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The Spinoff reviews New Zealand #3: Cindy Sherman at the City Gallery Wellington

We review the entire country and culture of New Zealand, one thing at a time.

I remember doing Art History in high school and stumbling my way through all the endless old blokes from ages ago, trying and failing to connect with some rude nude dude holding a stone. That was until we were presented with some black and white images from an American artist named Cindy Sherman. Her Untitled Film Stills were disturbing, glamorous and ugly, and they looked like something from the movies!! Hey, I like the movies!!!!

Cut to 2016, and here’s a blurry snap I took of Cindy Sherman IN THE FLESH, as rare as a Sasquatch in the woods. Five stars.

This was the opening of her exhibition at the City Gallery Wellington, and I was terrified. I was alone, not even wearing a neckerchief or a bracelet made out of a melted fork, and expected to navigate an art gallery without being a screaming naked mole rat. Luckily, there was lots of iconic Wellington talent in every room to embarrass myself in front of. One of the Conchords. Hera Lindsay Bird. Jane Campion. A man wearing a shiny gold suit. Five stars.

Alone, I orbited the room slowly like Sputnik, stopping only to dislocate my jaw in order to biff one of those giant opening night spoons of raw fish into my mouth. One star. I was fittingly humiliated by my existence, which is actually the perfect state to absorb Sherman’s work in. Her photographs poke endless fun at how we choose to present ourselves as normal humans when really we are a bag of snakes wearing a peacoat. 

Trying to copy a Youtube makeup tutorial like.

Putting herself in front of the camera, Sherman has been the chameleon subject of her own works since the ’70s. She’s been everything in her 46 years from a 1920s starlet to a stately First Lady type, a clown to a corpse. She even did a series in actual blackface in 1976, a startling fact which is often glossed over in the feminist discussions I’ve seen of her work. Obviously, many negative stars for that.

In the words of Ellie Buttrose, a Sherman scholar who gently guided me around like a farmer herding a sleepy cow, her work is like Rorscharch test, “it’s nothing about the image itself, it’s about what you see in it.” Like Simba staring into the pond water, by gum she was right. I saw my own disastrous selfies in Cindy’s wobbly lip liner, rogue tan lines and desperate gaze. The images are far from beautiful, but there’s a sense of comfort in their imperfection. In the end, it’s all a big sad joke.

Hitting the town like

Word of warning to the wimp of heart: there is a room full entirely of clowns. Returning the next day and standing in front of each one bravely, I would recommend it as a sort of warm-up act to Spookers – you get the scary clowns but none of the jump scares. “In the way that women paint their faces, so do the clowns” Buttrose told me, as my red lipstick began to feel positively Ronald McDonald.

Mellow Spookers.

Upstairs is the glamour zone, full of collaborations with Balenciaga and Chanel with Sherman donning vintage couture and plonking herself against harsh backgrounds like a baby bird that’s fallen out of its nest. On the second floor Sherman also BOLDLY embodies (gasp) older women, raising questions about why we never see portraits of great women from history, or any women over 40 at the movies.

But my very favourite part of the exhibit was the giant mural that greets you upon entry, customised and altered to fit whichever space it inhabits like a trendsetting goldfish. It’s colossal, and will never exist in the same iteration ever again.

GOOD OR BAD? This exhibition is vast and good, and you don’t have to be a fancy to ‘get it’. Everyone has different reactions to her work, just like coriander or black Jellybeans. With that said, even Jimi Jackson can tell you that having blackface tucked away in your back catalogue is bad.

Verdict: The Cindy Sherman exhibit is rare and confronting and world famous, just like the Sasquatch.


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