I am exploring themes of alienation and dislocation
The art of collage involves bringing pictorial elements from various sources into a single image. Traditionally this was done with scissors and glue, today, something similar is achieved using the cut-and-paste function in Photoshop. The British artist, Andy Wiener, has taken an imaginatively different approach to marrying diverse picture elements into a single image. He constructs photographic masks to be worn by models posing in staged tableaux. There is no cutting and pasting of the final image, no Photoshop. This is a kind of living collage staged as a performance.
The wearing of masks reaches deep into pre-history. Today they can be worn for protection – as they are by a welder to shield them from the glare and sparks, or by most of us today to defend us from the Coronavirus. They can hide one’s identity, as for a bank robber. The most ancient uses, however, were emblematic, religious, and ritualistic. Masks were associated not simply with the likeness of another person, animal, or deity, but with their spirit. The potency of the mask was symbolic, often profoundly so. It did not rely upon convincing verisimilitude but upon a collective understanding of, and investment in, what it represented. Masks were inextricably bound up in powerful narratives of shared history and a sense of existential interconnectedness.
In this interview, Andy Wiener talks about two series made at very different stages in his life. Both draw on our sense of entanglement in the events of history and the experiences of life that are at once uniquely personal and curiously universal. The first, ‘A Rake’s Progress’, was created while he was a student at the Royal College of Art in London and takes a sardonic look at what life might have in store. The second, ‘Visitation Scenes’, was made in middle-age and looks back to the family history from whence he came. A mix of Irish, English, Scottish, German, Polish and Jewish women and men whose destiny was shaped in the turbulent years of the first half of the twentieth century.
Your series ‘A Rake’s Progress’ was a remarkable early success for you. How did it begin?
I made this work while studying at the Royal College of Art in London [1984–1986]. I was inspired by Cindy Sherman and Duane Michals, artists whose way of using the medium emphasised that their photographs were fictional narratives and not a reliable record of reality.
[Left] © Andy Wiener ‘Coming of Age’ 1988 from the series ‘A Rake’s Progress’
[Right] © Andy Wiener ‘Meets His Match’ 1988 from the series ‘A Rake’s Progress’
What is ‘The Rake’s Progress’ about?
It was inspired by the visual story telling technique of British pictorial satirist William Hogarth [1697–1764]. His images mocked and criticised the rich elite. In his paintings and etchings, he arranged figures and objects as tableaux in which every gesture and object had its own symbolic meaning. I used these same devices in my photographs, to tell a story across a sequence of images.
One of Hogarth’s most famous bodies of work was a series of paintings and etchings called ‘A Rake’s Progress’. The Rake in Hogarth’s story inherits a lot of money, which he squanders on womanising, gambling and drinking. In the story he ends up marrying badly, going to debtors’ prison and finally to a madhouse.
[Left] © Andy Wiener ‘Shortly After the Marriage’ 1988 from the series ‘A Rake’s Progress’
[Right] © Andy Wiener ‘Breakfast Scene’ 1988 from the series ‘A Rake’s Progress’
How did your version of the story differ from the original?
In my version, I imagined a young man who had learned from the lesson of the Rake and had decided to lead a good and moral life. He follows a steady course through life making all the right choices. Sadly, he too ends up trapped in the modern madhouse – the living room.
The method you devised for this work is very distinctive. Can you explain the process and how it was used in this early series.
I developed a technique for making photographic masks. I had a number of photographs taken of my face in different expressions – happy, sad, frightened, confident – which I then coloured using photographic inks. I used these to create flat, head-shaped masks. The masks were then mounted on to spectacle frames to hold them in front of the face of each model. When photographed from an appropriate angle in diffuse lighting, the resulting image gave the illusion of a three-dimensional head.
This work was produced before Photoshop was available. The scenes involve a number of people, all wearing masks of my face with different expressions. It creates a surreal effect in which I seem to play all the characters.
What kind of response did ‘The Rake’s Progress’ receive?
It was first exhibited at my degree show at the Royal College of Art. It was very successful. A curator of photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Chris Titterington [now Chris Bucklow], came to see the show and immediately decided to buy the entire series for the museum’s collection. The series (along with other examples of my work) was exhibited at Stills Gallery in Edinburgh in 1989, subsequently touring around the UK and on to France. I was surprised by just how much people enjoyed these images. They were published in many magazines and exhibited widely. I had only just graduated. I could not quite believe what was happening…
Although you have made a number of other art series, I would like to turn now to your most recent work, ‘Visitation Scenes’. What is the story behind this work?
‘Visitation Scenes’ created masks using photographs of members of my family going back several generations on both my maternal and paternal sides. These were images from the family photo album – most of these relatives were already long dead. I travelled with the masks to places where my family members had lived many years before. The masks were then worn by people who agreed to model for me, lending their physical presence to those departed relatives. It creates the surreal effect of these relatives coming back to life, like ghosts…
[Left] © Andy Wiener Erna Trost (1900–1944) Herman Trost (1870–1942) Louise Trost (1903–1990) Legnica, Poland c1920 / 2018
When it was part of Germany, Legnica was known as Liegnitz. Herman lived there. When his wife died, he became very close to his daughters Erna and Louise.
[Right] © Andy Wiener Louise Wiener née Trost (1903–1990) Gerald Wiener (b 1926) Erna Pese née Trost (1900–1944) Marion Pese (1925–1994) Erich Pese (1887–1944) Görlitzer Park, Berlin 1935 / 2018
Louise and her son Gerald, Erna and her daughter Marion and husband Erich, became a close-knit group.
What did you want to achieve in this series?
Photography is usually about capturing a single moment in time, but in these images the sense of time is diffused. These images simultaneously capture the period of the original portrait photograph and the present-day moment of someone honouring their memory by wearing a mask, set against significant locations as they are today.
I am exploring themes of alienation and dislocation that my relations (and many people like them) experienced during the twentieth century. But I did not want to make photographs that were too emotionally charged. I like to be descriptive, almost topographical, and set things out in front of the camera in a cool and formal way … though some include splashes of humour.
What kind of technical challenges did this new series present?
I made most of ‘A Rake’s Progress’ in the studio and so I had full control over the lighting. This is important if the masks are to sit naturally within the photograph as a whole. I shot ‘Visitation Scenes’ on location. Many of the places were unfamiliar to me, the weather was uncertain and the time I had was often very limited.
Making the Shanghai image was memorable. The idea was to take the mask of my grandfather back to the place where he had spent the Second World War as a refugee from Nazi Germany. Family lore had it that he had played in a jazz band, and so my original idea had been to make the image in a Shanghai jazz club, but that did not work out. Later, I visited the Jewish Museum in Shanghai where, with the help of staff at the museum and a hand-drawn map from a great uncle, I was able to locate the exact spot where my grandfather had lived. An amazing scene unfolded…
A temporary car park, a friendly car park attendant, ramshackle houses awaiting demolition and, rising up behind, huge skyscrapers under-construction. I worked with a compass and calculated that the best time to make the shot would be 4:00pm. On the day of the shoot the light was dreadful, the sky filled with orange smog. With my flight home approaching, I began to get very stressed. Then at 3:00pm the sky cleared. I was able to get to the location at 4.00pm and, with the help of the car park attendant as model, I got the shot. Stress gave way to elation.
[Left] © Andy Wiener Gerald Wiener (b 1926) Louise Wiener née Trost (1903–1990) Herman Trost (1870–1942) Bambergerstrasse, Berlin 1928 / 2016
Louise divorced Paul and took Gerald to Berlin where they lived with her father, Herman, who had retired there.
[Right] © Andy Wiener Hilda Eagleson (1900–1983) Annie Eagleson née Macpherson (1874–1947) Bonnyrigg, Scotland 1901 / 2018
When her daughter Hilda was born, Annie moved to Scotland.
Who are the people in these images?
While the masks depict various family members – great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and some great-aunts and -uncles – the people wearing the masks are either me, family members or passers-by who agreed to participate. I enjoy accidents that happen in photography. I had no control of what the passers-by were wearing and there are some incongruous juxtapositions between the face on the mask and the attire of the person wearing it. For example, the two figures in ‘Bambergerstasse’ were Bosnian men who had been drinking in a bar that now occupies the site of a house where my father had once lived. In ‘Bonnyrigg’, I chatted with two women in a local café who then agreed to help. I love the clothes they are wearing. I could never have planned it.
Is this principally a personal biography, or do you see this as speaking to more general ideas and feelings?
All my work is personal, but through it I seek to explore universal themes. It’s about displacement and alienation: about how things change over time, about mourning the dead. The short texts that accompany each image are small pieces of family lore passed down through the generations. We often know very little about our ancestors, apart from snippets of information – the kind of anecdotes shared at family weddings and funerals. They may be true or part of a family mythology, just as these photographs are part truth and part fiction. They touch on that fundamental question: what is truth?
Approaching a shared history through personal narrative is not always easy to get right. Were there times when this proved particularly difficult?
‘Oświęcim, Poland’ was certainly challenging to get right. I had made masks from old photographs of my great-aunt and -uncle who, along with 1.1 million others, had been murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz death camp. My original idea was to take the masks into the camp, which is preserved as a museum and memorial, and photograph people wearing the masks in front of the remains of the gas chambers where my great-aunt and -uncle perished. However, while I was seeking permission to make the photographs, I was contacted by a curator of the Wiener Holocaust Library in London [it is a coincidence that the museum and the artist bear the same name]. He was concerned that an image with the faces of these victims in front of the gas chambers could cause offence: that such an image could never do any justice to the enormity of what happed there. I felt he was right, so I had to rethink the image.
Then I saw Brian Griffin’s book ‘Himmelstrasse’ documenting the railway tracks that transported Jews and other persecuted people to their deaths. This inspired me to find the part of the railway line that had been used to transport my relatives to Auschwitz. I was somewhat disturbed to find that most of these railway lines have been modernised and are still in use today. But, near the camp itself, I found some disused track that would have been in use when my relatives were transported. The tracks along which they travelled now disappear into some bushes as nature is slowly reclaiming the memory of what had happened there.
This work has been made into a very fine book.
Some photographs work best as a book, others in exhibitions, others online. I think ‘Visitation Scenes’ better suits the format of a book, which can bring together the artworks, family snapshots and written information. The sequence of pages gives pace and flow to the unfolding narrative, encouraging contemplation.
The book was published by Dewi Lewis, one of Britain’s top art-photography publishers. He had published ‘A Rakes Progress’ back in 1990. The production of that first book was paid for by the state Arts Council. Such funding is no longer available in Britain today. I was able to raise forty per cent of the costs through a crowd-funding campaign. Fortunately, I could afford to pay the rest personally; many photographers would not.
Making this work, what did you learn about your family and, perhaps more generally, did this alter your sense of self and your place in the world?
When I began the project, I had a family album of photographs and a few anecdotes. It was very enlightening to visit, in person, the places that they had lived and through which they had journeyed. The character of these forebears has become much more real for me. I feel more connected to my heritage.
Andy Weiner was born in Edinburgh in 1959. He has a degree in medicine from the University of Edinburgh (1983) and a degree in photography from the Royal College of Art, London (1986). In the late 1980s, alongside other photographers such as Calum Colvin and Ron O’Donnell, he was part of a photographic movement in Scotland referred to as Constructed Narrative. He has exhibited primarily in the United Kingdom, but also in the USA and Europe.
His work is held in a number of public and private collections including the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (Edinburgh) and the Scottish Arts Council. His photographs have been widely published in journals, magazines and anthologies, and in two monographs: ‘Cautionary Tales’, which includes ‘A Rakes Progress’ [Cornerhouse Publications, 1990], and ‘Visitation Scenes’ [Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2020]. Andy Wiener currently divides his time between his photographic practice, and working as a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist in London.
photo © Jenny Nash
This article was initially published in Chinese, in the March 2021 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.