The mask is an object that can both conceal and divulge information about its wearer. At times a disguise and others a means of protection, it can also fright or shock. The current exhibition Mask at Kammel Mennour reveals the many different sides of the facial covering through sculpture and photography.
While the mask is most often associated with the visage, the artwork at Kammel Mennour that dominates the space consists of fabric used to cover the floor. Petrit Halilaj’s Do you realise there is a rainbow even if it’s night?!, dyshek carpet from Kosovo, Flokati, polyster, stainless steel, brass, 2017, consists of kilim rugs hung from the corner of the gallery’s ceiling. Flowing out from underneath the textiles – which were constructed in Kosovo – is a white satin-like fabric that cascades from beneath the pink material like water. Whether intentional or not, the work is a literal interpretation of the saying ‘sweeping something under the carpet.’ And, the way in which the white fabric spills into the gallery space seems to be telling the viewer that nothing can really be hidden, no matter how hard we might try.
Yet, while the sheer scale of Halilaj’s work attracts attention, it is the photographic work that has a stronger command of the overall exhibition. Through both analogue and digital photography, the mask is dissected as a mode of disguising, deceiving and performing. In Michael Francois’s Le monde et les bras, 1996, artist Ann Veronic Janssens is captured dipping her face in a white liquid, with her eyes emerging from above the fluid. It looks as though her action is a voluntary one: something that is at once emotional, and delicate. Her gaze looks soft yet determined and, in a reflection through the frame, once can see the words ‘lose myself‘ illuminated in blue. This neon writing is the shadow of a work made by Claude Leveque (Lose Myself, white neon, 2011), and could not be more perfectly positioned here at Kamel Mennour. Its double projection in Francois’s photograph seems to explain Janssens’s state-of-mind within the image, appearing as mask to cover part of the frame.
From loss of some kind of identity in Francois’s photograph, Pierre Molinier’s work introduces another. Within a series of black and white photographs titled L’Oeuvre, le peintre et son fetiche – which translates as the artwork, the painter and his fetish – Molinier explores his own subconscious transgender desires. The images capture several characters – including Molinier himself – in suggestive positions dressed in women’s underwear. In one particular image, he can be seen opening the curtains with a smile, as though proudly unveiling a hidden persona. Despite their confidence stance however, the figures are always masked, shielding their faces as though there is something to suppress.
The sexual undertones in Molinier’s images are carried through in a series of works by Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. In four colour polaroids Araki – who is famous for his images of bondage and eroticism – has dissected images he has taken of nude women, cut them in half and re-pieced them together by filling in the severed polaroids with photographs of pink flowers. The works are incredibly suggestive, with the women revealing their bodies just enough to show themselves to the viewer, while also being covered in such a way to ask the audience just what is being hidden. The use of the flower as a mask in this context seems to be a play on the concept of ‘deflowering’ a woman. The work is also a comment on Japanese society, with any hint of erotic or sexual desire constantly being concealed.
Besides Araki’s images is a large single photograph by Mohamed Bourouissa titled Le cercle imaginaire, 2007-2008, where a figure stands within a circle of fire. Covering the individual’s face and body is a hooded jacket with a skeleton printed on top of it. With his or her face pointed towards the fire, the figure appears to be masked in a veil of despair. Besides this slightly gloomy work is a distorted photograph taken by Alberto Garcia-Alix. Gemelos, 2004, comprises a black and white portrait that is slightly distorted over one portion of the subject’s face. The result is that the visage becomes disfigured, masked by the character’s own deformities; irregularities that have been placed on him by Garcia-Alix.
The defining work of the whole exhibition is Betrand Lavier’s Tusa, 2018, which comprises a pair of goggles. The literal interpretation of the mask here – as a shield of protection from the sea – is Lavier’s twenty-first century ready-made, specially conceived for the exhibition and elevated from everyday object to work of art by its positioning on top of a plinth.
Mask provides depths and layers to our initial understanding of the facial covering. Not just a means of shielding the face or playing a character, the masks that comprise the exhibition at Kamel Mennour are ever evolving, changing shape to suit a variety of situations and circumstances, drawing the viewer in to decide whether they wish to don a mask, and if so, under what guise.
Mask is on display at Kammel Mennour, 51 Brook Street, London W1K 4HR, until 28th July 2018