Every time I am asked to write about my work, I wonder why we seem to demand from visual artists a fluency in both their art and in words. After all, nobody asks writers to make a clay model of their story. We are a society that is not nearly as fluent in form as in words, so I worry that every time I write about art, people may see the writing rather than the form. In that context I sat to describe my masks.
I have never had trouble writing about my prints, but in trying to write about my masks, I have come to understand my lack of fluency at a different depth. I keep finding myself at a loss for the words necessary to describe what I am attempting with the masks. A writer might be better able to handle the task, but I have begun to believe the problem is one of translation. It is impossible to give an accurate translation of form in words. In short, there is no "Sculpture to English Dictionary" available, and there are clearly concepts in the language of form that cannot be directly translated into words. So if the writing is a bit circumspect, you will understand why. At best, I may be able to write a few creation myths; at worst, the words will be only vague shadows of the masks themselves.
Masks: Masks are not ornamental. I will never believe that they are. They are absolutely functional. In that sense, I suppose they cannot be considered fine art. But equally clearly they are more than craft. This then, puts masks in a particular category along with the petroglyphs of cave art, magical objects, and some religious art. Masks have a special function, an intent to enable and transform. When someone puts on a mask, he or she intends to become someone or something else, whether in play or in serious intent. In that transformation the person intends to gain power or insight. Masks are used equally in an attempt to control some difficult aspect of the world or to gain some mystical knowledge of its workings. What the transformation empowers is a subject that spans anthropology, the stage, religion, myth and ritual. The wearer may be trying to heal, to kill, to call spirits or to chase them away. The wearer may simply be playing a part in a play or taking on the persona of some scary monster at Halloween. In all cases, the wearer of the mask undergoes a transformation. Equally important is the fact that all other participants in the ceremony involving the mask are transformed, sometimes to a greater extent than the wearer. This is profoundly true in healing ceremonies where the most profound transformation is supposed to happen not to the wearer of the healing mask, but to the person he or she is healing. Another example might be the mask on a lodge pole (which has no wearer) designed to protect the inhabitants of the dwelling. Even in theater, the transformation of the person wearing the mask is one that all the other actors honor.
Masks are primordial. They are the faces of internal realities. Ancient peoples believed that men had more than one soul. Often the other souls were incarnations of animals and masks were a way of evoking the other soul, bringing it to the front so that the wearer might enjoy the power of the animal spirit. In modern society we recognize different aspects of the psyche and masks might just as well represent those elements.
In societies that are more homogeneous than ours, masks are involved in the mythology of the people. They are used to tell stories of creation and convey important teachings. But, more fundamentally, they are the icons that form part of the glue that creates coherence in a mythology. In a multifaceted society such as ours, it is impossible to have a single coherent mythology. There are many different beliefs and many different systems of belief. There is no single context for meaning and our cultural icons change with each fall television season. In the face of all this I still believe it is important to make icons with a fuller meaning. One of my all time favorite stories is an ancient Indian folk tale about six blind men encountering an elephant. Each touches a different part of the beast and thereby gains a different 'view' of what the elephant is. Our experience of the world is different, sometimes very different. We clearly do not all touch the same part of the elephant, but I believe it is especially important in a society such as ours to share our experiences of the beast. This is, quite simply, why I make masks.
I was doubtful about naming my masks. Our culture often seems to prize abstraction above all else and naming things in that context is a risky business. Icons melt readily at such extreme temperatures. There is a danger with naming that the myth may be swept away on a gusty wind of understanding. I do not want the masks to be understood, but rather I want the masks to transport the viewer to places we don't need to understand (and may not be able to) but do need to experience.
With this in mind, I have attempted to name the masks as you might name a spirit, for reference. Their true names are unspoken, cannot be pronounced, but do lie, hopefully, slightly behind their given names. I name them not for recognition, but for the ability to invoke their presence should the need arise. Above all, I tried to be playful in naming the masks.
Finally, I am concerned that any name I give them may lead the viewer
astray, away from the mask toward my personal mythology. While there is
certainly some overlap (the masks have been created out of that mythology),
if the masks are to be successful, then they must have a life of their
own, representing more than a personal analogy. Where I have been unsuccessful
in naming, I invite you, the viewer to decide upon a name. Indeed, I invite
you to name them all. I would love to see what your experience of the elephant
August 10, 1998
Copyright © Victor Young 1998