Francesco Ventrella

“I will look away, it will now be my only negation” (Bacon)

from NERO n.04 march/april 2005

To cover one’s face is a reflex gesture connected to shame: the declaration of a weakness. Yukio Mishima must feel like this when, in his autobiographical novel, he describes the inexpressible adoration for a pair of trousers, abdicating his confessions to a mask. Thanks to the reticence of the storyteller, these confessions make the reader think about what is not actually written, imprinting his representations on the mask.
This reflex gesture has a long history in the visual arts, in which it is elaborated through every kind of symbolism and pataphysics. In 1896 Alfred Jarry debuted his Ubu Roi with an elephant mask over his head and a quip unequivocally addressed to the public: “Merdre!” The mask shows itself in its capacity of elaborating a breakdown through strategies of communication, and becomes the cut with the rest of the faces that are around it.
In Latin persona/ae means mask. To cover the face is like stopping one’s identity, which is again questioned only in front of another. The Surrealist artist Claude Cahun (a woman in a decisively “phallocentric” movement) masked both her art and her life. The mask as a sign of weakness can become, therefore, an aggression: to cover the face contributes to the autonomous re-choosing of one’s identity, each time “positioning itself” in different cultural contexts. This, I imagine, is difficult to comprehend in a culture in which the burkha is seen only as a scandal!
The mask, then, interrupts the “cosmetic catalogue” of cultural standardisation, but it can also be a blind screen: to look away and start over. It means arbitrarily saying no, like an adolescent might, to the world to which the disguises of Peter Gabriel’s Genesis and today’s indie rock both belong.
On a flyer distributed before one of their concerts in 1983 in Boston, The Proletariat (they defined themselves as a non-hardcore band) printed the words of their song Pride and an image in which a black man held an American flag which he had used to cover his face as if it was a hood of the Ku-Klux-Klan. In this example, to cover one’s face is an imposed gesture that oppresses: the mask can also choke. Like the twelve year old boy chokes in sour innocence in the novel by J. T. Leroy, the title of which is the same as the name of Leroy’s mother: Sarah. Is it not perhaps J.T. Leroy himself who today chokes from a mask that he constructed around himself?
But the mask is also an instrument with which to construct a new cultural/political identity through a shift in the contested reality: the Guerrilla Girls wear gorilla masks to disassociate themselves from the roles enforced on women; the Zapatistas recognise each other by their black ski-masks. To cover one’s face as a sign of refusal against enforced or negated identity. But to cover one’s face doesn’t mean to negate oneself before the other, on the contrary! It could push the other to up the bid, to speculate upon our identity, to recognise us: the best metaphor of a larval civil responsibility towards the weak who are incapable of publicly confessing their weaknesses and have decided to emphatically declare their difference.
One can not explain the nature of difference, but one can permit the other to understand it: it makes sense to cover one’s face only in front of someone who notices the gesture and, by their presence, makes our dissent a public act.
“Let us suppose that I have wept, on account of some incident of which the other has not even become aware (to weep is part of the normal activity of the amorous body), and that, so this cannot be seen, I put on dark glasses to mask my swollen eyes (a fine example of denial: to darken the sight in order not to be seen). The intention of this gesture is a calculated one: I want to keep the moral advantage of stoicism; of “dignity” (I take myself from Clotilde de Vaux), and at the same time, contradictorily, I want to provoke the tender question (“But what’s the matter with you?”); I want to be both pathetic and admirable, I want to be at the same time a child and an adult. Thereby I gamble, I take a risk: for it is always possible that the other will simply ask no question whatever about these unaccustomed glasses; that the other will see, in fact, no sign.”
(from Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments)

The collective of media-artists, Guerrilla Girls, try in every way to cheat the cards, to crack media communication through semiotic aggression: to make the tongue falter as it reads Guerrilla Girls while the eye sees a Gorilla. The Guerrilla Girls appeared on the New York art scene in the 1980s wearing gorilla masks and distributing flyers with the image of Ingres’ Odalisque, her face hidden by a gorilla mask. The writing: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” The feminist movement often used irony to show, with obvious clarity, how much white Western culture elaborated a rigid structure of social roles for the two sexes. With the same clarity the 13 Guerrilla Girls choose to wear masks and conceal their social identity, assuming invented names (borrowed from icons of female emancipation, such as Coco Chanel, Gertrude Stein, Fanny Brice…), working on the involvement of other colleagues, and making the mask a sign of dissent. The masks are downloadable in pdf from the website

Are you looking for an answer or a scapegoat?
A reason or excuse
To deal with your shortcomings – your failures…
Your attitude is rare indeed/ But hardly rare enough
Open hatred is rare indeed/ Hardly rare enough
Society makes easy targets/ Color, creed, sex
In white America
(The Proletariat, Pride, 1983. Text by Richard Brown)

Masks as nicknames. The Animal Collective are: Avey Tare, The Deaken, The Geologist and Panda Bear. Avey Tare comes from Dave> Davey>Avey; from “to tear”, the name then became Tare, spelled differently so that people wouldn’t confuse it with “tear”. Bresson was called a “geologist” by a journalist although he’s a marine biologist, and he thus became The Geologist; while Deakin comes from Deacon (which is how Joshmin signed his mail at college); and finally Noah loves to draw panda bears before concerts and during rehearsals: Panda Bear.

A search on Google for “Peter Gabriel” reveals the true identity of the woman in red who wore the fox mask on the cover of Foxtrot, designed by Paul Whitehead in 1972!!
Detràs de nuestra mascara negra
Detràs de nuestra voz armada
Detràs de nuestro nombre impronunciabile
Detràs de nosotros, a los que ve,
Detràs de nosotros, somos usted

Behind our black mask,
Behind our armed voice,
Behind our unpronounceable name,
Behind us, to those who you see
Behind us, we are you
(Text written by the Comité Indígena Clandestino Revolucionario)
“«Filthiness» was a traditional game in our school, very common among the first and second year children, and, as happens with every type of unhealthy caprice when you adopt it as a steady pastime, it resembled more morbid affection than real fun. We played that game in the light of day, even in public. A boy – let’s call him A – found himself in range while momentarily having lost his presence of mind. Wise to this, another boy – let’s call him B – rushed towards him in an attempt to grab him in a given place. If the seizing was successful, B triumphantly withdrew to a certain distance to yell: «Oh, how big it is! Oh, how big A’s is!”“ Anything could have been the latent stimulus for the game. It seemed that the only aim was the view of the ridiculous which covered the victim while he let his books fall to the ground, or other objects that he held in that moment, as both hands were needed to protect the part exposed to the attack.”
(from Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask)