NEW YORK, NY.-
Cindy Sherman and Cate Blanchett had only met in passing, a few times. And yet there is an identifiable thread connecting the work of Sherman, the artist who (dis)appears, disguised in character, in her own photographs, and Blanchett, the protean and Oscar-winning Australian actress. On a gray morning in late April, the women, mutual admirers, convened at Hauser & Wirth gallery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where a collection of Shermans critically acclaimed early work opened Wednesday, and where they quickly forged a connection.
Im a massive fan, said Blanchett, proving her adulation with detailed questions, both technical (does Sherman use a timer?) and philosophical (where does rhythm sit in photography?). Blanchett had whisked into town to receive an award from Film at Lincoln Center, before heading back to London, where she is filming Disclaimer, an Apple TV+ series directed by Alfonso Cuarón.
Sherman was busy overseeing the exhibition, which includes all 70 of her untitled film stills, the black-and-white photos that put her on the map, and shook up the art world, starting in the late 70s, as well as her subsequent rear screen projection and centerfold images, all in color and all starring her. Sherman, 68, and Blanchett, who turns 53 this month, toured the exhibition together, eagerly finding commonalities.
She really takes on different personas, Sherman said admiringly.
In 2015, Blanchett performed in Manifesto, a 13-channel video art installation by German artist Julian Rosefeldt, in which she played at least a dozen different characters, from news anchor to homeless man, reciting various artistic and political manifestoes. (It was later released as a feature film.) That was inspiring, Sherman said, adding that she felt like she had done some of those characters too. It was a nice confirmation, of feeling like were on the same wavelength a little bit.
In what was less a conversation than a cosmic matchup, they talked about getting into character, childhood play, the value of makeup, and the horror of clowns. These are edited excerpts.
Q: How do you make use of each other's work?
CATE BLANCHETT: Filmmaking can be very literal. So, I find anything you can do to move yourself to a more abstract space. Sometimes its a piece of music. But invariably its an object. Oftentimes, Ill make a whole tear sheet composition about the feeling around something I cant articulate, images that had nothing to do on a conscious level with what Im doing. Like the Clown series, for instance. I cant even begin to express my revulsion and terror the visceral feeling of seeing those works [Shermans series of lurid clowns]. I tore it out for [the Guillermo del Toro film] Nightmare Alley recently.
I find if you slam something left of field up against what you need to do as an actor, it can create something slightly more ambiguous. It doesnt always work.
CINDY SHERMAN: I dont really get into the characters that way, but theres a big difference between what Im doing and acting. Im just standing still, and because Im also working alone, I can really mix it up, do the complete opposite of what I thought the character should do and sometimes that works.
Q: Did either of you grow up thinking that you had very malleable faces?
SHERMAN: I didnt.
BLANCHETT: No. I used to do this thing with my sister where she would dress me up, stand me in front of the mirror and give me a name. Then Id have to figure out that person. My favorite one we kept saying we were going to make a movie about him his name was Piggy Trucker. He was a little short guy, a bit like an Australian Wally Shawn [actor and playwright Wallace Shawn], and he drove a pig truck. [I was] probably about 7, 8 years old.
SHERMAN: It was playing dress-up. My mother would go to the local thrift store and for 10 cents buy these old prom dresses from the 40s or 50s. There was also, I think it was my great-grandmothers clothes that were left in the basement. I discovered them, and it was like, wow. It looked like old lady clothes, but also the pinafore type of things. When I was 10 or 12, I would put them on, stuff socks to hang down to the waist to look like old lady [breasts], and walk around the block.
BLANCHETT: [laughing, pretending to be Sherman] I knew then I wanted to be an artist!
Often, these things start as play and then the exploration becomes, I imagine, a seamless transition. Its not conscious some of these things, youre doing without thinking.
SHERMAN: Yeah. When I was in college, I was putting makeup on and transforming myself in my bedroom when I was studying painting. I think I was working out my frustration with whatever was going on in my life, and my boyfriend at the time finally just said, you know, maybe this is what you should be taking pictures of. And that seemed like a good idea.
Sometimes, Ill be making up [a character] and look in the mirror as I pose, and I suddenly feel like I dont recognize [myself]. Wow, where did she come from? Its kind of spooky, kind of cool. [To Blanchett] How do you come up with characters? Like all those for Julian [Rosefeldt]?
BLANCHETT: It was so fast. It was quite interesting for me actually, because you can get really hung up on your characters back story, particularly in American acting culture. Its all about your connection if your mother died or father died, then use that. That is really alien to me anyway. Ill talk to my therapist about that. What was really great about the Julian thing was, there was no psychology. It was just a series of actions. Most of the time, were not thinking about what makes us tick. Youre doing things. [To Sherman] Youve done a few male incarnations too.
SHERMAN: That was a lot harder. I had to just become confident in a way that I, as a woman, maybe am not. Once I relaxed into the character, I [sometimes] felt, this is a very sensitive guy.
Q: Cindy, in the film stills, youve said you tried to have very little visible emotion, at least in your face. Why?
SHERMAN: I didnt want to be obviously happy or sad, tormented or angry. I did want it to seem like the moment right before that emotion, or right after. I realized it looked too corny, if I was overreacting. So it just brought a more neutral mystery to it, because youre [wondering], whats going on there?
BLANCHETT: Often a smile is a defense. Its actually a shut down rather than an invitation. When you smile with your eyes, thats where the genuine thing comes from. One of the many things thats so powerful about your work is creating that expectation [of emotion] but not delivering, so theres an eerie sort of hollowness to it. Its the disconnect from what we present to who we actually are, and that vacuum between the two. Its often the space where all our personal horror sits.
[To Sherman] Its interesting, you go through this process by yourself. Im not a great fan of the monologue. I did a play once, a Botho Strauss play, where I had a monologue for 25 minutes. It was like, wow, this is lonely. Often on films, theres zero rehearsal or even conversation about stuff. Youre just meant to walk on and deliver. Youre thinking about the result, and I find that a pretty deathly way to work.
Ive realized over the years that my relationship with the costume designer and the hair and makeup people is really profound. Its profound to see what the character looks like, and therefore how a character might move or project. Those departments so-called female guilds are often things that male directors profess to know nothing about. Ill just leave that bit to you.
I played Elizabeth I years ago and the director, whom l love and respect, was always, I just want the hair down, flowing in the wind. I said, have you seen the pictures of Elizabeth I? There werent that many like that.
But its because [some male directors] need to feel attracted. They cant see that there are other ways and not even in a sexual way you can be alluring. You can draw an audience into a characters experience in many different ways. I keep going back to the clown images you can tell Im really disturbed by them. When youre taking them, do you think: I want people to feel repulsed by this?
SHERMAN: Even the repulsive things Ive done grotesque things with rotten food I want people to feel kind of repulsed, but attracted and laughing at it, all at once. I dont want people to take it too seriously.
Ive always been attracted to horror movies, and I equate that to the feeling of being on a roller coaster. You know youre not going to fall out, but you can still be terrified. And then its all over. I think thats how fairy tales functioned way back when. I was trying to do that with my work, to make it seem from a distance like, oh, pretty colors! And up close oh, its a little awful. But then you get the joke.
In the mid-80s, this company in Paris asked me if I would make some ads for French Vogue. Thats when I started playing with fake blood and fake noses. They hated it, of course. That inspired me to make it much more dark. I got fake scar tissue and fake body parts. Eventually I found these prosthetics fake [breasts and butts] was the perfect way to start playing with nudity, partly because I think Ive been hiding in the work. The idea of revealing any part of myself literally was never the point.
BLANCHETT: Im quite kinesthetic thats why I love being onstage, I feel like Im always better in movement. Youre so incredible, theres so much movement, and then, its all captured in this vibrating, still image.
Its like when you go and see dance. Its that moment of [sharp inhale] suspension before someone lands thats so thrilling. And so great that [your photographs] are not titled. Youre not led to make any particular sense of them. These works, its like a litmus test. Thank you.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times