Posted onSat 30 May 2015Wed 13 May 2020AuthorDominique Sweeney2 Comments
Masks – Dominique 2001
When you are seen as the person behind the mask, or as the mask, or as something else again what does that infer about our common usage of the face as signifier? This piece of animal, vegetable or mineral is the ‘thing’ itself and with this mask you can embody, element, god, animal, devil and foe. That is, you can embody these various aspects if you have the ‘capacity’. Who are you when you are the mask? Are you just someone with a cover over your face? Are you being stupid? Playing around?… or are you it? Masks connect us to timelessness, to magical and spiritual ritual. There is always something frightening with them. When used they embody, suggest or fabricate the world. Perhaps for this reason the catholic church has regarded them as profane and dangerous. They certainly have a propensity for undermining. In various traditions including Hopi, Balinese and Commedia dell’arte there is a devil like mask who makes the audience laugh with their lack of respect for the status quo. Masks are capable of releasing ‘qualities’ very different to those which would normally be expected from the porter, the person wearing the mask… “…the mask protected anonymity, it preserved a residue of mystery, and gave the wearer a pleasurable feeling of otherness and ambiguity.” (Bihalji-Merin 1971:98) In the 18th century the elite of Venice would use the bautta mask as a standard mode of polite anonymity. So too, the Ku Klux Klan, though for reasons less polite. What of the power that people see through the mask? From the other side? When you put on a mask you change. Transformed “through invocation and identification: ‘the wearer of the mask is possessed by the sublimity and dignity of those who are no more. (You) are (yourself) and yet someone else. Madness has touched (you)- something of the mystery of the raving God, of spirit of double existence which resides in masks, and whose last descendant is the actor.’ When the wearer(s) cease to identify (themselves) with the mask, when (they) overcome its magic power, then the mask becomes a means of disguise and self- adornment. Divine ritual gives way to human drama.” (Bihalji-Merin 1971:9) Whether you believe it or not the ‘outside world now sees you differently. If you allow the transformational power of the mask to affect you then we are talking about a whole level of understanding that leaves behind the ‘real’, ‘material’ world. Bihalji-Merin quotes Alfred Jarry, a late 19th century French playwright, “When characters show themselves behind masks we must remember that character is nothing else but a mask, and that the ‘false face’ is the true one, because it is the personal one.” ( Bihalji-Merin 1971:76)
Theatre, in whatever form, is a mode of artistic practice concerned with manipulations of time and space and, in many theatrical traditions, masks of various kinds are the means by which communication between the living and the dead, or between humans and spirits, becomes possible. In this section, my purpose is not simply to place the masked corroborees of the northwest in some kind of generic ‘world theatre’ context; rather, by focusing on some specific practices in the corroborees, I want to demonstrate how certain assumptions about masks-commonly made by scholars of theatre/performance whose initial frame of reference are the canonical mask traditions of western Europe (Greek tragedy, Commedia dell’arte etc.)- are unnecessarily restrictive. In what follows, I will examine three issues: (i) how we define masks; (ii) how masking practices are not so much about concealment as they are about manifestation-though, in the case of the northwest corroborees, a particular kind of manifestation for which my own previous experiences as a masked performer were a problematic reference point; and (iii) how the theoretical categories of C. S. Peirce, in which phenomenological experience and semiotic processes are seen as inextricably related, offer the most useful meta-language for a cross-cultural dialogue about masking practices.
Sweeney, D. (2009). Masked corroborees of the northwest – “stand up in my head”. (Thesis (Ph.D.)), Australian National University. p. 41
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