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“None of the characters are me. They’re everything but me.”
— Cindy Sherman
“I recognised every woman I knew in that photograph.”
— Jamie Lee Curtis
Cindy Sherman is a construct. A composite image. Her (un)self-portraits reveal nothing of herself and everything about ourselves. While this is a popular theory, it inevitably raises the question: what is there for those of us who find nothing in the work that resembles our own reflection?
Cindy Sherman at City Gallery Wellington is a full gallery show, with various series of post-2000 works arranged roughly chronologically. Sherman’s face, in its familiar masquerade, is everywhere. There are two places to hide: the Adam Auditorium, where Andy Warhol’s 13 Beautiful Boys plays on repeat, and upstairs, in the Deane and Hirschfeld Galleries, where a selection of found photographs and albums from Sherman’s own collection are on display.
One of the albums in Sherman’s collection documents the travels of an American GI on an unidentifiable Pacific island. He takes photos of himself, the beach, the trees, and the locals. He appears, in the largest photograph on the page, squatting on the ground outside a building with a thatched roof, surrounded by native people. The island is an idyll of palm trees, calm seas, warm weather. The myth of the Pacific paradise is rampant, the narrative familiar in our minds, the warm breeze on our skin.
The GI’s album happens to be the single place in the gallery where brown bodies are a part of the display. There is a comfort in finding them, tucked away upstairs under the glass surface of the vitrine, and a discomfort at the imagery: brown bodies working, brown bodies providing a counterpoint to the soldier’s pale skin, brown bodies frozen in someone else’s history. These photos are a part of a display that is intended to give a sense of the ways in which Sherman “amasses, mines, and reimagines images, identities and mythologies from a variety of sources.” It reminds us of how little a photo has to give in order for a narrative to be rendered implicit.
In her own work, Sherman shows us the always-already-seen of pop culture, the always-already-seen of “the culture within which she operates,” and her own always-already-seen: the semi-tragic but well-off white woman, or, “The Real Housewives of New York.” She knows how to suggest, rather than impose, narrative; how to create an image that is so clearly a construct that it can’t help but resonate with some lived experience. Her work is deliberately composed and manipulated in post-production. It simultaneously exposes and works towards the fiction of the self, but it’s the viewer who assigns each character the narrative.
It’s hard not to come back to the photographs of the Pacific — on one level, because so much has already been said of Sherman’s work that everything seems like a crude reinterpretation, and on another, because they allow for a reading of her work that exposes the always-already-seen as being nothing more than the always-visible: the nothing-new. What does it mean to fill our public art gallery with dozens of versions of the same woman, a handful of clowns, and thirteen beautiful boys — all white?
Where the show was first exhibited, at Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, at least seven other exhibitions were mounted, variously, during its stay. They were all free, and included Fluent: Aboriginal Women’s Paintings from the Collection, Contemporary Asian Collection, and Line + Form: Paintings and Sculpture from the Indigenous Australian Collection. Sherman’s cultural studies of the white woman in capitalist society existed alongside works by women with different concerns, placing her oblique imagery within a context specific to the space it was occupying.
Cindy Sherman runs at City Gallery Wellington until March 19.
Admission is $12 or $8 with concession.