Gillian Wearing: Photography as Illusion

Gillian Wearing, former Y.B.A and winner of the coveted Turner Prize, is known for work that is as bold as it is absurd. Her work often deals with that uncomfortable place in art known as the Uncanny Valley. In her self-titled piece at the Cincinnati Art Museum, she demonstrates how far down that rabbit hole she wishes to descend, literally pasting her face on the body of another person using advances in digital editing. The final product is both amusing and terrifying. Her exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum features this, and other works from throughout her career including a few completed in 2018… showing the progression throughout her career, and what she may be headed towards.

Sigmund Freud defines the Uncanny as the psychological experience of something both familiar and unsettling. Usually in either a ‘castrative’ sense or relating to sexual experience.[1] This concept of the Uncanny is important to keep in mind when discussing Wearing’s work. In particular her series, Album, is an excellent example of the Uncanny in practice. In an illustration from this series, Self Portrait as My Sister Jane Wearing, we witness Wearing from behind a prosthetic mask fashioned by the wax doll masters of Madame Tussauds.[2] The image can be described no other way, save for Uncanny. While this piece is not present in the exhibition, it is presented here to give some historical prospective to Wearing’s work.

The installation of the show is straightforward. The entirety of the show exists within a single, fairly large room bisected by a wall of photo-videos for her work Snapshot. Behind this wall is a little nook for viewing the video piece Gillian Wearing, and throughout the show are various prints from her Album series. The space, for the most part, does little to interfere with the work; however, there are some minor criticisms I would like to bring up. First off, the space is not nearly large enough for the work they chose to bring in. At times the space feels confining, and I can not help but feel the far end of the room was overstuffed with work. There also was not enough consideration for sound in the works present. Both the pieces Snapshot and Gillian Wearing were far too close together, leading to their sound elements combining such that at times I was unaware of which piece had which sound element. However, the remainder of the installation was successful in my opinion.

Now that we have established Wearing’s practice, we may move on to reviewing the show itself. First though, I would like to eliminate the piece Dancing in Parkham from this review of her show. It bears almost no semblance of the other works present in the show. Leading one to believe that it is present simply because it was the only example of Wearing’s early work that could be acquired for the show, however, its exhibition of this piece is still a mistake. In the piece Wearing dancing in the middle of a Parkham mall, there is no deeper conceptual meaning to the work. I also would like to remove the pieces Me as O’Keeffe and Me as Dürer from this discussion of the show. Both works are shameful resuscitations of Album series, but instead of replicating old photos of the artist’s siblings to discuss nuclear family, Wearing’s drug use, or any other sensitive topic her previous work discussed; these two works feature Wearing pretending to be other famous artists. Is she comparing herself to Georgia O’Keeffe? Did she just see a photo of Albrecht Dürer and decide to become him? The work leaves us with more questions than answers, and not inciteful ones. Questions like, why exactly did Gillian Wearing get a solo show at the CAM and why did I pay for a ticket?

With those three works set aside from this review, we can delve into the works that have a right to exist within the space. While nearly every example of her Album series present in the show leaves no lasting impression, I do make exception for one of her pieces, Me as Madame and Monsieur Duchamp. What is really inciteful about this work, is the levels of mimesis that it exhibits. We are seeing Wearing impersonating Duchamp alongside an image of Wearing impersonating an image of Duchamp impersonating his drag persona Rrose Selavy. Does it force any commentary of the personification of drag or start an inciteful conversation on the absurd life of Duchamp… undoubtably no. But I still believe it makes for a good piece, just the same. Also important to note, it is the only image from the Album series that strays from the standard large scale print format. Me as Madame and Monsieur Duchamp is set within two large oval frames. The work, would most likely not function as stand-alone pieces, but as a diptych… it was one of the more iconic images within the show.

Another work that stood out is Snapshot: a 20-minute, 7 frame portrait series featuring commentary on aging, femininity, and maybe even race. Some of the more memorable images include a young girl playing violin, a girl sunbathing, a ‘Madonna and Child’esce portrait, and an elderly woman sitting in a car. The quality and style of each photograph changes throughout the time periods the depict, and she did seem to try an make each look like they were based on an actual period photograph. The major let down of the work was the sound element, which amounted to little more that an elderly woman complaining into a microphone while ambient music plays in the background. The photo-videos already tell the story of western society’s discomfort with female aging, the addition of sound was unnecessary to the work. I also did not understand why there was only one woman of color portrayed. She either breaks the illusion that these could all be the same woman, or she brings up the question of why there are not more women of color featured. Neither of these questions are of benefit to the piece,

Finally, we approach my personal favorite work… Gillian Wearing. The self-titled piece is shot and staged like a documentary with elements of the ‘click-bait’ internet video and the kind of absurd video editing we can only expect would accompany a straightforward work from Wearing. But what it may lack in tact, it makes up for in content. For the work, she hired about 10-20 different actors to play the character Gillian Wearing. I think it is important to separate the two due to some of the more unbelievable claims she makes. It is totally plausible that the ‘confessions’ she makes could be entirely fabricated. It is also possible that every word was authentic… but with Wearing, it is hard to tell. It is also edited in a way the disguises much of the dialogue, though well-timed cuts and intercutting voiceover. The layout of the video is set so that each actor delivers the set of lines Gillian prepared for them, her face is then imposed on their body so that it syncs with their read. The result isn’t perfect, she even comments so herself. Occasionally we get a glimpse of the actor’s exposed face. This kind of detail is not usually important to Wearing, however. Consider the clear separation between silicone mask and her eyes, she is not attempting to completely remove the hand of the artist… merely to obscure it. That is why I love this piece, it is delightfully self-aware. Something not always presented by her work. She does, however, impose her face on a few bodies of color, which is potentially problematic… however, in the context of the piece, doesn’t immediately raise any red flags. It felt necessary to add this comment since I call into question the problematic nature of snapshot.

In closing, while the work resembles a more uncanny Cindy Sherman… I am not convinced that it carries the same emotional strength or tact. I admit fully to enjoying the Me as Madame and Monsieur Duchamp and Gillian Wearing pieces, but I remain skeptical of the maturity and concept of her current practice. While Gillain Wearing’s early works remain an iconic part of the YBA, I can’t help but feel that over time her work has lost substance and replaced it with a kitsch exploration of the pop idea that bears more semblance to Tumbler feminist blog than an artist of her career.


Freud, Sigmund. Writings on Art and Literature. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Tate. “’Self Portrait as My Sister Jane Wearing’, Gillian Wearing OBE, 2003.” Tate. Accessed October 28, 2018.

[1] Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, (1919)

[2] Tate, Online Caption Self Portrait as My Sister Jane Wearing,

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