Iain has kindly shared the following short piece which will be part of the catalogue for an upcoming show at the CCCB in Barcelona
It is accompanied by a series of pictures by Anonymous Bosch
EXPOSED BY MASK
‘The sea was not a mask.’
— Wallace Stevens, The Idea of Order at Key West
It was, quite suddenly, the time of masks. And universal suspicion of what those masks implied. A world in crisis. A relentless pandemic of cold-sweat paranoia leaking from TV screens and other handheld manifestations of anti-social media. Demagogues, primped and polished, refused to cover faces which were already masks of skin. They were surgically and cosmetically enhanced in the delirium of vanity. If their bloated puppet features could not be infinitely repeated, burrowing like brain-worms into our inattention, tapping our basest instincts, the self-masked monsters would dissolve into puddles of rancid bear grease. They saw themselves as superheroes of cyberspace. They denied the mask of protection and suffered the consequences. They saw the sea of masked faces as a socialist conspiracy, a demonstration in which all races were created equal. The resources of the state had therefore to be commandeered and the anti-mask narrative fixed, even as those without entitlement were dying in crowded wards and corridors, and in reservations of the old, where subtle viruses incubate at their leisure. The demagogues fell sick and recovered. They came back from the dead. They were invincible. Even their wildest lies could be spun as a higher form of truth, a set of subverted commandments sculpted in junk food and bluster.
It was made to appear that the masks themselves were responsible for this plague. They were worn like some terrible badge of affliction. Celebrities and influencers were quick to adopt designer masks, promoting themselves as a brand, and using the partial covering, the hidden mouth and nose, as colour coordinators for their feisty outfits. Or as bridles made from a set of fashionable tattoos. Only the eyes are visible. Speech is muffled, communication choked.
The disguise of the traditional Western bandit, the rough rider protecting himself from trail dust, is translated into the grudging uniform of the concerned citizen. The fearful traveller cowering on public transport. Highwaymen and burglars in cartoons wear their masks with slits cut for predatory vision. Once our eyes were givers and receivers of light, the surest expression of personality. Now they are all that is permitted. The ambiguity in the status of the dark mask covering the upper portion of the face, like some syphilitic shadow, reached its apotheosis with the pulp magazine Black Mask, first published in 1920. This hardboiled item evolved into a site where Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler could hone their craft and influence generations of future practitioners. The darkness of the mask leaked into Hollywood film noir, where exiled Europeans were making new careers under revised names and fresh identities. The mask of anonymity belonged as much to the author as to the villain.
Sour nationalists had already denounced facial prophylaxis as a confession of weakness, a mimed sympathy for alien beliefs and foreign doctrines. The French, for example, were deeply conflicted: they wanted, on the one hand, to prohibit the trappings of traditional Muslim modesty, in the greater cause of a shared national identity, in which all migrants would be equal, absorbed into civic society – and ready to sing the Marseillaise. But they faced resistance from those who are always suspicious of political initiatives, of interference with personal freedom. Citizens fought against a centralised authority trying to impose non-French face masks as a necessary protection against the ravages of Covid-19 globalism.
Eros and Thanatos: fevers in the blood surge both ways, the itch could be arousal or sickness. Or some quantum entanglement between two contrary states. The beaked mask of the Venetian plague doctor, launched in the 12th century, when the miasma of killing sickness seeped out of the canals and over the secured gates of the Jewish ghetto, is an intimate relative of the traditional Carnival disguise employed to mask sexual classification and social status. Biographical information is suppressed to facilitate private pleasure. And to secure a naked and vulnerable self from the predations of the virus. The plague doctors are like a murder of crows, operatically cloaked, and ghosting through shadows. Their exaggeratedly priapic beaks are stuffed with herbs, in order to purify the foul air. They carry lanterns, as if to navigate a curfew blackout: the perpetual night of pestilential horror.
The medical bags are like the satchels and boxes in which Londoners were compelled to carry their gas masks, in the days of the threat of Blitz during the Second World War. Those sinister, rubber-smelling devices were about flattened porcine snouts and enlarged insect eyes. They were reminiscent of alien invaders out of H.G. Wells or Poverty Row science-fiction movies. No human speech was possible, just the subterranean grunts of a bestial underclass. As children in Wales, we played with masks that had never seen enemy action. The gas cloud belonged to the entrenched nightmare of the First War. And to the visionary death-of-the-universe imaginings of a writer who died in that war, after enlisting as an overage volunteer: William Hope Hodgson. Hodgson’s swine creatures in The House on the Borderland (1908), emerging from a pit, as from a drowned shell-hole crater, can be seen advancing through clouds of battlefield smoke and poisoned air, as misshapen children in gas masks. Messengers of greater horrors to come. Harbingers of the fantastic fiction of that First War period and authors like Arthur Conan Doyle and his rogue scientist, Professor Challenger.
‘Bring oxygen!’ Challenger orders in The Poison Belt (1913). Here was a weird premonition of the desperate requirements of undersupplied populations, especially India, during the Delta variant crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic. In Conan Doyle’s novel there is a headlong rush on the Oxygen Tube Supply Company in Oxford Street. Masked and sucking deep on their tubes, Challenger’s associates survive this universal pestilence, a belt of malignant ether, by remaining hidden away in a house in Sussex.
In that rubber-death smell of the gas mask from the trenches, and from the rubble of a bombed London, is the suggestion of fetishist abandonment, pain and pleasure. Secret dungeons and private-interest clubs. ‘A minor universe/ in which you can see/ God by sniffing the/ gas in a cotton?’ Allen Ginsberg, in his poem ‘Aether’, written in solitude, at the Hotel Comercio in Lima in 1960, conflates ether-sniffing consciousness experiments with rubber-mask memories of the dentist’s chair in New York City. The restrictive masks and hoods of sexual adventurism morph into shaming images dumped in cyberspace from political prisons such Abu Ghraib. Hoods and cloaks disguise victims and willing participants alike. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, exploits all of these confusions and ugly transferences between voyeurism and brutality. He resurrects psychosexual fantasies sketched in chilling fervour by the imprisoned Marquis de Sade.
The mask, happily reproduced and made into a multiple by corporate entities, is now a convenient device of political theatre. A facial slogan or signature through which anybody’s ‘Masque of Anarchy’ can be turned to profit by the marketing division of Warner Bros or some other La La Land operation dedicated to putting out cannibalised superhero product as a front for peddling plastic ephemera and theme-park rides. You see for-and-against mobs of demonstrators wearing the same oversize life masks of cartoon demagogues: Trump, Boris Johnson and Margaret Thatcher. But masks can also be a way to connect the individual to the crowd. In the giant bowls of football stadia (convenient in some cultures for rounding up opponents of the regime, before confinement or execution), cardboard masks of tribal heroes cohabit with those of the damned, the hated owners or mercenary managers who are deemed to have sold out the original working-class ethos of the local community.
I came to the pleasant, ‘politically liberal’ city of Northampton, the county seat of Hampshire County, Massachusetts. There was a book fair in a civic hall from which I walked away in order to explore a place that saw itself as belonging in a new ‘Knowledge Corridor’. With wide streets, healthy young women on bicycles heading to the campus of Smith College, the city felt justified in calling itself the ‘Paradise of America’. Even the weather was benign. The aura of lustrous privilege was palpable. Northampton boasted of a large section of the community identified as gay and lesbian. And of its socially active and responsibly radical young people. Numbers of whom, on this golden American fall morning, were gathered on wide and tree-shaded pavements with protest placards and smirking Guy Fawkes masks out of V for Vendetta. They abhorred bankers. They wanted to occupy Wall Street. And bring down satanic mills of commerce with tags from William Blake. Occupying a patch of park in Northampton was a start. Only the t-shirts offered variety. The white faces with curling lips and moustaches were out of Alan Moore and David Lloyd, by way of Warner Bros, the Wachowskis and James McTeigue. The masks, smiling in secret knowledge, under water cannon or gas attack, could just as well have been worn by partying bankers and investors on weekend break. The face-shields were implacable and unforgiving. They played well on television. They referenced Orwell, Huxley, Pynchon, Thomas Disch and generations of martyred heretics and counter culturalists.
The masks had escaped from the man who imagined them. Wisely and bravely, Alan Moore kept his distance from the film. Kept his name off the product. Moore says that his germinating impulse involved a ‘freakish’ transsexual terrorist in whiteface makeup. The face of a clown and not a theatrical ritualist. It was the artist David Lloyd who came up with the mask. ‘Why don’t we portray him as a resurrected Guy Fawkes, complete with one of those papier mâché masks, in a cape and conical hat?’ he said. The rest is viral, in all senses. The mask was the ideogram of the madness of this delirious negotiation between business and vision. The bind from which the genius of Alan Moore originates.
Now it is almost as if, in our affectless and instantaneous world, the Fawkes mask has replaced the film and even the Moore book, in all its serial forms: the mask is the final solution to Lewis Carroll’s riddle. The mask is the grin without the cat. You can acquire as many copies of the Xeroxed Guy Fawkes as you want from Amazon and the usual warehouses, next-day delivery. The masks are manufactured from ‘lightweight thermal plastic’. ‘One size fits all’. The heavy rubber of the uniformed fetishists has become a tough and elegant PVC. These masks are charming. They are voluble but mute. And, as a bonus, once your credit is assured and you’ve declared an interest, Amazon will offer, in the same package, a beaked Venetian plague-doctor mask as a potential Halloween costume. Yours for £10.95.
Alan Moore has explained how the Fawkes mask evolved from the painted face of the clown. Clowns held a particular fascination for Colin MacInnes, author of Absolute Beginners. It was said that MacInnes, even without makeup, had something of the rigid gravitas of the celebrated clown, Grock. His face was bloodless and stiff. A mask ‘borrowed from death’, according to the playwright Bernard Kops. The spectral pallor was reminiscent of the life mask, taken from William Blake. Like a premature funerary monument. A mimetic rendering of a future state of suspension between worlds. But this was not the man. His disciple Samuel Palmer said that Blake ‘was a man without a mask; his aim single… and his wants few, so he was free.’
MacInnes, a gay man on the Soho scene, had other masks in play. Absolute Beginners covered the period of the race riots in Notting Hill. The author was hipped by black culture, club life in post-war London. He was a colonial with a hunger for domination by African lovers, companions he would treat with hauteur. The complexities of his social situation contrasted vividly with the provocations of the authentic criminal outsider, Jean Genet. Absolute Beginners appeared around the same time as Genet’s Les Nègres. The Genet piece is about masks. The author explained that he, a white man, had written his play for a white audience. If it should be performed before a black audience, then a white person must be led to a seat in the front row. ‘But what if no white person accepted? Then let white masks be distributed to the black spectators as they enter the theatre. And if the blacks refuse, then let a dummy be used.’ A parody court is formed from black actors in white masks. Rituals of power involve the wearing and discarding of masks, literal and metaphorical.
The ultimate revelation of the power of the mask arrived as I made my way towards another Northampton, the English provincial nexus where Alan Moore had his long-established base and where he contrived Jerusalem, an epic, multi-dimensional celebration of the special qualities of the old market town. A town which also contained the county asylum, the madhouse where the ‘peasant poet’ John Clare was incarcerated for so many years.
The director Andrew Kötting convened a troop that included Toby Jones, who would, in silence, play Clare, while being remotely voiced by his father, Freddie. The film was called By Our Selves. I was part of the film, as a presence, if never quite an actor, as we tramped towards our confrontation with Moore: the presiding spirit of the place where Clare drifted into a dream state of plural identities. Madness was a convenient mask for inspiration, vision, and seizure by other poets and historic figures, living and dead. Madness was the cloak for a performed final self.
Asked to arrive in costume, in an enchanted Epping Forest, close to the site of Matthew Allen’s asylum (where Clare had been held for four years), I picked out, almost at random, a white goat mask. I found it, a thing to be coloured by a child, in an art supply shop at St Leonards-on-Sea. The goat – invoking Goya’s darkest etchings – was the right symbol. When combined with a black linen suit, it created a novel persona. I felt a sense of release. I could accompany the actors without having to act. I could witness the minutiae of performance delivered by Toby Jones. I was both exposed and hidden, and able to read, when required, relevant passages from Clare’s account of his ‘Journey Out of Essex’. Now I understood the magic of the mask. And even, pitching it high, its function in Greek tragedy. The wearer embodies the symbol. And is directed by it.
We reached the English Northampton, the town Moore ordained as the spiritual centre of England. He sat on a bench in a section of open parkland, in his own mask of hair and beard, and he read, as it should be read, Clare’s great, terrifying poem of abdication: ‘I Am’. The acknowledgement that a mask can only melt into another mask.
Alan read, with a deep rumble, in the authentic voice of place, a version closer to Clare and the madhouse than any actor, that much anthologised poem. I was transported. But as he read, the words of quite another poet, from quite another setting, came into my head. I was back with Wallace Stevens. ‘Thus one is most disclosed when one is most anonymous.’