Commentary by Jim Lawson
There’s a story told about a group of young students. They’ve decided, in irresponsible mood, to take a dip in the canal; they shed their togs and in they plunge. Stretched out on the bank to dry themselves afterwards, they spy their tutor cycling along the path. In embarrassment, they cover up their nakedness – all but one, who throws his shirt over his head.
Andy Wiener would be interested in the clever student who hid his identity rather than his shame. His photography, since his graduation from the Royal College of Art in 1984, has been a meditation upon what constitutes our identity as individuals, how we mask it and how we disclose it. The matter is immensely rich and complicated. In our exposure and evasion we know different kinds of pain and are subject to the confusions of false-consciousness.
Wiener creates series of photographs. That presented for the first time here – Life Story Work – consists in fifteen images in which he represents himself in the various personae that circumstance has imprinted upon him and inclination or opportunity has seen him adopt. This is self-portraiture of a kind; but its object is not physical appearance – photography gives an account of that effortlessly – nor some spiritual quality of the subject, to be caught on the photographic instant. Wiener is the subject, but not minutely and uniquely, rather, he marks the fragmented nature with which he – and we – pass through life. He and we are cases. Let’s not be too self-absorbed. The mirror that reflects him reflects us too.
His first series (1987) took its lead from the eighteenth-century painter and engraver, William Hogarth, who published A Rake’s Progress (1733), eight tableaux chronicling the moral decline and collapse of a young man, unfortified by character and principle against society’s allures and cruelties. Wiener’s method acknowledges also the compositional and directorial fastidiousness of Hogarth. As a medium of reproduction, photography had a kinship with engraving. In his constructed photography, Wiener stages the scenes with the engraver’s minute calculation of narrative elements. Like Hogarth, he addresses the audience.
Wiener set himself to tell a tale of modern indulgence, error and psychological catastrophe. He needed to photograph himself 20 times with the expressions of the actors in his own nine tableaux. He would then trim back the photographs so that they could serve as masks. His performers in his staged photographs would wear the photographs of the artist. They are truly acting the artist’s parts. He lit the tableaux in situ so that his self-portraits would plausibly inhabit the pub, bedroom, living-room in which the actions were set and the tragedy of a life would unfold, finally a prison of inescapable and loathsome intimacy. The effect of experiencing the story though the reactions of a single face is disquieting.
By masks we lie. But also we tell the truth, as do actors. Indeed, at Carnival, behind the mask, we confess our own desires and act in pursuit of them.
We assimilate too. I can hide myself in the crowd by adopting its aspect, demeanor and attitudes. Wiener also documents – this time in Love Scenes – the pressure under which we labour to conform. The Happy Life is a narrative already mapped out for us to follow. It’s a matter of doing as we’re told. Don’t step on the cracks; do step on the squares. There is the promise of advertising that happiness is having what everybody else has. The masks of Barbie and Ken are unchanging, with the promise of a timeless contentment. Jeff Koons picked up later on the infantilized paradise of children’s games. Wiener’s friends don the masks and act out a story of changed relationships and paradise lost. The masks of guileless happiness worn by Barbie and Ken become grotesque when it is recognized that they signify a self-incarceration, a perverse and doomed attempt to escape the difficulties of the world. The Sabine women had presumeably enjoyed such a self-deceiving complacency. Madame Bovary’s sense that something wasn’t right was buried closer to the surface. In Wiener’s game, another doll – He-Man – breaks the spell.
These are great themes. Wiener has thought about life lived where the path was already laid out. Now, his self-portraiture is, we could say, ad hominem.
Life Story Work is again self-portraiture. The mask is still worn. But it’s not, literally, a photographic one. Instead, Wiener photographs his own play-acting.
The fifteen images present the fragmented personae that constitute a life. It’s not biography in the conventional narrative sense, where consequences connect back to causes. Rather, the life consists in aggregated and essentially discrete psychological facts. Without a story, the artist conceives of himself as a genesis. The first triptych meditates upon the paternal line, in German, Jew and Scot – he is his grandfather, father and son. The maternal diptych is Scots and Irish. And, cast off into the world, he is and acts a set of roles, some successively and some over extended time.
There is no inexorable chronology – no single narrative – where life is viewed in this way. Life Story Work does not adopt the artistic and scientific omniscience of plot and providence. Replacing explanation, or it could be diagnosis and prognosis (whose tragic outcome gives grandeur to his earlier work) is a gaze that is sometimes pained and sometimes wry. Yet, if there is no sequential self, it follows that there is no forgetting and denying. That Jewish father, in light of awful experience, could try to put it all behind him; but the son would, in honour, not. The Scot is in Caledonia or Alba. But it is not a windowless cultural enclosure. Zoom in on the image and we see that Wiener must connect his young life and his place with the great lie – Arbeit macht frei – words in wrought iron at the entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp.
He – and we – are also ludicrous. The Scot is no worse than cringing in embarrassment – guilty by association with the White Heather Club culture. The Irishman, in the artist’s cheerful ignorance, acts up to his cliché as a creature made of Guinness. It’s a comédie humaine. And it’s also sad. That’s the nature of the river whose further bank we seek. Dr Johnson remarked affectingly upon the fact: ‘As one man is going to his revels, another is burying his friend.’ There is existence under the sod here in Life Story Work. All heroes must face down death. Many travel to the underworld and are re-born. The first image of the series introduces the guide – the Genealogist. It is made clear: he must make his wormlike way through the entrails of the past. We see that start of his headlong descent. The Father is reconciled with his mortality and consigns himself to the earth.
Wiener’s summa of the mere aggregate character of human nature – just lots of acts addressing circumstances – is realistic and brave. That’s all nobility can be for we offspring of Caliban. Wiener is more realistic and braver, for he turns the mask into a thing that reveals and, by risking self-exposure, he allows us to recognize ourselves. He hides neither his identity nor his inhibition.
The instrument of exposure is the camera. However, as a machine, it is of limited power, for it’s chained to the instant of exposure in the technical-photographic sense. It only knows the present. As the title of the series indicates, The Photographer operates under no such limitation. He stands in a rape-seed field. Before him is the great and venerable oak. Behind him is what the mind’s eye can see; the beginning, the acorn. Time is layered, like sediment. Here, the camera sees what the photographer conceives for, in an odd sense, he also stands behind it, as Magritte stood contemplating the back of his own head in the mirror. That’s where we stand too, looking at a photograph and inhabiting its maker’s mind.
The connections between Freudianism and Surrealism come into focus in the photographic work of Andy Wiener. At the same time, there is an authentic auto-biographical confession. The story-teller is, at bottom, not the actor of his life, but the subject of it, the vessel of its flowers. And the sufferer of it. The Asthmatic was on the point of evanescence – like thin air – and so is the Psychiatrist, fading away, and the enchaining rock upon which he lies persists in its sullen and melancholic eternity.