Arts Curriculum

Gillian Wearing: Trauma and the Uncanny

"I taught myself to use a camera—it's not very difficult to use a camera, but I never bothered looking at any textbooks on how to make a picture. I had a much more casual relation to it. For me at the time it was much more about the process rather than the results."
(“Gillian Wearing” (interview by Leo Edelstein), Journal of Contemporary Art, http://www.jcaonline.com/wearing.html [accessed January 25, 2010])


Gillian Wearing: Trauma and the Uncanny

Gillian Wearing, Self-Portrait at Three Years Old, 2004. Chromogenic print, 182 x 122 cm, edition 5/6. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Purchased with funds contributed by the International Directors Council and Executive Committee Members: Ruth Baum, Edythe Broad, Elaine Terner Cooper, Dimitris Daskalopoulos, Harry David, Gail May Engelberg, Shirley Fiterman, Nicki Harris, Dakis Joannou, Rachel Lehmann, Linda Macklowe, Peter Norton, Tonino Perna, Elizabeth Richebourg Rea, Mortim

Photography has not only profoundly impacted our understanding of historical events, it has also changed the way we remember our personal histories. Beginning at birth, all aspects of our lives are recorded as images alongside our own experiences of them. These parallel recording devices, the camera and personal memory, produce alternate realities that may sometimes be synchronized but at other times are askew.

Gillian Wearing (b. 1963, Birmingham, England) uses masks as a central theme in her videos and photographs. The masks, which range from literal disguises to voice dubbing, conceal the identities of her subjects and free them to reveal intimate secrets. For her 2003 series of photographs Album, Wearing used this strategy to create an autobiographical work. Donning silicon prosthetics, she carefully reconstructed old family snapshots, transforming herself into her mother, father, uncle, and brother as young adults or adolescents. In one of the works, Wearing recreated her own self-portrait as a teenager—and in fact the artist considers all the photographs in this series as self-portraits. She explains: “I was interested in the idea of being genetically connected to someone but being very different. There is something of me, literally, in all those people—we are connected, but we are each very different.” (Quoted in Jennifer Bayles, “Acquisitions: Gillian Wearing,” Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, http://www.albrightknox.org/acquisitions/acq_2004/Wearing.html [accessed January 25, 2010].)

To make the Album series, Wearing collaborated with a talented team (some of whom have worked for Madame Tussaud’s wax works) who sculpted, cast, painted, and applied hair to create the masks, wigs, and body suits used in these photographs. The elaborate disguises the artist wears, when combined with the snapshot “realism” of the original images on which they are based, create an eerie fascination that serves to reveal aspects of her identity rather than conceal it.

Self-Portrait at Three Years Old (2004) carries this role-playing further back in time. Confronting the viewer with her adult gaze through the eyeholes of the toddler’s mask, Wearing plays on the rift between interior and exterior and raises a multitude of provocative questions about identity, memory, and the truthfulness of the photographic medium. Wearing says, “What I love about photographs is that they give you a lot and also they withhold a lot.” (Sebastian Smee, “Gillian Wearing: The art of the matter,” The Independent (London), October 18, 2003, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/gillian-wearing-theart- of-the-matter-583706.html [accessed January 25, 2010].)

Gillian Wearing

Gillian Wearing, Self-Portrait at Three Years Old, 2004. Chromogenic print, 182 x 122 cm, edition 5/6. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Purchased with funds contributed by the International Directors Council and Executive Committee Members: Ruth Baum, Edythe Broad, Elaine Terner Cooper, Dimitris Daskalopoulos, Harry David, Gail May Engelberg, Shirley Fiterman, Nicki Harris, Dakis Joannou, Rachel Lehmann, Linda Macklowe, Peter Norton, Tonino Perna, Elizabeth Richebourg Rea, Mortim

  • Project the image for 10 seconds and then turn off the projector. Ask students what they noticed.
  • Show the image again. This time let students look more carefully and closely examine the photograph. What else do they notice?
  • The artist, Gillian Wearing, made this photograph by recreating a lifelike mask based on a snapshot of herself when she was only three years old. When she donned the mask, her image as a child is combined with the eyes of an adult. How does this information change your understanding of this photograph?
  • Describe the mood of this self-portrait. What might she be thinking or feeling? What about her pose or expression suggests this to you?
Gillian Wearing, Self-Portrait at Three Years Old, 2004. Chromogenic print, 182 x 122 cm, edition 5/6. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Purchased with funds contributed by the International Directors Council and Executive Committee Members: Ruth Baum, Edythe Broad, Elaine Terner Cooper, Dimitris Daskalopoulos, Harry David, Gail May Engelberg, Shirley Fiterman, Nicki Harris, Dakis Joannou, Rachel Lehmann, Linda Macklowe, Peter Norton, Tonino Perna, Elizabeth Richebourg Rea, Mortim



  • Describe the mood of this self-portrait. What might she be thinking or feeling? What about her pose or expression suggests this to you?
    Visual Arts

  • In her series Album, a group of six larger-than-life-size digital prints, Wearing recreated old family photos. Using specially made masks, wigs, body suits, and clothing, the artist transformed herself into various members of her family including her father, mother, sister, and brother. Also included is an image of Wearing herself, not as she looks today but as a teenager. In each case, the artist’s eyes are the only evidence of her actual adult features. She considers all of these works to be self-portraits. How could that be the case? In what ways are you similar to your family members? In what ways are you unique?
    Visual Arts

  • Both Wearing and Cindy Sherman (whose work is also included in this guide) use the element of disguise in their work. Whereas Sherman transforms herself using makeup, wigs, and costumes, Wearing creates a mask to link her to her younger self. Compare and contrast these two approaches. Which do you find most interesting? Why?
    Visual Arts