This article was first printed in PETRIe 66 (2014). Part one of a five-part article.
“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask.” - Jim Morrison.
In his time, man plays many parts. For each part, he assumes a new mask. Whether performing the ritual mask-dance of the Temne in Sierra Leone, adopting a persona on the theatre stage, or simply masking part of his identity, history reveals how masks have shaped the millennia, disguising and displaying something of who we are, or helping us to be what we want to be.
Multifaceted in nature and multipurpose in application, many functional and fanciful uses have been afforded to this simple body covering. The oldest masks ever discovered are some 9000 years old, and originate from Israel. Although only simple clay faces, these ancient portraits show a civilisation beginning to carve out a culture of mask wearing.
Ever since, face coverings in a multitude of designs have filled our histories; from the Roman gladiators who sought to hide behind them, to the balaclava-clad criminals trying to remain anonymous. In protecting, hiding and disguising, masks afford both the creation and the loss of identity.
Their role has been integral to our entertainment also. Since the early 1300s, ‘Noh’ has been a major form of musical drama in Japanese culture. This unique art sees male actors become gods, women, lunatics and demons through the use of carved Japanese cypress masks that allow them to portray a plethora of characters and emotions. In a similar fashion, French film director Jacques Copeau provided primitive neutral masks during the early 1900s to allow his actors to don new identities.
This search for identity through the medium of the mask is far from over, however. As the following testimonies highlight, there are many more possibilities to exhaust.
Aldo Lanzini sits drinking coffee in the busy city of Milan. Although raised in the tiny village of Sondrio on the Swiss-Italian border by a family largely unfamiliar with the arts, his uniquely eccentric crochet creations exhibit an innate creativity that cannot be taught. He laughs openly: “I actually use a technique that makes experts on a crochet team look at me like ‘what are you doing?’ ... I cannot read tables of crochet and I don’t use a process like making a drawing or a sketch and then referring to that – I just work.”
Completely at ease with this somewhat unorthodox approach, and taking a multitude of colours in his hands, Lanzini begins his masks by creating a small piece of crochet. He then positions this on parts of his body in front of a mirror until the piece finds its place. “Then I go from there,” he explains. By letting the material dictate the development, Lanzini does not consider himself a designer: “I just work and what comes out just comes out. It’s quite fun, because you never know what will come out.”
His designs are created instinctively, so it is inevitable that each mask exhibits elements of Lanzini’s own identity: “Due to the very slow process of making them, they become a container of your thoughts.” It is in contrast to many mask creators that Lanzini finds identity in the process, not the product. “I think the highest act of creation is the creation of the self,” Lanzini explains. “We are not born with ourselves; we are building ourselves, so it is a process of continuing creation.” His unique methods - “always adapting, always changing” - provide an apt metaphor for this ongoing search.
For Lanzini, identity is not something to be fixed. It is always transforming. As such, he does not present himself to the public through the media; instead, he chooses to remain anonymous behind his masks. “You can relate this decision to the work. The sense of the self being liquid, in constant change, I don’t want anything to fix that.”
Lanzini is also cautious when working with magazines: “I have tried some editorial but the final result is something else. It takes away the soul.” Detailing an experience in which his work was shown on a girl wearing fur, despite the fact he is a devout vegetarian, Lanzini is perhaps justified in stating: “I prefer not to do editorial unless I can have a big involvement.”
Although Lanzini wishes to maintain control and “keep a connection between every aspect,” he confesses his love for collaboration: “You create a connection. You bring something and the other person brings something,” he says, reminiscing on his time spent in New York creating costumes for his brother Kevin Aviance, and others on the alternative club scene during the 1990s. “Somehow you create a third thing,” Lanzini enthuses.
For Lanzini, the search for identity is one that remains ongoing. And yet, this artist does not look forward: “I think the future is not in the future; it is already here and it is in the past.” Ironically mirroring the kaleidoscopic crochets he creates, Lanzini adds, “in the end it all gets interwoven.”
Archive: PETRIe INVENTORY 66
Words: Elizabeth Neep
Images courtesy of Aldo Lanzini