Agreed Roles: Fetish and theater in the masks of Mehryl Levisse
art critical (online)
text by roman kalinovski
art writer and artist
The word “person” can be traced back to the Latin “persona,” the word for “mask.” The person, the ultimate self-sovereign subject, is ironically named after a theatrical device that perpetuates fictions and falsehoods. Masks and theatricality are themes at play in Mehryl Levisse’s current show at Catinca Tabacaru Gallery, an installation of two intertwined bodies of work in an immersive exhibition space. His photographs and masks allow both the artist and viewer to inhabit both sides of the division of power fetishized in BDSM subculture and expressed through the baroque theater.
BDSM has its own unique theatrical form: each participant takes on a dominant or submissive “role,” after all. Beyond such linguistic coincidences, it embraces a similar magic circle as the theater, in which the audience knows that a performance on stage is a fictional spectacle rather than a real event. While the pain inflicted on the submissive body during a scene is certainly real, it becomes theatrical because it has been inflicted according to an agreement set forth by the scene’s participants. This pact between the dominant and submissive participants resembles the fourth wall that separates the performers on stage from the audience gazing upon them.
Levisse’s show features a literal stage of its own, a platform in the center of the gallery space bordered by bare globular light bulbs. On this stage are six metal poles, and mounted atop each pole is a mask. These masks visually reference fetish gear worn by participants in BDSM scenes, but instead of latex or leather, they have been constructed from costume and upholstery materials: embroidered fabric, golden tassels, feathers, fur and beads. Their baroque ornamentation renders them nonfunctional in an actual fetish setting, as they appear ready to disintegrate with the touch of a finger, much less the crack of a whip. Two additional masks of more functional construction, along with peach-colored bodysuits, were worn by performers during the show’s opening. Lounging on a windowsill facing outside or towards the crowd gathered in the gallery, their bodies were in a state of superimposition: While displaying symbols of submission to the artist’s vision, by exerting their own agency over the performance they inhabited both sides of theater’s dualistic divide.
As with the material non-functionality of the masks, Levisse’s photographs transpose a classical or baroque sensibility to a contemporary setting. They contain references to art history: The model in le lieu reposé du chevreuil (2013) strikes the same pose as the famous nude in Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. In Levisse’s version, the figure’s orientation has been flipped in more ways than one, with a male body facing to the left rather than the right-facing female figure from the original. Instead of the woman’s knowing gaze, the face of Levisse’s model is hidden by a shock of blue hair topped with a horned animal skull that stares through the viewer with its dead, empty eyes. Another photograph, marée basse sur table d’élevage (2015) shows a model lounging, odalisque-style, on a mound of mussel shells on a table; further shells are attached to the wall, forming a frame within the frame. The figure wears a mask of even more shells that leaves just the side of the mouth visible. The shells support the body, frame it, and obscure selected parts of it in a surreal striptease that recalls Marcel Broodthaers.
What, then, are the dominant and submissive roles in this exhibition? Is the viewer dominant, exerting power by gazing at the fragmented bodies in the photographs and the empty masks on the stage? Or does the viewer submit to the will of the artist, seeing what he desires to show and nothing beyond that? As with the performers during the show’s opening, this balance of power is just that: an oscillation that switches polarities with every blink of the viewer’s eye, leaving neither the artist nor the audience totally in control or completely malleable. In the space of Levisse’s show, as in the baroque theater and the BDSM dungeon, the artifice of the entire endeavor is agreed upon by all parties involved, no matter what side of the stage they may inhabit at a given moment. The fact that everything is fictional, however, doesn’t make the feelings, physical or emotional, generated on or in front of the stage any less real.