There’s often a gap between the masks we show the world and our true faces. Between the stories we tell others and the truths we keep hidden. But perhaps these masks also reveal as much as they disguise.
This subject is explored in depth by the artist Gillian Wearing, whose work is currently being shown in Whitechapel Gallery, London.
Wearing’s first major work was ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say’ (1992–93). This was a series of photographs, each showing a member of the public who Wearing had stopped on the street and persuaded to write something on a piece of paper. The results are intriguing and surprising: a businessman who signs reads “I’m desperate”, or a police officer with the single word, “Help!”
For another of her pieces, she placed an advertisement in Time Out, which read as follows:
‘ Confess all on video. Don’t worry, you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian’.
She received hundreds of responses and narrowed them down to ten interviews, all of them masked. A man who broke into a school and stole some computer equipment; a transvestite. A guy who betrayed his girlfriend. There are also those for whom the interview wasn’t enough – one man who makes obscene phone calls, and insists that some women like it. Or a man obsessed with being ‘abnormal’, but who couldn’t articulate his experience. Both kept calling Wearing to talk about it all, over and over again.
What’s interesting about this is that the subject’s anonymity allows them to be truthful about who they really are. It’s easy to dismiss or ridicule her interviewees – but are they really so different? Behind (and even because of) their masks they are exposed, humans unvarnished and raw.
Online anonymity is a case in point. On the one hand, it creates an environment for trolls and horrendous cyber-bullying. But there is another side to it too. It enables us to talk in ways that go much deeper than the average chat over coffee.
The ideal would be to bring the truth out into the open and own it personally. But in the meantime, a half-way point can be much better than nothing at all.