Humans are so messy. We’re a seething, seven billion-strong mass of neuroses. Most of us just try to get along with living, but some people actively confront that mess. Claude Cahun and Gillian Wearing are two of them. Born seventy years apart, the French surrealist and the British Turner Prize-winner are united by an obsession with the knotty, tangled turmoil of identity. This small but neat show puts their work side by side, creating a world of masks, masquerades, fakery and empowerment through art.
Born Lucy Schwob, Claude Cahun was a surrealist who took on a gender-neutral name and created a body of work that in turn cast her as an effeminate strongman, then a young boy, then transforming into a masculine figure in a corduroy coat before metamorphosing into a shaven-headed character beyond gender. Cahun’s bulbous head, sharp nose and vertiginously angular features turned her into some proto-cyborg androgyne – the first genderless post-human, a future-being living beyond the constraints of society, all captured in ghostly sepia. Later work finds her covered in masks, as a severed head in a bell jar, or naked in the sea, constantly flipping between masculine, feminine and everything in between.
Wearing’s art echoes Cahun’s, but is filled with a longing and sadness all its own. Masks play a big role here too; Wearing takes portraits of herself as her mother and father, as artists she admires, as herself at three years old, and as herself right now, all in eerie prosthetic masks. It feels like she’s trying desperately to understand herself by becoming these characters: to make sense of who she is in relation to her family, idols and, most importantly, to herself.
There are so many links between the artists: gender, performance, ageing, fear of death. But Cahun is bold, Wearing is tentative. One artist is saying ‘this is who I am, and it’s a lot of things’ and the other is saying ‘I am a lot of things, and I’m not sure why that is’.
But in trying to be a show about two artists, it ends up almost being a show about neither. Instead of just observing, absorbing and losing yourself in the work, you spend your time looking for narratives and links that might not even exist. It would’ve worked better as two separate exhibitions.
So the show can feel like a bit of a confusing mess – but it’s about the conflict and struggle of figuring out who the hell you are, so maybe it should be messy. Your identity is a confluence of things, it’s an endlessly slipping series of masks. That these two artists capture that struggle so brilliantly through pre-selfie self-portraiture should make you think long and damn hard about how much you pout on Instagram.