Nathaniel Stein has admired contemporary conceptual artist Gillian Wearing’s work since he first saw her poignant, genre-bending photographs in an Introduction to Art History class in the mid-1990s. He’s dreamed of working with her for as long as he’s been a museum curator. Now, after a year as Associate Curator of Photography for the Cincinnati Art Museum, he has his chance.
And we, those of us who’ll experience the 2018 FotoFocus Biennial, will have our chance to encounter the British artist’s internationally recognized and often jarring self-portraits and video installations in the first major exhibition of her work to be shown in the region. In addition to a selection of iconic existing pieces, such as Snapshot and Me as an Artist in 1984, Life: Gillian Wearing will feature the world premiere of four new works, several of which hold a special connection with the venue.
“I talked with her a lot about how she could do work that satisfied her own interest but was also connected to the museum,” Stein says.
The resulting body of work includes two self-portraits in which Wearing poses as Renaissance-painter Albrecht Dürer and 20th-century painter and sculptor Marcel Duchamp—artists whose work is among the museum’s permanent collection. (In a third self-portrait, Wearing transforms into painter Georgia O’Keeffe.)
The fourth new piece is a technologically groundbreaking video that explores the artist’s relationship—or perhaps lack thereof—with the local community and contemporary media culture at large.
“The idea came from conversations we had about the fact that she is a well-known figure in many parts of the world, but not a household name in Cincinnati,” Stein says.
Thus, the video Wearing (along with international advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy) created is essentially a television commercial for herself. Entitled “Wearing, Gillian,” it features actors who discuss identity while wearing a version of the artist’s face.
The work was done with a form of artificial intelligence technology that combines or superimposes new videos with existing ones in a virtually undetectable way. Think of it as a super effective, super eerie form of video Photoshop. The possibilities—and potential threats—of this sort of technology are endless.
“I continue to be floored by how [Wearing] works her way into these topical media issues,” Stein says. While deepfake has been used in Hollywood (for example, Princess Leia in Star Wars: Rogue One), Stein says he isn’t aware of any other artist who has employed the technology as Wearing has. “I can see her piece becoming a reference point, once we see how this media technology makes its way into the world of fine art.”
Like her new work, the existing pieces that will be on display tackle the sort of fundamental human questions Wearing has always been known to explore: Who are we in public? Who are we in private? What is real, and what is constructed? To get there, she often uses techniques such as confessionals and masks.
“Her use of the mask is so simple yet so complicated,” Stein says. “What it’s like to see a face that is not the person’s face you’re looking at, on a visceral level, takes away a fundamental handle on reality. A mask puts us in this place where everything has to be reevaluated. It interferes with our relationship with the face—how we understand other people and ourselves.”
Because Wearing’s work demands to be questioned, it can be emotionally challenging.
“The way her work speaks in unfiltered and direct ways—it can be unsettling,” Stein says, but he offers some advice for visitors who’ll be experiencing Wearing’s work for the first time.
“Let it stick with you. It will unfold over time. It’s that kind of work that’s very present and very forward, but it becomes more complex and rich as it sits with you.”
Life: Gillian Wearing will be on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum October 5 through December 30. Access to the exhibition is free for FotoFocus Passport holders and Cincinnati Art Museum members, and $12 for the general public.