Justin Shoulder, V, 2009, performance still from ‘The Glitter Militia presents Clown Cult’ at The Red Ratter, Sydney. Photo: Mat Hornby.
From 1908-1929 the prolific English theatre designer/director/theorist/tyrant Edward Gordon Craig published his periodical The Mask, in which he systematically and dogmatically enumerated his visions for the dramatic art of the future. What he wanted was a more abstract and ritualistic theatre that would herald the return of masks on the western stage. Art comes from the planned and controlled use of materials, he argued, while the actor’s unruly, unrefined and unpredictable biological face is slave to his ego, instinct and emotions — human baggage that, for Craig, impedes any possibility of creation.
He was not only the publisher, editor, illustrator and designer of The Mask: under some 65 pseudonyms, he also wrote virtually all the content, including the ‘foreign correspondence’ and ‘letters to the editor’. In the midst of Modernist debates about authorship, the journal was thus elaborately structured so as to diffuse his status as individual author. But being built on multiple layers of disguise, The Mask was the mask Craig used to both hide and reveal himself—his stage for creating and enacting multiple personas while perpetually evading all of them and communicating his agenda unequivocally.
According to Craigian doctrine, the performer as a psychological entity and embodiment of pretentious mimicry was to be banished from the stage and replaced by the ‘übermarionette’ who would remain outside his role and his body and who could, precisely by virtue of his self-conscious artifice, be a true artist. Mortal man is insufficient material for art, while he who breathes life into an inanimate mask (or puppet) takes on divine qualities. More than simply providing a pre-designated character or state, masks would work to de-personalise and de-humanise, turn all bodily expression into abstraction, and ensure we deal with representation rather than grotesque imitation.
Justin Shoulder, l am raining (iii), 2010, digital print. Photo: Mat Hornby.
Currently in the game of de-personalising and de-humanising himself in the name of universalised representation is the costume-performance artist Justin Shoulder. The title of his most recent exhibition, I Am Raining (Firstdraft Gallery, July 2010), was taken from David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life (1978). In the novella we meet a wild boy who was raised by wolves, and when he sees rain he thinks he is raining. ‘His self is outside him . . . He has no notion of the otherness of things.’ In the lead up to the show, Shoulder was mourning the recent loss of two friends and the body of work evolved partially from his thinking about material transience and the ways in which we leave the body. He had also started training in the school of dance known as Bodyweather, which developed partly out of the stylised-grotesque, hyper-controlled Japanese butoh, and he was looking at the discipline’s ideas of emptying the self and dissolving the body, which as we know consists primarily of water.
Blurring the dualisms of self/other and self/world, the exhibition included a series of photographs by Mat Hornby depicting Shoulder under delicate sunlight in the bush, his body shrouded by a translucent, watery costume made from shredded plastic sheets. Also on show was I Love You (2010), a life-size composite portrait of Shoulder and his long-term partner and collaborator Matt Stegh, which continued the interrogation of the possible relationships between nature, culture, the body, the self, the other and the world. Here the artist’s bare and elaborately tattooed torso was shown removed of all its usual costuming and excess, seamlessly melded with the bare and elaborately tattooed torso of another (his other), so it was at once costumed and uncostumed, him and not him (is this the definition of love?).
Justin Shoulder, I love you, 2010, digital print. Photo: Mat Hornby (digital composite by Justin Shoulder).
Expressing his persistent fascination with the phenomenon of masquerade and the ancient mythology of chimeras (Ovid’s Metamorphosis lives on his bedside table), Shoulder’s work is also engaged with the (under-documented) history of queer costumed performance in Sydney, particularly that of the 1980s. His practice is firmly rooted in the communities of local nightclubs and underground live venues, especially the now defunct Lanfranchies and Club Kooky. Despite having recently taken several new directions he has never abandoned what he sees as the collective empathy and energy of these spaces, from where he begot each of the seven individual creatures that form the basis of his practice.
Based on the notion that the devil can spawn without copulation, Shoulder’s most iconic creature is the belching, self-perpetuating Glut Glut (born in 2009). After many performances, Glut Glut’s sickeningly synthetic cough-syrupy-red cloak of cheap wigs now reeks of sweat and dirty nightclubs, not to mention the sour old milk bottles that were arranged around it in a photo shoot by Mat Hornby. Its hair is tangled and matted and the black ink that started around its eyes continues to travel across its face. To my amusement, in a recent conversation I had with the performer he spoke of the creature with contempt: ‘Glut Glut is disgusting, insatiable, filthy, the embodiment of excess … all it can say is “Glut Glut”; it speaks only through its own name and only perpetuates itself.’ I was also delighted to detect uncensored paranoia in Shoulder about the perceived threat of identity theft: ‘sometimes I wake up the next day with bits of pink hair on me and I get scared Glut Glut is taking over my existence.’
Justin Shoulder, Glut Glut, 2008, digital print. Photo: Mat Hornby.
The mild-manners of the unmasked, diurnal Justin Shoulder initially seem incongruous with his ostentatious costumes and the extroverted personalities they induce. But his ever-evolving catalogue of escapist alter egos comes from an explicit drive to tap into something beyond the self. Masks give the wearer psychological seclusion, a constructed outer appearance that contains a private space of anonymity. Like the obscured tower in the centre of the panopticon, masks grant the power of seeing without being seen. They entail pre-designated and fixed fictional personae, but historically they have also been more complexly perceived as a means to move among divine pantheons and bridge separations between animal, human, natural and supernatural realms. Consumed beneath his voluminous structures, Shoulder can often only make out a hazy world of indistinct forms, but this partial blindness has the formal function of aiding concentration by eliminating external distraction—it prompts a turning inward on the self in order to transcend the self, using the body as a means for getting beyond the body.
The earliest masks in world history, some of them up to 10,000 years old, are tied to shamanic shape-shifting. In Mircea Eliade’s enduring Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1951) we learn that shamans are always costumed when incarcerating the souls of the underworld. Even if they are naked, this is a marked break from their ordinary, profane dress and hence their nudity functions as a surrogate costume. In fact, it is through the very act of costuming that the shaman finally enters the spiritual world: the costume is donned after many preliminaries, right before the shamanic trance. Interestingly, one almost universal motif in accounts of shamanic masks and dress around the world is feathers. In the most literal sense ornithomorphic costume is said to facilitate flight to the underworld—and in Shoulder’s urban shape shifting we find a similar appeal to the allure of weightlessness and flying: helium-filled balloons, for example, or his recurring shredded plastic bags that distinctly resemble plumage.
Justin Shoulder, Hubub, 2008, digital print. Photo: Mat Hornby.
Echoing Nietzsche’s doctrine of the endless layers of facade behind the mask, let us approach an ending here with the words of the French gender-ambiguous performative photographic artist and writer of the early twentieth century, Claude Cahun: ‘Under this mask, another mask—I will never be finished removing all these faces.’ The etymological roots of the word ‘mask’ are appropriately shrouded in obscurity, though it is assumed to come from the Latin masca meaning ‘nightmare’, ‘witch’ or ‘demon’ and/or massa meaning ‘paste’ (as in ‘mascara’) with influence from the Arabic maskara meaning ‘buffoon’. Its modern usage in everyday language would suggest that masks front a pre-existing essence that maintains itself regardless of the various personae adopted, for example ‘to mask one’s feelings’ or ‘to speak behind a mask’. But, as is made evident by Shoulder’s work, selfhood is more elusive than that and the reality of masks is more complex: they have the dual functions of covering and expressing, concealing and revealing, withholding and presenting.
Originally published in Runway, Issue 18 , EXPECTATION, Autumn 2011, pp 9 – 13.
A. Groom is writer who grew up in Sydney and currently lives in London. She recently edited an anthology on the theme of 'time' for...