My mum tells a story about me from when I was five or six. Sometimes I think I remember it, but maybe I just remember her telling it.
I’d been invited to a birthday party, and the wealthy parents of my classmate had pulled out all the stops. It was the kind of party that was so much more lavish than kids parties in my family; it should have been an exciting day for a six year old. So it was with some dismay that my mum received a panicked phone-call not long into the party from my friend’s mother who wailed down the phone line, “I don’t know what to do, Justine’s sitting on the driveway waiting for you to pick her up! I can’t understand it, we’ve got prizes, balloons, icecream … we even hired a clown…”
I like the story. It’s meant to illustrate my social awkwardness, and my mother’s extreme embarrassment at my weirdness, but I’ve always been proud of six-year-old me for not having a bar of some stranger in a costume.
It’s with some difficulty, therefore, that I approach the Cindy Sherman exhibition at City Gallery, Wellington. It is an exhibition of works produced since 2000, where Sherman herself is the model, exploring a number of post-postmodern archetypes: socialites, wannabes, fashionistas, clowns: a catalogue of the hopeful and desperate.
Sherman’s work is based around images of herself in which she takes on roles, performs characters, and becomes someone else. It is very much about putting on masks: she conceals identity at the same time as performing identities. The paradox of her work is though she ostensibly produces self-portraits, her own true character, and even her own appearance, remain an enigma.
Walking into City Gallery, in the immediate gallery space, giant figures loom (much larger than life) from a continuous floor to ceiling mural. These are a cast of full-length characters, colourful against a black and white background. And though I know them all to be Sherman, I can’t help but peer at the faces, trying to divine which features are the ‘real’ ones. They have a sense of familiarity, a family resemblance, but they give everything they can to build an illusion of individuality and it is as much the differences that I look for as the similarities.
In another space in the gallery I encounter images of Sherman in poorly constructed disguises. These images use makeup or bad prosthetics to illustrate desperate-looking out-of-work actors. The obvious fakeness of the depicted faces heightens the sense of uncanny in the work, and draws a parallel to the fakeness of the personas, which in turn is linked to the idea of these figures as actors. The images are self-referential in layers: Sherman plays fake people who want to play fake people.
In the gallery spaces upstairs Sherman can be seen dressed up in the glitz and glamour of the fashion world. Here she is part of a fashion shoot wearing improbable vintage Chanel outfits against the back drop of bleak landscapes. There she appears as if at a party, posed for the press or paparazzi.
And then there are the clowns. The opening anecdote will perhaps suggest to you that I have a phobia of clowns, but it’s actually more that I don’t know how to react to them. I’m not afraid of clowns: I fundamentally don’t understand them. In essence a clown is an easily readable costume meant to represent or personify an emotion. But if clowns were really funny, they wouldn’t need to wear the make-up and ‘perform’ funny. Why should the exaggerated caricature of the ‘happy’ emotion engender feelings of mirth, when it’s not genuine? I hate clowns because I don’t want to be complicit in the charade. Sherman’s clown images embody this feeling of unease, and the heightened awareness of the performance taking place. The clowns are not necessarily sinister, just paradoxically at odds with their intended personas. But of course, by this definition, all of Sherman’s images could be seen as clowns.
The information age with its selfies and social media is often referred to as an age of narcissism, where being seen doing something is almost better than the experience of actually doing it, or more simply still: being seen is better than just being. Sherman’s work seems to me to be a parody of self-obsession, which reveals the ghastliness of it all. Perhaps the beauty in Sherman’s work is in drawing attention to the unreality of the personas we all create, and the masks and costumes we all wear.