Through the creation of temporary masks out of found materials, Anja Byg explores the potential of masks to hide, reveal and bring alive.
We often associate masks with falsehood, artificial constructs that are donned to hide aspects of reality, usually not with a benign intent. Masks obscure identity, hide aspects of the self. When the other’s mask falls away, we feel betrayed, all the while experiencing our own masks as protection.
However, masks can also reveal and bring out something that is usually hidden away or invisible. Masks open up possibilities. With a mask, we can become other or allow the other within us to come to the fore. In addition, masks can help to call and allow something from outside ourselves to step into our midst. These are the masks of the jester and clown, the masks used in ceremonies to bring the spirits here.
Others can impose masks on us from the outside, as Daniel Deardorff reminds us in ‘The Other Within’. Whether the masks bestowed on us are ugly or beautiful, we can experience them as a denigration and violation of our identity. At the same time, these masks can teach us something about ourselves and how we appear to others, what stories we evoke. We might not be able to rid ourselves of the masks forced upon us, creating permanent tensions between how we experience ourselves and how others see us. However, we may be able to appropriate these masks, play with them and subvert them to tell alternative stories, to see what may arise between us, the mask and the other.
I collect pieces of bark, wood, stone, metal, bits of junk and discarded life, and bring them together to see what masks I can make. The masks are loose assemblages, only held together by the parts themselves, gravity and the surfaces which support them. Working in this way limits what masks I can make. Only certain assemblages are possible and the materials themselves come to have a say in what shapes they form. It also gives the masks a fleeting and tentative aspect. They exist only for a moment, like a person caught in passing out of the corner of your eye. Then the pieces separate again, and I reassemble them into another configuration.
Faces start appearing as I assemble, arrange and move around. Sometimes, moving them to another space, into another position or adjusting something just slightly gives them an altered feeling, like encountering someone in a different mood or a novel situation. These are no longer lifeless materials, not even masks, but something else, something not me, something not entirely safe. I do not know what I am doing or what is arriving here.
At the same time, I am part of the process as well. I select, try out, move around, position myself and take photos, expressing, capturing and making (more) permanent images of these loose assemblages. The masks and I shift, change and move around each other in a strange and silent dance.
Some masks are playful, some feel benign, others have a much darker feel to them, like something you would not like to meet out on a dark night. Others yet feel ambivalent, like powerful beings that could help or hinder you. I try to remain open, to connect with what is there and with my own feelings of unease without restricting or predetermining what shows up. All the while, I’m wondering what happens to whatever has appeared once the mask is no longer there.
Masks Masks that hide And masks that reveal Masks that help us slip Into someone else's Skin And masks that let Something else Come in.
This post is part of a project entitled ‘Imaginative dwelling in troubled relations’ which explores the role of the imagination and embodied practies in shaping our relations to humans and the more-than-human. The project constitutes the creative part of Anja Byg’s final project for the MA in ‘Poetics of Imagination’ at Dartington School of Arts. Thanks are due to the human and non-human others whose inputs have been an invaluable part of this project.
Anja Byg‘s previous existences include those of an ecologist, ethnobotanist and social scientist. She is currently in the process of transitioning to an as yet unknown form of existence. For the time being she dwells in Scotland.
Photos & text © Anja Byg 2021.