Tuesday 25 October 2022

representation's swoon

Perhaps something of Palermo’s psychic ambiguity is suggested in the relational axis between two remarkable paintings held in the Museo Abatellis, a few steps from Lo Spasimo down Via Alloro. Firstly, an anonymous 15th century Gothic fresco, Il Trionfo della Morte ('The Triumph of Death') startling in its scale (6 square metres) and grim impact. An enormous skeleton archer, riding a flayed, bare-ribbed horse that seems to prefigure Picasso’s suffering beast in Guernica, gallops through a lush hedged garden dispatching volleys of arrows at popes, cardinals, nobility, and courtiers; they twist and clutch at their wounds as they fall. To one side, a gaggle of the poor seems to call out for an end to their misery, but they are ignored, or favoured. In their midst, an expressionless figure looks directly out at the viewer, a brush in his hand – the artist. Elsewhere a group of elegantly attired aristocrats hunt with dogs and a falcon, chat and listen to music by a fountain: revelers unaware of or indifferent to the proximity of Death’s ‘triumphant’ quiver. As a result of war damage to the palazzo that originally housed the fresco, this didactic allegory had been cut into four sections and reassembled in the Abatellis. The ensuing scar remains unrepaired, and rips a peeling X through the very centre of the image, like the overlay of blurred crosshairs in the eyepiece of a rifle, its target the gaunt flank of the horse.

Secondly, Antonello da Messina’s L’Annunziata ('The Announced', 1476), an exquisitely composed, icon-sized representation of the Biblical annunciation, Mary’s encounter with the Archangel Gabriel and her reception of his message. This restrained humanist image is the very antithesis of the fresco’s graphic apocalypse, for it distills a narrative sequence into an enigmatic moment, like a single frame of film in which everything is discreet, suggested, withheld, mysterious. A solitary woman, her luminous face framed by a blue headscarf and a black background, is interrupted while reading. Her left hand holds the scarf lightly over her chest, while her right hand is raised slightly towards the viewer in an ambiguous gesture - of surprise, perhaps, or instinctive defence, self-steadying, or even, in its intimation of the viewer’s presence, a blessing. Her quiet angled gaze focuses on a point just to the lower left of the viewer, as if reflecting internally. The angel remains invisible, unrepresentable. The surface of Mary’s body, like a minutely sensitized seismograph, registers the fleeting presence of something radically other and incarnates its passage - and we are cast as witnesses to the barely manifest signs, both intensive and extensive, of this passage: the dynamic stillness of her suspended hand, the gravity of her contemplative expression, the raised page of her open book as if lifted momentarily by a tiny current of air.

In the space between the narratives and representational economies of these two images – enfolding mortality and becoming, unrelenting threat and fragile possibility, explicit excess and ineffable secret - representation itself seems to spasm and swoon.  This (overtly Catholic) axis between panic and grace informs the uncertain ground on which Palermo’s dreams and nightmares are played out. 

Extract from an essay, 'Performing Palermo: protests against forgetting', originally published in Nicolas Whybrow (ed.), Performing Cities, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014

Monday 24 October 2022

the play of panic and grace

‘I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But show the rags, the refuse – these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them’ … Walter Benjamin


Since the summer of 2017, the performance maker and visual artist John Rowley has produced a substantial and compelling series of mask photographs on Instagram (@john.rowley.17). To date there are over 500 of these images, each of them a ‘self-portrait’ wearing a particular mask of his own devising, a new and different ‘face’ layered over his own face. The photographs are almost always taken in the same location, by the back door of John’s house in Cardiff. The framing reveals John’s body from the middle of his chest to the top of his head; his torso is naked, throwing our attention up towards the facial sculpture of the mask. The collection of images in this book represents a selection from this brilliantly eccentric catalogue of playfully performed, possible selves.


With great economy and humour, all sorts of practices and categories are teased at and critically questioned in this body of work. The self and its proliferative performance in the time of the ‘selfy’. Photographic portraiture and its enduring claim to register the real.  Social media as a site for creative practice. Negotiating and recycling a culture of acquisition and disposal, consumption and waste. And the status of a mask today. This series was underway long before the pandemic and its rolling lockdowns; but in the contested light of the enforced restrictions of Covid and its protective masks, these images assume a further critical charge, as an emancipatory realigning of our relationship to the mask, and of imaginative ways to people our isolation.


Cumulatively as a series, the images reference a wide range of art and cultural practices, consciously or otherwise. For example, there are comic resonances with Renaissance portrait paintings and the composite fruit’n’veg heads of Archimboldo, with Hieronymus Bosch, modernist visual art practices (particularly Surrealism and Dada collage, Constructivism, Picasso, Francis Bacon) and body art, as well as the work of certain photographers, including Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman. There are also buried echoes of British folk art practices, of Oceanic and African mask art, and tongue-in-cheek renderings of traditions of masked theatre: ancient Greek drama, commedia dell’arte. More explicitly and insistently, the images draw joyfully on the tropes, stereotypes and material traces of popular culture: B-movies, TV, sci-fi - clunky representations of early hominids, ancient warriors, assorted monsters and animals; cartoons, children’s drawings, doodles; amateur dramatics and school plays; perhaps even the construction of scarecrows and bodgy backyard snowmen.


Some of you will be familiar with John’s work over many years as a live performer, with Brith Gof, Mike Pearson and National Theatre of Wales, good cop bad cop, Forced Entertainment, Heiner Goebbels and others. And to my mind he brings some of his characteristic attributes in those experimental theatre contexts to these stagings of masks – the very sign of theatre. Above all, a profound tonal ambiguity that straddles the apparent opposition between laugh-out-loud-funny and not-funny-at-all. His performances consistently affirm a willingness to embrace and inhabit the desultory bare life of the browbeaten, wounded, pathetic, limping, lonely and broken; he knows how to adopt the shape of the ache of loss, dereliction and abjection. At the same time, these dented wasteling figures possess an enduring resilience, and present us with a resistant self who’s still standing, looking back, doggedly life-ful. A wilful spark glimmers in the eyes of these Beckettian clowns, their ‘pilot lights’ still ablaze, triumphant and still playing in the face of despondency and failure; although it’s a precarious balancing act, somehow they avoid being consumed by the mess of it all. In this way, John becomes a kind of suburban trash shaman, or a redemptive bouffon, buoyed as much, it seems, by a greasy bacon bap as by Francis Bacon. At times there’s also a whiff of that naughty attention–seeking kid at school pratting around with pencils up his nose, elastic bands scrunched around his ears, fingers distending his mouth – making faces for silly laughs, for the shock of it, pushing things just a little too far. Funny-haha/funny-peculiar.


When I have seen John perform, I have often been struck by his animation of these ambiguities, his recurrent ability to conjoin a poignant, hunched, lurching fragility with a stroppily upright ongoingness. It feels as though we are witnessing a layered and complex creature happening right here and now in all of its uncertainty, its fucked-up-and-yet-ness. I have come to think of John the performer as a defiant, playfully purposeful celebrant picking over the brokenness and waste of a culture, mirroring it back at us. A shapeshifting survivor finding a way through the chaos, all too aware of it, with his eyes locked on ours. And I am reminded of the American director and writer Herbert Blau’s description of how, through performance, he was always trying to work out ‘some liveable unison between panic and grace'. I see something of that brave juggle-dance in both John’s performances and in these photographs.


As with the creative ‘messing around’ that devising performances entails, John’s approach to these masks involves bricolage and montage. His aesthetic is rough, artisanal, home-made, his decision-making swift and intuitive. Found materials, the abandoned and forgotten by-products of domestic everyday life - the use-less remainder, a kind of living dead - are reclaimed and repurposed in new combinations that leak a mysterious potency and affect. Excavate, retrieve, accumulate, select, experiment, improvise, reinvent. Sometimes these combinations are minimal (three pieces of string - #barelyamask - tied tight around the face to rearrange it, one eye stretched wide, the nose flattened, the mouth stretched uncomfortably to somewhere between wince and growl); sometimes they are cumulative, stratified and elaborate. Specific materials are selected from whatever’s at hand in the home: food, packaging, clothing, soft furnishings and toys, decorations, objects and products from the kitchen, bathroom, garden and shed, junk mail, celeb magazine covers - including an astonishing series of ‘shredded’ politicians - and other found images. These elements are combined, attached to the face or draped over it, then recorded on a phone camera and uploaded with a slew of comedy hashtags, in this way transforming both raw materials and face into a new temporary ‘persona’ (the Latin term for a mask, and for the self presented to others, one’s social ‘role’). Compositionally, these constructed faces are knowingly arranged around the eyes, or occasionally John’s glasses, a comically effective stand-in for the eyes as well as a practical means to hold the mask in place.


John’s images make me think of the subversive power of children’s play, an experiential ‘becoming-worldly’, as conceived by Walter Benjamin: repetition with infinite variants as the organizing principle presiding over the rules and rhythms of the world of play, which in its world-making can propose a disorderly threat to the prevailing order: and Benjamin’s affirmation in his Arcades project of history’s ‘ragpickers’, scouring the debris of the residual dream-worlds of obsolete commodity fetishism, making use of the rags and the refuse, enabling them to take (a) place and to do their work. And I think of Roland Barthes’s reflections on the body, and how to write it: “Neither the skin, nor the muscles, not the bones, not the nerves, but the rest: an awkward, fibrous, shaggy, ravelled thing, a clown’s coat”.


Traditionally, masks have been conceived of as instruments of concealment, a deceptive covering deployed to withhold the self. Paradoxically, however, the best masks seem to reveal and expose something that’s hidden; they enable an archetypal shape, a ‘soul portrait’, to seem to flare into appearance. However, in John’s non-illusionist images the seams of seeming never quite disappear. Although we recognise a typology of different kinds of being-in-the-world in these masks, we never lose sight of their made-ness, the edges and joins, the string and tape, John’s skin and body. And in this ambiguous aggregation of John/not-John, invariably John is partially present AND temporarily elsewhere. His masks are presentational, to-be-looked-at, but more often than not he also looks back through the architecture of the fiction, through the cracks in the made thing. Of course his capacity to see is what’s needed in order to be able to take a photograph, but it also has the effect of making the mask both proximate and held at a slight distance, like a role in the theatre of Brecht, never all-consuming as a seamless illusion. And within this gap there is a critical friction, a give, a space for play.


Given that these images are named as self-portraits, where’s John in all of this? He presents us with a series of arrested, temporary identities, ludic signs of a plural, mutable and unstable self-in-process made up of fragments of our culture. The others who are us. In the ruins of the notion of an essential self and of a single, fixed, ‘true’ mask, perhaps that’s what a contemporary self is: an ongoing and unfinishable series of ephemeral identities, a parade of the borrowed and constructed, the hilarious and the tragic. Fleeting shapes that emerge and are encountered, before they melt away again, like the tips of passing icebergs. For we know that there is always more to this than meets the eye. And that there will be others still to come, hopefully …


Introduction to John Rowley's  'Ludic', a book of mask/self-portrait photographs, designed & published by Terraffoto, 2022. There's a large format, limited edition, hand-crafted risograph edition, and a digitally printed version. Big thanks to John for inviting me to write something to accompany his brilliant images ...