Playing all parts

Gillian Wearing, Self-portrait, 2000

People take pictures for all sorts of reasons. The family album is the way we build shared memories as a family group. Our appearance is recorded for documents such as passports, driving licenses and the like. Artists make portraits for a host of reasons but often the aim is in some way to understand people and how we relate to one another or to the world around us. Self-portraits can provide an opportunity to pretend, to become someone else, perhaps to suggest a narrative in the way that someone like Cindy Sherman does.

For Gillian Wearing, self-portraits are usually made from behind a mask. While many of us put on what is effectively a mask-like expression for the camera, Wearing goes for a more literal and painstaking approach.

Self-Portrait of Me Now in Mask, 2011

In several recent projects, Wearing has donned silicon masks to become herself playing someone else – be it family member or fellow artist – but a subset of this work are the images in which she masks herself to play herself. Apart from allowing Wearing to become herself at various different ages from rely childhood to now, this is a strategy that also allows her to simultaneously project and protect her own image.

Self-Portrait at 17 Years-old, 2003

There is also a playfulness to this work. We probably all have pictures we’d rather didn’t exist tucked away – happily I genuinely have no idea where I would start to look for mine, but nonetheless I know they exist somewhere – Wearing gets to restage hers, but by monumentalising them, she is also defamiliarising them. That 1980s’ haircut is still just as bad but somehow now we’re sharing the joke with her rather than pointing and laughing.

Self-Portrait at Three Years Old, 2004

And of course, with the masking and fakery comes almost inevitably a sense of the uncanny and the game of looking for the joins – sometimes easily spotted, sometimes more subtle – which ultimately makes us focus on the bits that are real Gillian rather than silicon Gillian. In the main, this means the attention is mainly on the artist’s eyes.

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