Becoming Another: The Power of Masks

Topic: Art Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibit

by Lyndsey Anderson

Published on June 03, 2015

  • Museum: Rubin Museum of Art Focus: Culture

  • Description and goals

    “No one lives his life.

    Disguised since childhood,
    haphazardly assembled
    from voices and fears and little pleasures,
    we come of age as masks.

    Our true face never speaks.
    Somewhere there must be storehouses
    where all these lives are laid away
    like suits of armor or old carriages
    or clothes hanging limply on the walls.

    Maybe all the paths lead there,
    to the repository of unlived things.”
    -Ranier Maria Rilke

    Becoming Another: The Power of Masks, currently on view at the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea, reminds us that we, like all those who’ve come before us, have experienced the thrill, desire, or need to experience the “other” by way of masking that which we truly are. Like the words of Rilke suggest, “we come of age as masks,” by becoming another at one time or another in our lives, and this exhibition highlights this universal experience by exhibiting masks from a cross-cultural perspective from places across the globe to include: the Himalayas, Mongolia, Siberia, Japan, and the Pacific Northwest Coast. This is one of many cross-cultural exhibitions the Rubin Museum has displayed in order to highlight universal themes inherent in the collection, and to bridge the gap between East and West, Modern and Contemporary, and art and function.

    Upon entering the sixth floor gallery from the elevator, one is confronted by two white walls to the either side, and a dynamic, rotating, stream of images of masks projected onto the wall in front. The opening text, and sprinkled throughout the exhibition, includes a map of the globe that highlights each of the regions, making visual to visitors the breadth of cultures and customs represented. On the perimeter walls, door-wide entryways guide visitors into the, otherwise hidden alcove, which, upon entering, one has the grand experience of being confronted by a variety of looming masks, with dramatic lighting, hung just above eye-level, giving these treasures both a human presence, as well as a larger-than-life quality.

    The exhibition is divided into three sections: Theater and Storytelling, Shamanistic Traditions, and Communal Ritual. The objects that were chosen are divine; intricately carved and painted, woven fabrics attached with the most careful of hands, on one mask, over one thousand beads of coral are placed delicately over the entire face of a Tibetan Buddhist protector called Begtse. The sections decided upon and the placements of the masks: confusing. The exhibition title wall reflects the universality of masks, which may be true, however the decision to break the sections into the afore mentioned categories feels more of a result of available loans than it truly reflects the most universal uses of masks across the distinct culture chosen for this show. Additionally, somehow the “monkeys” section (which shows an array of monkey masks from each culture) is exhibited in the “communal ritual” section, with no signifying text or signage as to why it fits within that section. It felt like a bit of a stretch…

    I really appreciated the fact that two of the masks had full, life-sized costumes exhibited with the regalia to transform the mask from aesthetic object to one with a more obvious functional purpose. Yet another, shows a video alongside the mask/outfit combo of a shaman mid-trance which helps us visitors see one example of a mask “in action.” To make the personal connection between mask and viewer even stronger, the institution partnered with the Poetry Society of America to commission original poems that respond to each mask. Some poets took the liberty to make more conceptual, artistic connections, while others shared what felt like deep, sometimes dark, memories evoked by these masks.

    To engage the younger visitors, a beautifully printed, and lovingly conceived “Family Guide” is situated in a visible location near the elevator. It provides the opportunity for visitors young and old to engage more deeply and personally with the objects. For those visitors interested in “trying one on for size,” four iPads are placed at varying heights (shout out those concerned with accessibility!) where an app was designed for approaching visitors’ faces to be transformed by virtually overlaying masks from the exhibition over their likeness. For social media buffs, it can be e-mailed to you to become your next Facebook profile picture (yay).

    Overall, I left the show feeling both a bit more aware of my whimsy and my desire to be fierce. Transformed, ever so slightly, I walk among you living my life, wearing whichever mask I need in this moment.

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