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The voice from the mask

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The voice from the mask by Andrew Purvis from fine print magazine on Vimeo.

The tide-like drag of blood through the capillaries of the ear, echo inside the concavities of the shell, conjuring the ghost of a breaking wave. The hollowed out home of the solitary mollusc speaks of something vast, and ceaseless; the fragment hints at the incomprehensible whole.

Like the ocean from a seashell, the voice from the mask whispers. It says: I am not the one who wears the mask; I am the mask itself. And something greater still.

CHORUS: A mirror, so that friends who’ve died / may see us when they speak from its far side.

The function of the mask is to reveal, not disguise. Its hollow face serves as a conduit, through which old stories are acted out, gods and natural forces are made manifest, and the spirits of the dead are summoned.

Barefoot in the embers, the Baining Fire dancer wears a mask and becomes a forest spirit. The Indonesian Topeng transforms the wearer into fabled kings and heroes. And at the Skimington Riding, the horned face of the Dorset Ooser conjures the pagan past of ancient Britain.

A mask is a way of wearing culture.

CHORUS: Am I in your room? So are all your dead who have not gone into other bodies. It is easy to call them, bring them as fires within sight of each other on hills.

A child in Ancient Rome watches as her deceased grandfather re-enacts scenes from his life, his face immobile and hollow-eyed. At these funeral performances, professional actors assume the aspect of the departed, wearing a death-mask cast from the corpse. These wax faces then, disembodied, line the walls of the family shrine, bearing witness to the rituals and rites of passage of their descendants.

Culture is something that we are bequeathed; it is an inheritance.

CHORUS: Then the gasping purr  / From humour’s blackest bedside telephone.

El Hijo del Santo wears the silver mask of his father, El Santo. Within the traditions of the Luchador Enmascarado, the professional wrestlers of Mexico, the mask has immense significance. To remove an opponent’s mask during a bout is to risk disqualification. El Santo wore his throughout his life, even in private company, and was buried in it. For El Hijo del Santo, the mask is a legacy, allowing his father’s genius to still circle the ring.

When we wear a mask, we allow the voices of the dead to speak through us.

CHORUS: Think what a minor part the self plays in a work of art compared to those great givens.

James Merrill, and his partner David Jackson, transcribe the communications of disembodied spirits, via séance and Ouija board. Like the masked chorus of Greek tragedy, the voices of W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden and even Merrill’s deceased neighbour, Maria Mitsotaki, haunt his poetry, providing commentary on the still-living world.

To perform or create within our culture is to claim our dead.

CHORUS: We sort of bend our heads to work whenever they are felt.

Billy Ah Choo sings the songs of his friend Old Wiggan, who, in life, skippered the Sunday Island Mission lugger. The Bardi people of the Dampier peninsula believe that all song, dance and story, what they call the Ilma, are conceived by the spirits of the deceased and communicated through dreams to their still living friends and relations. There are no living artists.

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CHORUS: Ephraim’s book is written now, and shut.

A mask unworn is like a mouth without a tongue. In the great ossuaries of culture, the hollow faces are muted, and their lips are stilled.

Photos: Sam Roberts.
Photos: Sam Roberts.