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Writing Objects Part III: Masks and Masking (Primary, June 4, 2014)

5 Jun
Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington

For the third and final Writing Objects session at Primary, using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s Multiple points in this crude landscape, we looked at the various forms that masks can take and the even more various ways in which masks can be deployed in the creation of texts. Strictly speaking, a mask is a physical object that covers all or part of the face, from behind which the wearer looks out. Technically, this means no text can truly be a mask. But in a more expanded sense it’s clear that in the different personas we project in our choices of clothes or accessories, our movements between behaviour at work and in private, our editing of images and interests to represent ourselves on social media, we all, in practical terms, use masks.

To give a sense of how this kind of masking can operate, we watched an excerpt from Forced Entertainment’s recent re-staging of 12am: Awake and Looking Down (1993), a durational piece in which, as the company themselves explain: “five silent performers endlessly reinvent their identities using stacks of cardboard signs with which they name themselves, and a store of jumble-sale clothing (coats, dresses, suits, anoraks, trousers, pyjamas) from which they dress and re-dress…”. The minimal resources and suggestive capsule descriptions on the cardboard signs bring to life a range of archetypal characters in their wider imaginative contexts and suggest multiple potential narratives.

The tones of voice, degrees of intimacy and formality we adopt for different email correspondences (personal and professional, with close friends or casual acquaintances) serve a similar function to Forced Entertainment’s cardboard signs in presenting a shorthand for different aspects of ourselves in different contexts and situations – some close to our real selves, others almost entirely fictional. Even in supposedly pure self-expression, we tend to highlight insecurities to win sympathy or strengths to seem more capable and attractive. Paradoxically, an actual mask might distance us from this kind of everyday self-consciousness and liberate us to explore other possibilities.

Leonora Carrngton: Self-Portrait (1937)

Leonora Carrington: Self-Portrait (1937)

In Leonora Carrington‘s short story, The Debutante (1939), a mask plays a role in the narrative but the text itself masks autobiographical content behind the appearance of a darkly surreal fairy-tale. The characters, a young girl and a hyena, represent the constrained and liberated sides of Carrington herself, who wrote it at the age of 22. A raw 16mm film version of The Debutante by Ric Warren, made in 1994, illustrates Carrington’s point that the human face acquired for the hyena is little more than a skin, a civilised veneer covering the hyena’s true face. This is – visibly and significantly – a mask. Only when the hyena gleefully reverts to her authentic mask is the girl’s own potential revealed.

In the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola‘s novel The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952), there is an early scene in which the narrator follows a handsome gentleman at the market. At first, he is consumed by feelings of inferiority: why can he not be as handsome as this gentleman? Yet time passes, the market winds down, and he sees the gentleman leaving another piece of his own body at each stall he passes, until he is finally exposed as a floating skull with no body, no arms or legs, no skin or skeleton, not even a face of his own. His substance is borrowed, rented by the hour on the market. As a metaphor for consumerism, the sale of identity and appearances, it’s a remarkably prescient passage.

Perhaps the unsettling quality of masks, exploited in many films, including Georges Franju’s Judex (1963), relates to this sense that appearance and reality can no longer be matched or trusted. A mask can erase or expose us, free us from responsibility for our actions or to express what is forbidden. A mask can also break habitual frames of reference. The Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa used his various literary personas in this way. We concluded the session with an excerpt from Jan Svankmajer’s Jabberwocky (1971). This neatly drew together threads from all three sessions: everyday objects are performed, Lewis Carroll’s incantatory poem is recited, and the film’s political meanings are both blatant and ingeniously masked.

Twins Seven Seven: Amos Tutuola (c.1964)

Twins Seven Seven: Amos Tutuola (c.1964)

 

Notes from session one, looking at actors as objects and objects as actors, are here.

Notes from session two, looking at incantation and ritual, are here.

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Writing Objects Part I: Ubu Roi and the Actor as Object (Primary, May 7 2014)

8 May
Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry (1896)

Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry (1896)

The first of the Writing Objects sessions took place last night at Primary, bringing together writers, performers and artists interested in using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s installation Multiple points in this crude landscape, which launches on Friday 9 May (6 – 9pm) with an opening performance devised by Baldock in collaboration with Florence Peake. For the first session of three, we decided to explore the idea of the ‘actor as object’, or more precisely, reconsider the usually frowned-upon practice of objectification.

Usually thought of in contexts like pornography, advertising and mainstream cinema, and often used in propaganda and news media, where our sympathy or animosity is aroused by stereotypical victims and dehumanised threats, objectification is about the presentation of human figures as things, stripped in some way of their particular identities and voices, and thereby rendered passive and powerless.

Our starting point was to consider other ways in which this act of objectification might work, and we looked at four texts and a selection of related films that seemed to challenge conventional approaches to objectification.

To illustrate this approach we watched the opening scenes of Vera Chytilova’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies) [1966] which first reduces its two teenage protagonists, known only as Marie I and Marie II, to mannequins, then in every subsequent scene has the girls constantly changing – from one role or context to another, almost randomly tumbling through the film’s discontinuous settings – while keeping them exactly as they are, utterly unfazed and unchanged by even the most extreme and unsettling things in their environment.

This technique relates to folk traditions, where, as in the Brothers Grimm version of Hansel & Gretel, the characters – the Woodcutter, the Witch and Hansel & Gretel – are always ciphers rather than individuals, blank spaces into which we are free to project our own identities and experiences rather than rounded individuals in their own right. Their presence in their own story is overshadowed by the objects and things around them: Hansel & Gretel are not only interchangeable with one another but with any child, while the Witch’s house, if not the Witch herself, is very specifically memorable.

In a different way, the character of Père Ubu in Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi is objectified by exaggeration, a broad-brush caricature: human traits of cowardice, avarice and lust for glory are pushed to extremes, dialogue is laced with obscenities. Jarry’s drama is an absurdist satire on the workings of power, a Punch & Judy version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with no intention of being even-handed or naturalistic. When we see performed versions, either on stage or in films like Jean Christophe Averty’s live-action Ubu Roi (1965)  or Geoff Dunbar’s animated Ubu (1978), Jarry’s intention to make his play a live-action puppet show becomes unmistakable.

Another approach to the stripping away of specific identity can be seen in Samuel Beckett’s short, intense script Not I (1972) in which the central (and only) character, a woman, possibly old, possibly already dead or in limbo, is reduced to a mouth, floating disembodied on the stage while speaking a rapid-fire monologue composed of fragmented generalities and shattered bits of memory. Here, loss of identity is contradicted by language, which floods out, veering between emotional states, as though speech is the only thing that keeps Mouth (or any of us) from disappearing altogether (a point underscored by the fact that, if she ceases to speak, nothing at all remains visible).

Returning to the conventions of Hansel & Gretel for our conclusion, we watched Jan Svankmajer’s 1983 short film Down To The Cellar, a work which utilises the affectless characterisation of the Brothers Grimm and Lewis Carroll’s original Alice books (also filmed by Svankmajer, in 1987) in a modern, political setting. Down To The Cellar is entirely wordless, its whole effect built on heightened sound and visual atmospherics. The protagonist is silent, a figure into whose shoes we place ourselves (or at least, a memory of ourselves as children).

As a footnote, we looked at an example of the inverse of objectification, where a human consciousness strives to decode the intentions and meaning of an actual mute object. The French poet and essayist Francis Ponge (1899 – 1988) was a master of this and his quest to give objects a language of their own, to find what strange, non-human meanings hid in that ‘language of objects’, meant Karen Volkman’s translation of The Trees Delete Themselves Inside A Fog Sphere offered a neat full-stop to our discussion.

Gisela Gottschlich: Illustration from Grimm's Fairy Tales [Hansel Und Gretel II]

Gisela Gottschlich: Illustration from Grimm’s Fairy Tales [Hansel Und Gretel II]

Writing Objects (Session two: on text as incantation and ritual) is at Primary on 21 May (7 – 9pm).

Writing Objects (Session three: on masks and unstable identities) is at Primary on 4 June (7 – 9pm).

Free booking may still be available for these sessions via the Primary eventbrite link.