Photographs can be understood as processes of signification and cultural coding. The following photographers Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing evidence that the meaning of any image is not necessarily under their control or making, instead images are determined only by the reference to other images. These practitioners illustrations offer visual experiences that hinge on our memories of other common images from family snapshots to magazine advertisements to film stills. These works evoke the familiar: the key to their meaning stems from our cultural knowledge of the generic as well as the specific. These photographs invite us, the viewer to be conscious of what we see and how we see. It reminds us that everything is a parody, everything is generic, and everything is an imitation, a copy of a copy. These artists evidence how photographs and images truly trigger and shape our understanding of the world and how easy it is appropriate generic types of visual images. Both visual artists evidence how gender and identity are cultural codes, as opposed to being naturally inherent: gender as a performative, as Butler suggests.
Throughout the 1970’s American artist Cindy Sherman created her Untitled Film Stills series. Each image within the series represents a single figure of a woman portrayed in a scenario, mimicking visual aspects of 1950’s-60’s black and white films. Sherman is the model and photographer, thus becoming the observer and observed. The images reinforce a number of provoking notions in relation to gender and gender construction. Sherman is the only model that appears yet adopts a number of feminine types from movies, thus reinforcing that femininity can literally be performed, changed and adapted by just one person.
Sherman proves that femininity is a popular constructed concept, a cultural code, as opposed to being naturally inherent to females. Sherman’s images also confront issues surrounding images of women such as sexualisation and objectification. She puts into question, “who is being represented, and by whom is this projection of “femininity” being constructed and for whom” (Cotton, 2010 p.193). In more recent series, Sherman is seen in heavy make-up and ill-fitting prosthetic facial and body parts. These shocking transformations reinforce further that identity is an imitation, gender a construction. Below are some other photographs from Sherman’s other series’ (Society’s people).
Photographer Gillian Wearing also uses props, costume, make-up and prosthetics to imitate other identities, thus also reinforcing the performative nature of gender and identity. In her series entitled, “Album” Wearing re-stages photographs of her family members: her parents, brother, uncle and herself. In one image Wearing adopts the identity of her father, which is unsettling but powerful. Wearing is seen dressed in a dapper suit and wears a prosthetic mask. However, Wearing always leaves the eyeholes undisguised when wearing masks in her images. This powerful and intentional aesthetic evokes the sense of Wearing literally trying on her family’s identities. The obvious gaps around the eyeholes reinforce that all mimicry and identities are imperfect, no matter how many “normative” aesthetics are employed. This echoes notions of the drag queen and drag king, where their source of entertainment value stems from those body parts or gestures, which give their game away!
Overall, both Sherman and Wearing, through their adoption of carrying identities prove that gender and identity are constructions, cultural codes that have created “normative” notions of femininity and masculinity, which are not natural or inherent at all. Appearance, gestures and gender are all acts of imitation, as these photographs powerfully convey.
Cotton, C (2010) Revived and Remade: The photograph as cotemporary art. Thames & Hudson; 2 edition 191-197
MoMA (2012) Cindy Sherman [online] available from <http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1170> [24 February 2014]
ARTnews (2012) The Cindy Sherman Effect [online] available from <http://www.artnews.com/2012/02/14/the-cindy-sherman-effect/> %5B18 February 2014]
The Guardian (2012) Gillian Wearing takeover: behind the mask – the Self Portraits [online] available from <http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2012/mar/27/gillian-wearing-takeover-mask> %5B24 February 2014]