Guggenheim Museum Presents “Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks”


From November 5, 2021 through June 13, 2022, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum presents Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks, the first retrospective of Wearing's work in North America. Featuring more than a hundred pieces, the exhibition traces the development of the British conceptual artist's practice from her earliest photographs and videos to her latest paintings and sculptures, all of which explore the performative nature of identity.

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, Marica and Jan Vilcek Curatorial Fellow.

Gillian Wearing's profoundly empathetic and psychologically intense photographs, videos, sculptures, and paintings probe the tensions between self and society in an increasingly media-saturated world. Over her three-decade career, Wearing has focused equally on her own self-portraiture and on the depictions of others, testing the boundaries between the private and public, questioning fixed notions of identity, and frequently anticipating the cultural transformations wrought by social media. 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 has long been fascinated by the ways film and television can conjure worlds that, while completely fabricated, still carry real emotional weight. Since 1996 she has cast professional actors in her videos in addition to working with nonactors. Her interest in the methods and effects of dramatic acting extend naturally from her examinations into the everyday performance of public life. On stage, emotional authenticity can be scripted and rehearsed, and actors often redirect personal experiences to express a character's truth. At the same time, victims of trauma sometimes recount their stories as though reading a script. This paradoxical relationship between acted and actual reality underlies many of Wearing's works, including her video We Are Here (2014). Wearing set this film in the West Midlands of England, where she grew up, working in locations that were of personal significance to her and with local residents, who are cast as ghosts and deliver haunting monologues recounting their regrets, losses, and guilt. We Are Here screens through April 2, on Saturdays continuously from 12 to 5 pm in the museum's New Media Theater.

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 is accompanied by a richly illustrated, 192-page monograph that will survey the artist's three-decade career with a particular focus on her work of the last ten years. The exhibition will also coincide with a new sculptural tribute to photographer Diane Arbus by Wearing on view October 20, 2021 through August 14, 2022 at Doris C. Freedman Plaza, Central Park, organized by Public Art Fund.

Press Release