Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, November 5, 2021–June 13, 2022.

Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992-93) is a series of photographs by the English artist Gillian Wearing. Wearing approached strangers on the street and asked them to write their thoughts on a blank sign; she then photographed them holding the message they had created. The result is a diverse cast of characters, people who appear to be of different social classes and ethnicities, displaying messages such as “Wicked and Wild!” “Work Towards World Peace,” “More Love!” “Queer + Happy,” “Best Friends for Life! Long Live the Two of Us.” The look and feel of the series is that of an advertisement, possibly for denim pants or a credit card (or Pepsi). Like much advertising, there is something superficially democratic about it, but in fact what the images represent is the form of politics (the sign held in the street) stripped of meaningful political content. The saccharine proclamations on the signs may be benign or even progressive, but in constructing her subjects as a disorganized collection of atomized individuals, each with their own private “opinion” to express, Wearing deprives them of the possibility of a collective identity or shared experience which would form the basis of politics. In requiring the subjects to express themselves as private individuals, to “say what they want to say,” she is imposing upon them the hegemonic neoliberal preoccupation with individual self-expression.

The photographs in Signs that say what you want them to say are among the over 100 works by Wearing currently on display at the Guggenheim Museum as part of an exhibition called Wearing Masks, the first retrospective of Wearing’s work in North America. The works on display, the curators tell us, “explore the performative nature of identity.” In addition to photographs there are videos, sculptures, and paintings. One particularly striking period of Wearing’s work on display consists of photographs and videos of subjects wearing eerie flesh-colored rubber masks, their eyes peering out from behind the masks as if to suggest a true or authentic humanity hidden irrevocably behind an outward-facing public persona. “If there is any one idea that unites Wearing’s projects,” writers one reviewer in Vulture, “it’s that the self is fundamentally unknowable.”

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Masking is a universal theme in art, literature, and myth around the world and across time. But it takes on a particular significance in the postmodern period, in the context of an ideology of extreme individualism and universal marketization, and the supremacy of a uniquely American style of mass culture.

In postmodern art and philosophy, identity is conceived in terms of performance, masks, and discourse, rather than as an objective social relation; as such, identity is shifting, fluid, multiplicitous. This conception of identity mirrored the rise of an increasingly individualized approach to consumer marketing, as corporations discovered it was more profitable to recognize cultural difference rather than attempting to impose a narrow cultural conformity. In the postmodern marketplace it became more and more possible to try on different sub-cultural costumes at the shopping mall, or even to imagine oneself as an entirely different person (or an entirely different species) by playing a video game or a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, or by attending a furry convention or a BDSM party. The aristocratic-infused sensibility of the European bourgeoisie, premised on a rigid class and gender hierarchy, gave way to the pseudo-democratic laissez-faire culture of American frontier capitalism, in which anyone can become president and anyone can become a billionaire. In the marketplace, we forge our own identity and our own destiny – American children are taught that they can become anything they want to be. The postmodern obsession with the fluidity of identity thus corresponds with the American myth of class mobility, a myth designed to justify and disguise class privilege.

It is this transition from British to American hegemony, and the attendant shift in dominant cultural style, which is just as much the reason for the emergence of postmodernity as the other, no less important but more frequently, cited trends, all of which were interconnected: new communication technologies, neoliberalism, and the confusion and decline which overtook the proletarian Left.

The Wearing exhibition is spread out across several floors of gallery space attached to the main rotunda of the Guggenheim. The top floor holds some of the artist’s most recent work, and is dominated by a wall filled with dozens of portraits of women. Upon closer inspection, one realizes that these are all self-portraits of Wearing with different clothes and hairstyles; or, rather, they are portraits of various other subjects with Wearing’s face digitally imposed on them. The piece recalls the work of Cindy Sherman, a photographer often associated with postmodernism whose work has sold at auction for millions of dollars. In Sherman’s famous Untitled Film Stills, she poses as a variety of different stereotypical female characters inspired by cinema.

In his landmark book The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey attempts to show how the emergence of postmodern philosophy and culture was rooted in the material transformations of neoliberalism. Postmodernism’s rejection of depth in favor of surface appearances, and its fascination with masks and shifting identity, is exemplified for Harvey in Sherman’s photographs.

“The conditions of labour and life, the sense of joy, anger, or frustration that lie behind the production of commodities, the states of mind of the producers, all are hidden to us as we exchange one object (money) for another (the commodity).” This is Harvey’s explanation of commodity fetishism. When commodities appear to us on the marketplace, the conditions of their production are rendered invisible. Marxism “seeks to tear away that fetishistic mask, and to understand the social relations that lie behind it.” The postmodern obsession with surfaces represents “overt complicity with the fact of fetishism and of indifference towards underlying social meanings. The interest of Cindy Sherman’s photographs…is that they focus on masks without commenting directly on social meanings other than on the activity of masking itself.”

Commodity fetishism is a type of reification, the phenomenon in which dynamic social relationships appear as static objects, deprived of their political and historical character. Wearing’s work reifies identity by presenting it not as a relation between people but as a literal object – the mask. In one section of the exhibition, the rubber masks which are used in the portraits and video pieces are displayed in a row behind glass, as if to suggest that the social identities which we “perform” can somehow be abstracted from real human life.

There are, of course, types of identity which can be taken on and off like masks. But the identity which most powerfully determines the conditions of life – that of class – is not of this kind. Marx differentiated between class-in-itself and class-for-itself. The former is an objective social and ecological relation, defined as one’s position within the production process. The latter, class-for itself, refers to the collective self-awareness of class interest, which leads to political organization and class struggle. Postmodernism privileges for-itself identity (the cultural and discursive) while downplaying or even denying the existence of the in-itself (the economic). Ignoring the objective reality of class exploitation, insisting that “the other” is fundamentally mysterious and unknowable and that solidarity is therefore impossible, private, individual identity and experience becomes central. The mask, like the protest sign, becomes merely a mode of personal expression. For-itself identity is reduced to a marketplace of narcissistic self-realization severed from collective politics.

Next to the wall of self-portraits a short video plays on a loop. A series of actors stand in front of the camera wearing “digital masks,” facial projection technology which gives them each the face of Gillian Wearing. At one point in the video they each repeat in succession “I am Gillian Wearing.” It almost reads as a parody of the famous “I Am Spartacus” moment of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. In Kubrick’s film, the authorities are attempting to identify Spartacus from among the crowd of captured rebel slaves. By each claiming the name of their leader, they not only protect him, but display their pride and solidarity with the revolution he represents. It is a moment in which the dignity and power of the individual finds its expression through identification with the collective. By contrast, Wearing’s video, like much of her work, treats identity as a philosophical abstraction divorced from history and struggle. “I believe identity is fluid,” says one of the characters. Such mumbled cliches, which we are apparently meant to regard as profound utterances, are offered along with the technological gimmickry as a substitute for aesthetic value and social commentary.

The first floor of the Wearing exhibition is connected to the permanent Thannhauser Collection of 19th- and early 20th-century modernist works. Among these is the 1904 painting Woman Ironing by Pablo Picasso, which depicts a laundress bent over a table ironing clothes. The woman’s suffering is palpable, conveyed through the pale blue color palette, her bent posture, and her darkened eyes. She’s alone, but her labor indicates her connection to a broader web of social activity; her pain and alienation is therefore political, a product of her class position. This class identity is not a mask that can be taken off, but rather an objective relation of exploitation that is inscribed in her body, its violence revealed through her sharply angled shoulder and bent neck. Her private misery is not unknowable like the melancholy eyes lurking behind Wearing’s rubber masks – rather, we empathize with it deeply and perceive it as the emblem of a shared, collective experience. While Gillian Wearing tries on different costumes, Picasso’s laundress silently cleans and irons them.

Perhaps it is unfair to compare anyone to Picasso, one of the most celebrated painters of all time. Then again, Wearing’s exhibition takes up multiple floors of gallery space in a major museum. The fact that in our current historical moment, with its cascading and imbricated social and ecological emergencies, the curators at the Guggenheim could think of nothing more important than an exhibition on “identity” (conceived in its most privatized, reified, and depoliticized sense), betrays a deep bankruptcy in elite culture. If nothing else, one can at least hope that Wearing Masks will inspire the passion and antagonism of young artists eager to rebel against the exhausted cliches of establishment art.