Cindy Sherman is a photographer who makes an exhibition of herself. She is also one of the top 10 living artists in the world
The iPod is on. And Chicks on Speed are howling in my ear. “They say I’m vermin,” growls the singer. “Got more faces than Cindy Sherman.” A quick flick of the iPod wheel and I’m with the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. In Grand Mal, their singer runs through the problems he’s having with a girl. “She takes Cindy Sherman pictures/And she cuts herself,” admits the poor wretch. Ouch. Back to the wheel. How about Billy Bragg? He, too, is mixed up with a girl who flummoxes him, and his lament stutters like an echo in a tunnel: “Cindy of a thousand lives… Which one of them is you?”
It’s an important question. And one that I am planning to ask Sherman myself when we meet in Berlin. In her new collection of mix-and-match personas, she pretends to be an assortment of ladies who lunch: the kind who do a lot for charity and whose husbands lost everything in the Madoff scandal. Since she herself is now 55, playing an ageing American trophy wife has, alas, involved less decomposition than it used to for Cindy Sherman. In fact, she is only a fraction younger than the Mrs Robinsons she plays.
But before we encounter the real Cindy, we need to confirm the status of the fictitious one: the one who keeps getting name-checked in bad pop songs; the one whose fame has long since leaked out of the Manhattan art world and into every grubby romantic crevice of the urban zoo; the one who seems somehow to have addressed and summed up so many of our personality issues; the one who has hit a very big nail plumb, smack, slam, dunk in the middle. The nail is called identity. Some of us seem not to worry overmuch about who or what we are. But others, perhaps even the urban majority now, mainly women but some chaps too, are no longer certain. It seems that being someone is no longer a permanent arrangement. If you don’t like it, change it. Move towns. Move countries. Get a fresh nose. Get a fresh face. Arrive poor. Leave rich. It is all so possible.
But there is a downside to this extreme urban flexibility. If the outside keeps changing, what happens to the inside? The new nose might look good, but is this still me? These are issues that can be addressed by studying Michael Jackson. Or by looking at the art of Cindy Sherman. Her newest collection of personas is heading for London. Good. It’s been too long since the last one. Cindy is our patron saint because we live in a world in which too many possibilities have replaced too many certainties. Her achievement has been to stride into our personality wars in a huge pair of clown’s shoes and to make unforgettable art out of it. She is the artist who put a face to not having a face. In 2003 she unveiled an ambitious selection of her selves at the Serpentine Gallery, where she ended up disguised as a bunch of unhappy clowns. Grotesque. Grimacing. Since then, nothing. Which is why I’m so keen to get to her Berlin gallery, to see her latest batch of pick-and-choose identities before they arrive here.
Gazing from the walls is a grotesque gallery of ageing American heiresses, preserved in large stately-home sizes. One of them wears a gorgeous sea-blue kaftan sprinkled with gold. Another has something in her ear that is either a mishit golf ball or a giant pearl. There’s a Liza Minnelli type standing against some purple velvet. And a fierce brunette whose bone structure is sternly Hitlerian. Adolf’s sister, I see with horror, has flaps of skin dangling from her neck that belong on a turkey. And deep wrinkles have disfigured the cheeks of the golf-ball-eared one. Poor Cindy, I find myself tutting. When your face has drooped as catastrophically as this, who else can you play except Mrs Robinson? But it’s foolish of me to be so trusting.
The gallery owner has invited her daughter’s art class to the exhibition to see the new photos and to meet the great Cindy Sherman. And as the kids mill around the pictures, clamouring for autographs, the blondest and most elfin of them peels off from the others and heads my way.
“Hi. I’m Cindy.” I look hard. Then harder still. And yes, it is indeed Mrs Pimpernel. Pale. Tiny. Sherman probably weighs the same as a slice of Ryvita. It’s an effect heightened by the crisp white shirt she wears and a cute blonde bob that falls across her face, just so. She looks pampered, moneyed and only halfway to 55. Usually, when you meet an artist in a gallery you don’t stare at their wrinkles or search their face for blackheads. But this is Cindy Sherman, and the desire to know what she actually looks like is practically bursting out of my chest and splattering her sweet, blue-eyed face. Hardly anything has seeped out of Manhattan recently about what she has been up to. I know that she’s moved into a new studio. And an angsty relationship with an indiscreet film-maker is over. But when you’re among the Top 10 Living Artists, according to ARTnews magazine, then making people wait half a decade between shows seems unforgivably sparse. Cruel, even.
Upstairs, balanced daintily on a huge sofa, she tells me how her stately-home ladies were inspired by a lifestyle video in which a well-known American daytime host in a gold lamé dress spilt the secrets of staying fresh, young and beautiful. “Part of this is just a by-product of my own appearance. While I was working on them I was noticing all these wrinkles, and I made a conscious decision to accentuate them with the lighting and the make-up.” The terrifying wrinkles she sports in her pictures were created with a type of latex that you paint on to your skin that dries into deep, crinkly turkey folds. Are you ever frightened by your own art, Cindy? “Yeah, it is creepy. And in some ways it’s hard to want to show that in art. In this series I didn’t use much artificiality in terms of fake noses and things like that. So I see more of myself in these characters.”
She does all the make-up herself. And the photography. And the styling. Right from the start she’s been a one-woman identity crisis. She usually starts with an item of clothing, or a wig: something resonant that triggers a character. In this case, the clothes came from a thrift store on the Upper East Side, where this kind of woman does her donating. “I hadn’t really thought of what emotional impact they were going to have. But to determine the size of them, I put the digital image on a disc and then project it. When I saw them blown up large, I realised the way they looked was definitely a facade that was protecting something more vulnerable inside. I realised the sacrifices they had made in order to have the things that they were showing off.”
To me, these sound like soppy afternoon-TV storylines. Hearing her admit to them surprises me. If you read feminist critical theory on the subject of Cindy Sherman, you will encounter examinations of gender so convoluted they can tie a man’s cortex into sailor’s knots. But Cindy herself seems to operate on basic instincts.
“I don’t even bother reading that stuff. And I don’t even understand it when I do try to read it. It’s been happening for so long now that it just has a life of its own. I’m never thinking in theoretical terms. I’m not that kind of person.”