Like Marilyn Monroe herself, Warhol was famous for the ambiguity of his statements. Were these na•ve utterances innocent or did they contain some deep truth? He once said, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintingsÉ and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” As he cultivated such a transparent persona, he became an object of intense speculation. In many cases, Warhol became more famous than the celebrities he depicted yet everyone he touched became bathed in a shining glow of glamour.
In his “Faces” portfolio, Gavin Turk cleverly plays with Warhol’s legacy. In 1980, for example, Warhol produced prints based on his own photograph of Joseph Beuys, then the only living artist to match his celebrity status. By turning Beuys into a diamond dusted “Warhol”, the canny American triumphed over his German rival, undermining the seriousness of Beuys’s political commitment by presenting him merely as the latest celebrity image. Here Warhol suggests that the artist’s publicity image is more important than his work.
Turk has escalated this process, trumping both Warhol and Beuys along the way. In “Red Beuys” and “In Memory of Silver Beuys” he not only unashamedly mimics Warhol’s image, technique, materials and colours, he also substitutes his own face for that of Beuys. If Beuys was originally turned into a “Warhol”, now Warhol and Beuys have been turned into a “Turk”.
Unlike other political figures such as Mao, Che Guevara never featured in Warhol’s work, yet in Turk’s hands his iconic image is both Warholised and Turkified. Although this image has the generic look of a Warhol, the face of Guevara is actually Turk’s (slyly hinted at in the title “Gavara Reversed”). This becomes even more intriguing when we note that Che already occupies a place in Turk’s own oeuvre. In 2000, he displayed a waxwork of himself as the revolutionary, exhibited a billboard poster based on the same famous image and in a 2001 performance, adopted the role of Che for a period of days.
Is this simply as an elaborate art world in-joke? Almost certainly not. Much of Turk’s work concerns itself with questions of identity and empathy. Not only has he entered into the image-space of Che, but in “Pop” (1993) he also presented a waxwork figure of himself as Sid Vicious as Elvis Presley. He also repeated this exercise in “Another Bum” of 1999.
Turk is not alone in exploring this kind of role-playing. Douglas Gordon does likewise in his 1996 photograph of himself in a blonde wig entitled “Self Portrait as Kurt Cobain, as Andy Warhol, as Myra Hindley, as Marilyn Monroe”. Austrian artist Irene Andessner’s takes this even further when she “becomes” Marlene Dietrich for a few months in 2001 and marries a Mr. Dietrich to officially change her surname!
It is also significant that Turk has titled this current series of prints “Faces”, rather than “Portraits”. A portrait tells us about the individuality, personality, status or psychological state of the subject. A face, on the other hand, is more akin to a mask, something that can conceal as much as it might reveal (untrustworthy individuals are “two-faced”).
In today’s world our identities are statistics and scientifically verifiable data: passport, credit card and National Insurance numbers, finger prints, DNA and signatures. Where are “we” in all of this? Where is the “real” Gavin Turk? Where can we find the signs of “true” identity?
Extract from an essay by John Calcutt, 2004