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Masks, Deception, and Truth

By Paul Watson on .

Badb Catha

I was asked recently why I used masks that are obviously masks in my photographs, rather than using some digital manipulation to produce monstrous photo-realistic visages like those produced by special effects in films and TV. The thing is that I like masks, I like the meanings of masks (particular the older meanings), and here’s why (via Darth Vader and Medusa):

The contemporary use of masks nearly always holds a negative connotation. Masks are deceptive facades, illusions that obscure the truth, or are symbols of evil.

For possibly the most blatant example of the mask as a negative symbol we need only look at the most famous film series of modern times: the transformation of the whiney and annoying Anakin Skywalker into the fully evil Darth Vader is only complete when the iconic mask is finally locked into place on his face at the end of Revenge of the Sith, and his redemption at the end of Return of the Jedi is cemented by his dying request to ask Luke to help him remove his mask (and interestingly, his words “let me look on you with my own eyes” - as opposed to looking on him with the eyes of the mask).

What is possibly most interesting about this is that Vader’s mask has a transformative effect on him - putting on the mask completes his transformation into a Sith Lord, and removing the mask completes his redemption, his transformation back to Anakin Skywalker, and his death - and this harks back to much earlier beliefs about masks being able to transform the wearer.

In many “primitive” religions, sacred masks are worn in rituals to transform the mask-wearer into the deity or spirit represented by the mask. To many of us, with a culture that has Classical Greek theatre as part of its roots and Semiotics firmly established in its educational institutions, the mask is a signifier - a visual icon that enables the viewer to understand that the person wearing the mask represents or “is playing the part of” someone else.

This modern Western reading of the situation—that the mask merely signifies that someone is “playing a part”—is not universal, however. In different cultures, separated by time or geographical distance, the mask is understood to transform the wearer into the a different character. The mask-wearer becomes the puppet, not the puppeteer. Basically, this non-Western perception requires belief whereas the modern Western perception requires the suspension of disbelief - a disbelief that is based around the assumption that masks are tools of deception rather than transformative power.

In his book Masks, Transformation, and Paradox A. David Napier describes a New Caledonian myth:

“…in which a woman’s infidelity is discovered when the tell-tale black paint, used in myth as well as reality to decorate a type of sacred mask, is noticed on her face by her husband. She has fallen in love with a deity who is known in the myth by the mask used in reality to designate his presence, to re-present him. One is unsure in this myth whether the god is behind the mask or whether the mask itself incorporates the god’s personage. By definition, the god’s persona and the mask’s persona become united. Thus, not only does the myth make the mask a more convincing personification; the mask in turn helps to illustrate a transgression of the boundary between the object-person and a supposed experience of the supernatural—if, that is, such boundaries can be said in this case legitimately to exist.”

The only modern Western example I can think is that of Christian beliefs about communion wine - Protestant Christianity purports that the wine symbolically represents divine blood, whereas the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation demands a belief that the wine actually is divine blood.

Another variation on the concept of the power residing in the mask is the Greek myth of Perseus and the Gorgon Medusa, whose eyes would turn anyone seeing them to stone. This is one of the earliest of the surviving Greek myths, probably Mycenaean in origin, if not earlier. Perseus cuts off Medusa’s head, a deed he manages by looking at her reflection in his mirrored shield (interesting for many reasons, not least because the only face you can only look at in a mirror is your own - is Medusa Perseus’ own dark reflection? But I digress).

Medusa’s severed head (her “mask”) is later held aloft by Perseus (presumably obscuring Perseus’ own face like a mask) to turn King Polydectes into stone.

The Classical scholar Jane Ellen Harrison highlighted the Medusa head/mask issues, saying that Medusa’s “…potency resides in the head; she is in a word a mask with a body later appended… the basis of the Gorgoneion is a cultus object, a ritual mask misunderstood.”

And if fact the body of Medusa has changed many times over the centuries - early versions portray the Gorgon as an androgyne and a centaur, which makes more sense since the winged horse Pegasus was created when drops from her severed head hit the ground. But again, I digress.

So here again we have the mask (Medusa’s severed head) itself being a potent object, rather than being a mere symbol.

All this brings me round to answering the question about the masks I use in my photography.

The idea that Badb Catha, the crow-headed Celtic goddess of battle, needs to be depicted with a real crow head that seamlessly blends into a human body via digital manipulation is a very modern one. The function of masks in earlier/other cultures is that the potency and the persona are part of the mask itself. The mask is not a signifier that “this person wearing this mask is Badb Catha”. The mask is Badb Catha, and is simultaneously both signifier and signified - a symbol representing itself.

It’s all a double bluff, of course. The mask that I made is not a sacred mask imbued with the persona and potency of some Celtic divinity. I’m taking photographs of a model wearing a mask that I made - although the use of the word “model” in this context is interesting as it anonymises and repudiates the individual agency of the person beneath the mask, and places the emphasis on what is being modelled, which fits rather nicely with the concept of the mask taking over the mask-wearer.

But that again is layered over with a lie. Behind the scenes the agency of the model was vital to the artwork - her understanding of the role of Badb Catha that she had to play by wearing the mask was essential to the success of the artwork.

So to summarise, I’m using masks in my photographs rather than digital wizardry because I’m referencing the belief that sacred masks are the source of divine potency/personage rather than being symbols of such, and that by wearing such a mask the wearer is subordinate to the mask. The masks I make, of course, are not the source of divine potency, so it’s all a lie. But from the perspective of someone viewing the photographs, the anonymous models who model them are indeed dominated by the masks, reflecting the original belief that I’m referencing, making it a truth again. But this itself is a deception, since the model’s creativity is vital to the success of the finished artwork.

It’s an artistic idea masked by a lie, wrapped in a truth, and finally revealed by another lie. This is what happens when you over-analyse things! Now go and buy some of my artwork.

Myth and Masks bookNote: A version of this blog post has since been published, along with others on the subject of myth and the “English Eerie” and pieces of my artwork, in my 2016 hardback book of art and writings Myth and Masks, available exclusively from our online shop.