Friday, January 23, 2015

The mask

There's something most definitely post-Guantanamo in the air, or I should say, post-Guantanamo scandal, because this is the Guantanamo era. Surely one of the most iconic images of this new century, the hooded prisoner, arrested without proper cause and imprisoned indefinitely, has become the emblem of how power works today. Whatever stories we invent to justify it, it can't be vindicated, and so it has mutated into an omnipresent vision which both flags up the ongoing horror of the situation and simultaneously expresses our collective desire to hide our faces in shame for allowing it to happen.

It intrigued me to see how the image was circulated on the catwalks over the past two weeks. The two most poignant examples for me where Christopher Shannon and Margiela Artisanal (now under the direction of Galliano).

Christopher Shannon


Shannon's collection is all about faking it and making it, and it both brilliantly desirable and utterly hilarious, touched with a deft charm and wit. Margiela's couture collection is practically the polar opposite, bombastic, gothic, jagged and some how gory. The designer's P.O.V's are in fascinating conversation, being break-out-wunderkind and grand-dame-on-the-comeback, respectively. The houses, one emerging and one seminal, are light years apart. Yet, the masks was for me, the central image in both collections.

And as always, the discussion sends me into a reverie, centred on this image.

Cate Blanchett for iD

Shannon's corner shop and supermarket plastic shopping bags on the head talk to me of burning the candle at both ends, in a Homerton studio, of pressure-cooker routines punctuated with trips to the off-license and the Turkish grocery store. It was a resonant detail which gave the collection a note of realism and of course, self-depreciating, self-reflexive humour. Margiela's masks are of course iconic, but the final look, a bejewelled skull of a piece, took it into new territory (very Galliano territory one might say).

Pat McGrath handled the maquillage at Margiela, and Issamaya French (2015 nominee for coolest girl in the universe) did her duty at Shannon. There's perhaps a feminist perspective to consider here, how the culture wars over the hijab (as short hand for non-Eurocentric female (in)visibility), but that doesn't seem to be the most pressing point. Rather it's the mask as concurrent revelation and concealment that has caught my attention.

The way a mask calls our attention to the face whilst obscuring it, in the horror movie tradition, it's a process of writing a horror on the surface which images a horror even greater beneath. In the contemporary cultural matrix masks don't flag up any creepy psychotic outsider as someone to be genuinely afraid of, but actually symbolize the horror we're all living in. We are the monster, and we are ashamed.

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