pleasures of disguise. When she adopts it, she instantly loses her 14-year-old self-consciousness and becomes ebullient, quick-witted, unbridled, hilarious. She becomes free.
We should all be so lucky. Our bifurcated vision of identity suggests that we have an inner life, mysterious but authentic, and a social persona, which tends to be performative, transactional, fake. The vision implies a whole moral order.
But as the British video artist, photographer and sculptor Gillian Wearing is keen to remind us, it’s not so simple. There can be joy, goodness and psychic health in inauthenticity — in affecting foreign accents, acting roles, donning masks, playing to the public. Likewise, what we romanticize as “inner life” can actually be a cesspit.
Wearing, 58, the subject of a major retrospective — “Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks” — at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, is interested in the entire demented dance. She has a feeling for both the pleasures and dangers of disguise, and a fascination with the roles we all play, whether we want to or not.
In 1992, for a project Wearing called “Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say,” the artist asked people on the street in South London to write what was on their mind on a sign, and then photographed them holding that sign.
Some participants responded with sunniness: “Best friends for life!” wrote one smiling couple. Others took refuge (as the English adorably do when decorum is threatened) in humor. “Am I wearing something that belongs to you?” wrote one person. “Enough said,” wrote a second. “Southwark Council hopeless,” grumbled a third.
Others offered abrupt confessions or stray thoughts: “The last holiday abroad was nice but I can’t afford it.” “I have been certified as mildly insane.” Or (from a girl with short hair): “I don’t want to look like a boy.” And then came the cries for help: “Give me a job — PLEASE.” “All I ever wanted was love.” And most notoriously (this sign held by a blond, youthful man in an impeccable suit): “I’m desperate.”
The series, which made Wearing famous, was her first effective foray into the problem of self-description. Who are we? Who do we wish to be? How can we communicate this to others? What will happen when we try?
“Signs that say …” dramatized the dissonance between our inner lives and the facades we erect in public. But it also carried the implication that our actual faces are those facades. That they are essentially masks, concealing other, possibly more authentic versions of ourselves. No wonder people stare at themselves, mystified, in the mirror.
Maybe that’s how it should be? “We can only be governed by people who claim to know us,” wrote the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, “and so we must be able to hide things not only from other people but from ourselves.” That’s where actual masks — and accents and avatars — come in.
In the context of the wider culture, “Signs that say …” acted like little clumps of snow dislodged from a steep mountain slope. You could feel the vibrations, sense the coming avalanche.
It came: a thundering mass of (depending how you saw it) decorum-busting, confessional narcissism or healthy, therapeutic self-expression. The Brits read it all as a sign of rampant Americanization: They linked it to a malign genealogy that led from Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” to Oprah and Phil Donahue, “Survivor,” “Big Brother” and the Kardashians.
But it was not, ultimately, about America. It was about the medium. The medium was the message. Initially, the medium was television and the various formats it spawned, from daytime talk shows to fly-on-the-wall documentaries and reality TV, all of it funded by aspirational advertising. Then it became the Internet, smartphones and the self-publishing software and algorithms of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.
These democratizing innovations posed the problem of self-description in profound new ways, making Wearing’s modest but canny explorations seem startlingly prescient. Even as they restricted its possibilities (your Instagram feed is a very shriveled version of you), they opened up untold possibilities for self-invention, for donning masks, dancing and adopting new accents.
“We are all actors, improvising each time we talk to someone,” Wearing once said. One of her most insinuating works, a video called “2 into 1,” offers a twist on the format of the talking-head documentary. It shows a mother speaking to an off-camera interviewer about her 11-year-old twin sons and then the sons, seated side by side, talking about their mother. But Wearing does something startling: She gets the mother to ventriloquize the boys and the boys their mother. The effect is electrifying.
With casual contempt, the boys describe their mother as an annoyingly slow driver, emotionally manipulative and although loving, generally pathetic. She describes them, meanwhile (and remember, we are seeing them mouthing her words) as “absolutely adorable,” “very bright” and “beautiful looking.” She only laments that they can be “quite cruel” and are prone to “terrible fits of temper” that can come out in “a violent way toward me.”
The mother does admit, however, that one of them has “a way of putting his finger on the truth” — namely, that she is a failure. And she confesses that she must like being dominated because all her male partners have been dominating. The boys, mouthing these words, seem to flinch, and all you can think about in this domino dance of displacement is the one person we don’t see: their father. He must be a monster.
“2 into 1,” in the Guggenheim show, dramatizes the astonishing disequilibrium that can exist within love. It also lays bare the concealed dynamic at the heart of talking-head documentaries, which exploit people’s eagerness to say things in front of a camera that would not otherwise be said — and depend on our eagerness to hear them.
Even before the revolution in self-publishing (blogs, social media and all the rest) ignited the forest fire now razing civil society, Wearing saw how badly people yearned for permission to say cruel things, make ugly faces, express contempt and humiliate others. But she is by no means merely a Cassandra warning about the perils of the attention economy.
Like many of the Young British Artists who rose to prominence in the early 1990s, Wearing has democratic, anti-elitist impulses. Some of the grainy, lo-tech photographs in “Signs that say …” first appeared in The Face, an edgy, influential fashion magazine that inverted the top-down relationship between the fashion industry and young people. Wearing had ambitions to do similar things in the art world.
In the second half of her career, Wearing’s work has become more explicitly about herself, or, more accurately, about dramatizing the possibility that her self, as such, may not exist. She has used plastic and later silicone prosthetic masks and wigs to create photographic portraits of herself impersonating members of her family at different ages. Wearing has also impersonated herself at different ages. And for an extended series called “Spiritual Family,” she impersonated many of her favorite artists, including Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp, both in drag, Georgia O’Keeffe, Claude Cahun (holding a mask of Wearing’s face), Meret Oppenheim, Diane Arbus (of whom she has also made a statue) and Eva Hesse. A neighboring gallery contains all the masks displayed like so many severed heads.
This stage of her career has been less successful. It suffers, ironically, from solipsism (ironic given the strenuous effort Wearing puts into smashing her ego). It shares with her best work a creepy, claustrophobic intensity. But the playfulness of dressing up as others starts to feel a little manic, and the recent reversion to painted self-portraits, a product of pandemic isolation, though ostensibly more calming, also suggests an underlying desperation.
You sense an artist alive to the pathos in our simultaneous need to establish an identity and to escape it. But the works don’t really go beyond that. They have nothing like the impact of Wearing’s powerful earlier work, or of the photographs of Cindy Sherman, to which they are clearly indebted. Where the earlier work was lo-fi and democratic, the recent work looks showy and expensively produced.
But Wearing has a lot more to give, and it is past time American audiences got to know her — whoever she may be — better.
Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks Through June 13 at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. guggenheim.org.