B E H I N D
T h e
M A S K
ESSAYS by ERIC BORNSTEIN
Essay 1 "Maskmaking in the Twenty - First Century"
Maskmaking, what exactly is that? It is one skill of the theatrical costume or properties makers. It is a quasi-spiritual process employed by many native cultures to make their mysterious gods manifest. So is it a material or spiritual process, part of an act of deception or one of revelation? Is this frivolous knowledge or potentially dangerous? How then, and by whom should this art be taught? Traditional cultures, such as those of Bali, Japan, many parts of Africa and Mexico practice an apprentice system. Here, a young trainee observes the master, learns the carving techniques, and gradually is introduced to the more intangible aspects of the art. In time, the maskmaker, together with priests and performers, becomes part of an important process of education, edification, and entertainment. The importance of the mask in the dance and rituals of these cultures lends importance to the role of maskmaker.
Still, these maskmakers remain outsiders and are seldom publicly acknowledged. The mask is an image of a spirit, deity, or mythological being; the masker assumes this persona and is accepted by the audience as such. Therefore, the maskmaker's role is downplayed, for it must appear that the mask and the character has, for all intents and purposes, dropped out of heaven. Maskmakers remain on the outskirts and are not applauded on stages.
When certain maskmakers are hailed by foreign media as masters of the mysterious arts of the exotic society, there may be an incongruity. Such was the case when Ida Bagus Anom from Mas, Bali appeared as part of the Ring of Fire documentary some years back. He had instant international acclaim. This was, in many ways, a good thing, bringing worldwide positive attention to Bali's tradi tional arts. But the mask is about its function within that society, the living presence of history and the gods, not about the maskmaker.
In the United States, individuals strive for fame and commercial success, sometimes with little thought as to their positive impact on their culture. Art has become distanced from its functions and customarily stands alone and disembodied. Where traditional cultures would not separate the mask from the performer, the costume, the music, or the presence of the god, here in the West, the mask is taken out of context and hung on the wall or on a sculpture stand. Outside of the formalist setting, the mask is seen merely as a prop or party dress.
The question remains as to how to introduce or modify mask use in modern urban culture so it can contribute the rich legacy to which it is heir. Obviously, those speaking or dancing through the mask must have a message that is well expressed through this medium. The masks and puppets of the "Bread and Puppet Theatre" have mixed social protest with messages of redemption for over twenty years. Experiencing the power and magic of their annual gatherings and international crusades has been an an inspiration to new generation of maskmakers and maskers. As modern society grapples with issues of identity and spiritualty in the wake of a new millennium, perhaps masquerade can resume its role as educator and cathartic force. Successful teachers are made largely by their students. It may well be that potential students are crying for experiences that help them strip away facades and reveal a true face to carry into the twenty - first century.
I have been fortunate to find a calling as a maskmaker and teacher. These disciplines put together all my many interests. The study of the functions and uses of masking in various cultures, ancient and modern, has given me a window of access to these civilizations. Within the mask, which embodies both the hidden and the revealed, lies the key to certain constant and illusory truths about mankind. Such an understanding of the active role which art has played throughout history to shape and influence the minds and hearts of people motivates me with both enthusiasm and a deeply felt responsibility to my students and potential students.
Essay 2: "Yoga of the Mask"
Often I have sat in my studio in the early hours of the morning after a marathon work session and silently invoked the masks in the room to speak. Though physically and mentally exhausted from the efforts of design and construction, I remain exhilerated. My entreaty derives from that part of me that knows that this is just a beginning, that the mask as mere object only hints at its motivating function. The maker constructs a mask to reach out to another world, another dimension to make contact and to effect transformation. What lies on the other side is a different context, one from which wisdom might be gained to apply to this world. This wisdom evolves from insights into our identity, our persona, that fluid and illusory entity which, through interaction with others, makes its permanent impressions on time and space. Sitting in the dark studio, no voice has yet responded that was not my own. But still I practice, and I wait. The mask helps to focus certain inner or outer traits, motivations, or ideas into a physical form, which then stimulates the mind and body to respond in certain ways. The lessons learned from such "border crossings" increase our sensitivity and fluency in the less apparent dimensions which we inhabit. The primary transformation of the mask is one from object to entity. The mask, when seen as a repository and vehicle for spirit, animates the will of the maskmaker or masker. Thus, how the will is directed and to what ends becomes very important. Donato Sartori has said, "With the mask there are two possibilities, either it works or it doesn't". There is really no separation of design and function. Design serves not merely esthetic ends; beauty in the mask is determined by the appropriateness and effectiveness of the design to convey the desired characterizations, emotions, or spiritual presence. When there is union of design, character, and presence, i.e., attainment of a yoking of mind, spirit, and body, then the masked experience is complete.