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Talking Earthquakes, Ageing and the US Election with Cindy Sherman in Wellington

"After 9/11, it was really hard for me to think about going to work again, and maybe it will be a similar thing here too."

Cindy Sherman / Untitled #462 2007–08 / Purchased 2011 with funds from Tim Fairfax, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist 'Balenciaga'

I don't usually get nervous before I meet famous people, but Cindy Sherman was a different story. This interview was booked in months ago, to coincide with the opening of the New York-based artist's big show at City Gallery Wellington that travelled over from GOMA in Brisbane. I jumped at the opportunity when it came up, and have been readying myself ever since. Sherman's work is so subtly complex: self-portraits, but not really—she's playing characters, and her characters are so loosely defined, and of course you know it's actually her underneath all that make-up or photoshoppery, but it's also the shell of the character, and sort of a portrait of humanity.

Then a few things happened in the week before our interview: Donald Trump won the US election; then I spilled a pan of hot oil on myself, causing a blister to blow up on my hand like a fleshy mushroom; then there was a massive, two-minute long earthquake followed by torrential rain and flooding; then my friend and neighbour committed suicide. It was a literally destabilising series of events, but through it all I was studying these Cindy Sherman photographs whenever I had a chance, trying to understand them, noticing new things every time; these depictions of the depiction of women, these obscure gags, these layered pieces of mysterious genius.

So this morning, I felt nervous and weird. I got a lift to town, but forgot my phone so we had to drive back to get it, making me late for the doctor (where I got the dressing changed on my disgusting mushroom hand), then all the streets were blocked off on my way from the doctors to the gallery (because of the quake damage to the buildings), so I was running late. Then I was led in to the City Gallery for a sneak peek at the exhibition while friendly curators were nice to me and a guy scooted around in one of those scissor lifts that beep loudly every time they move. Then I was ushered into a room, given a glass of water, and in she walked, free of mask, make-up and photoshoppery: Cindy Sherman. We had ten minutes.

Cindy Sherman / Untitled #424 2004 / Image courtesy: The artist and Metro Pictures, New York / © The artist. 'Clowns'

VICE: Welcome to Wellington. It's a beautiful day.
Cindy Sherman: It's a gorgeous day. God, I'm so lucky, because yesterday was terrible.

How does it feel to be opening an exhibition in a city that's just gone through a major earthquake?
Yeah, my assistant was actually here when it happened, and she got so freaked out that she left a day early. I think she was waiting for the tsunami; she was really, really scared. So in a way I'm sorry I missed it—but I'm not sorry I missed it.

I saw your show at The Broad in Los Angeles, and it was fantastic—so grand and comprehensive. How do you feel this show is in relation to that one?
I like a show like this that is limited by just a timeframe, because the Broad show, or other shows that go back to early 70s work; they're interesting in a different sort of way. It's a great overview of my work, but I think a show from the last 16 years seems more thematically cohesive, just because of the characters and the way they look; the types of portraiture that's involved; and then the use of digital backgrounds. It sort of holds them together as a good group.

And it feels less like a history lesson in a way, and more like they are all talking to one another.
Good.

Cindy Sherman / Untitled #463 2007-08 / Image courtesy: The artist and Metro Pictures, New York / © The artist

I wanted to ask how you're feeling about what's been going on in America. Was it profoundly disappointing to you?
Oh yeah, profoundly horrible. It's feeling like you've been gutted, and I think that speaks for a lot of New Yorkers, and certainly the east and west coast of the States. It's really, really scary and people don't know what to do about it, so that's why there are a lot of protests now and there's one being planned for the day after the inauguration. But I kind of feel like, what's that really going to do? It's too late.

I'm also really disappointed about the reaction to Hillary Clinton, and saying she was the wrong candidate, and how obviously her being a woman is an underlying part of that. I'm wondering if that is something you'll be thinking about when you make whatever you make next.
I don't know, I don't know. I would like to address it; I don't know how I would. I feel a similar way to how I felt after 9/11, where there was a real before and after. I remember two weeks ago and how optimistic everybody was, and then suddenly it was like: boom! And it's like you can't go back, it's this major change, like a loss of innocence, or hope, or something. After 9/11, it was really hard for me to think about going to work again, and maybe it will be a similar thing here too.

Do you feel like you have a responsibility to politicise your work?
Not a responsibility, but I feel like it's an opportunity, which as an artist, should be considered as a way of making your voice count.

Cindy Sherman / Untitled #512 2010/11 / Image courtesy: The artist and Metro Pictures, New York / © The artist. 'Chanel'

The new work in this show, can you tell me about that?
The way it's being described is it's about ageing, but I wasn't planning that. It was more like I couldn't help it because I've aged since the last time I was in front of a camera. It was kind of a shocking revelation, like, "Ooh, I guess the characters are getting older because I'm getting older." But what really informed the choice of characters was a book about that whole era of 1920s German expressionist films. It had all these great portraits of women and I just loved the make-up. I realised that in my last two bodies of work—the mural and the Chanel pieces—that I didn't use any make-up because I was changing the faces digitally, and I realised I missed make-up in a major way. I really love the idea that these characters have tons of make-up on, like over the top make-up; painted-in lips, false eyelashes, bizarre eyebrows...

Then I just liked how these are not the usual type of women you see portraits of from that period. Usually you'd see these young ingénues dressed all cutesy and pretty, and these are obviously older women but they're still trying to look their best and hold onto something of their youth. It's sort of like that Gloria Swanson line from that movie, where she looks into the camera and says, "I'm ready for my close-up". What's that movie? It's on the tip of my tongue... Sunset Boulevard!

We're told that this will be my last question. I frantically scan through my notes before settling on one

You speak about a magic that happens when you're making your pictures. Is that the most satisfying part of the work? Or is it the planning beforehand, or the looking at it afterwards?
That's one of the most satisfying times, but I think the real fun magic that I notice is when I'm looking at it on my computer after I've shot it, and I see something that I never expected. It's like a character was born onto my computer screen, like, 'Wow, I never expected her to show up!'

It's like a fiction writer, when the character takes over.
I suppose, yeah.

That must feel amazing.
Yeah, it's a good feeling.

Cindy Sherman is on at City Gallery in Wellington, until March 19, 2017.

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