The arguments I’ve gotten into over this exhibit are disagreements about exploitation and objectification, about gender and class, false consciousness and the artificial “I.” These fights prove and reprove the argumentative genius of Pin-Ups, as the work consistently defers resolution, posing instead another point of contention. There is no escaping the loop. For every argument that Wearing exploited the small dreams of small people, there is the counterargument that the models were full agents in their representation, and thereby existentially realized to an unblemished fault. The choice of a science-fiction-bookcover artist is another bit of brilliance in this regard, as the genre invokes a cerebral sort of popular fantasy, a thinking-man’s romance with romance. For every gallery-goer who would sneer at the pitiable yearn to become a pin-up, there’s Rowena, the formerly fat epileptic, painted lying on her now-thin and lingerie’d back, who says, “I still have issues with my body, but don’t we all?” Or Ziyona’s liberating, “I’ve always been portrayed as a good girl & I want to rebel a little.” And Anne-Marie’s plain-wrap truth, “I pictured myself.”
The archival inclusion of the snapshots taken by the subjects of themselves underscores this self-imaging, emphasized most directly in Ziyona (2008), where the University-educated model (“don’t you think in today’s society were [sic] fabricated through illusions of how a woman should look”) is engrossed in posing for her cell phone camera. It’s Narcissus, but Narcissus with Echo crooning sweetly below the reflective surface. It isn’t that fantasy and reality are “inextricably entwined,” as Wearing has described, but that image is gladly enfleshed in the dual materiality of paint and text.8 The pale frames serve as pine coffins for the immanent self, and the viewer/reader is the vehicle for the sobject’s tendered transcendence.
The second body of work is Wearing’s Family History (2006), a commissioned film installation based on a 1974 BBC documentary, The Family, itself based on the PBS show, An American Family (1973). Wearing’s first piece is a video featuring two sets, made to look like a split screen.9 On the left, a child playing Wearing at the age of ten sits in her family’s reconstructed beige-and-taupe living room, watching The Family. On the television, 19-year-old Heather Wilkins is being encouraged to stay in school by a career counselor. On the right, the now middle-aged Wilkins is interviewed by popular BBC talk show host Trisha Goddard in a boldly colored faux TV studio. (A large-screen version of the staged Goddard-Wilkins interview plays in another gallery room.) They talk about the television show, about events that happened on camera, including the career counseling scene (Wilkins was infuriated by what she felt was classist condescension), and about how having been on the show continued to affect the lives of family members. Again, subject becomes object becomes sobject. The frame of the set, like the frame of the television and the frame of the painting,10 is the box in which we come into our being.
In Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), the constipated Krapp spends his ungentle decline eating bananas and reviewing his masterwork: boxes of self-made audiotapes, narrations of his life, from childhood to the interminable today. Directing the play in 1977, Beckett explained, “[Krapp] escapes from the trap of the other only to be trapped in self.”11 As he drops banana peels to the floor, Krapp dreams of artistic glory, foreshadowing his inevitable Icarustic pratfall. Wearing is not so ironic, for there is nothing outside the box that contains the history and image of us. Pin-Ups is prefaced by a large black and white photo of Wearing by Wearing, titled “Me as Arbus” (2008). In his discussion of representation, Adorno wrote that as much as art has meaning, art “is endowed with sadness,” and the more successful the invocation of meaning, the sadder the art. Tristesse is “heightened by the feeling of ‘Oh, were it only so.’”12 In this work, it is so. As Wearing shows us and herself, to be not is also to be. For as genius would have it, “I” am the Lord our God.
Vanessa Place is a writer and lawyer, and co-director of Les Figues Press.
- “Gillian Wearing,” Artforum.com.↵
- I t’s almost like a split screen; there are little signals throughout to emphasize that these are two sets simultaneously filmed.↵
- Like the box of my computer.↵
- Gordon S. Armstrong, Samuel Beckett, W.B. Yeats, and Jack Yeats: Images and Words (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1990). 121.↵
- Adorno, 105↵