I confronted aging in a new way this weekend as I stood literally face-to-face with Gillian Wearing’s wall-sized photographic installation Rock ’n’ Roll 70 (2015) in Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. According to the curators, Wearing worked with age-progressing technology to digitally enhance a number of photographic self-portraits to see what she might look like at age 70. “Printed as wallpaper, these ‘aged' portraits show the diversity of possibilities of the artist’s future self,” the description accompanying the exhibit says. I disagree. The portraits show the diversity of possibilities of how the artist might appear into the future, but not what, or whom she might become.
The artist is said to be exploring “the complexities of identity as mediated through technology,” which, if you’re dealing with a photo of a missing child on a milk carton eight or 10 years after the child was abducted might well be the point. But if you’re dealing with anxiety and/or vanity about how you’re going to look, or appear to others, 10 or 20 or 30 years hence — at age 70 in Wearing’s mind — this exhibit will not put your mind at ease. In fact it will make you that much more self-conscious about the inexorable ravages imposed upon the human body by Time, indeed, by Life itself: color drained from hair, and face; shoulders stooped; creases pulled downward; skin sagging under the chin, along your arms, down your chest; eyes dimmed; smiles faded.
Wearing leaves blank the space for a third photo in a triptych that currently displays a photo of her in 2015 and one that has been age-enhanced; the third is to be a self portrait taken when she is, in fact, 70, in about decade. As if, maybe, she won’t fit the pattern she has so painstakingly exposed. Really?!! That cannot be what she intends. But I’m not sure what it is that she is saying with Rock ’n’ Roll 70, when it seems to be saying that becoming older physically strips away all that might have been gained in becoming one’s self over the course of 70 years. As is too often the case when women are the topic, it’s all about appearances; and similarly, when aging is the topic, it’s all gray and negative. I get it: Wearing’s camera doesn’t lie any more than my mirror. But it doesn’t show the full picture, or tell the whole story, either.