New York

Gillian Wearing, Secrets and Lies, 2009, still from a color video, 53 minutes 16 seconds.

Gillian Wearing, Secrets and Lies, 2009, still from a color video, 53 minutes 16 seconds.

Gillian Wearing

Gillian Wearing, Secrets and Lies, 2009, still from a color video, 53 minutes 16 seconds.

Long before Facebook, Gillian Wearing was pulling apart the conflicted, mediated relationship between our real selves and those we present to the world. Whether photographing strangers on the street holding signs that state what they’re thinking (“Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say,” 1992–93), or documenting herself dancing wildly in a public place (Dancing in Peckham, 1994), or filming adults as they lip-synch to recordings of children speaking (10–16, 1997), she mixes and matches the elements of identity—those elements that we assume compose our selves, our most private selves—and makes them public in ways that confound personhood rather than cement it.

A recent show of work from 2005 to the present continued this investigation, largely via portraiture, a genre that often conceals as much as it reveals. Wearing’s Snapshot, 2005, comprises seven videos of nearly motionless females of a variety of ages, from a beribboned girl to a glamorous sunbather to a middle-aged woman sitting in her car and mechanically putting food in her mouth. Through headphones, viewers can listen to a voice, ostensibly that of the oldest woman in the set, narrate a series of grievances, including complaints about noisy upstairs neighbors and difficulties with finding good housing. The words have a provisional relationship to the images, and one imagines that any of these characters could grow old and produce the same monologue. The effect makes the performers appear especially aloof and strange.

Secrets and Lies, 2009, a work similar to Wearing’s earlier Confess All on Video. Don’t worry, you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian, 1994, features nine men and women relating the embarrassing, difficult, appalling things they have done and have had done to them, all the while wearing cinematically creepy masks to protect their identities. Here one finds oneself doing a sort of portraiture math: We in fact know a great deal about these subjects—we know their deepest secrets—so are the portraits incomplete if we have no access to their faces? Elsewhere, three photos depict Wearing made up to resemble Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Andy Warhol—artists who famously crafted uneasy portraits. Ostensibly these figures have been significant for Wearing, and her imitation (or “wearing”) of them suggests something beyond a received influence, perhaps bordering on possession.

Bully, 2010, one of the most startling works in this show, diverges from the question of the portrait but sticks to the question of identity’s visibility. The piece portrays a young man directing a group of volunteers to reenact a scene from his childhood in which he was humiliated and bullied, and to continue until he “genuinely believes it.” He micromanages the re-creation to an almost absurd degree, with an urgency that radiates from the screen, sometimes so raw that it is difficult to watch. His (and our) abrupt crossover into catharsis at the end—he has genuinely believed the scene—has been enabled by his outsourcing of himself to other bodies, yet something visceral, something true, still shines through in his reaction to the scenario. We are no closer to knowing the nature of that truth, but we feel we have glimpsed it nonetheless.

Emily Hall