Fetish of the Image

My first thought was „Second Skin”, and the exhibited performativity of the portrayed. The normally intimate process in portrait photography seems at first to be removed by the material of the second skin, but at the same time it is brought back again by the fact that the process of masking itself is a very intimate process. The photographs generate an intensive pre-occupation with questions of identity, with possibilities of identity change through completely analogous means of masking in times of Second Life, VR and AR. The proximity of these works to theatre, performance and live art aesthetics interests me, as well as their social background.

curatorial text by Carena Schlewitt accompanying the „Fetish of the Image” exhibition, HELLERAU European Center for Contemporary Arts, Dresden, DE 20.03–20.04.2019

“Patriarchal, masculine, powerful” – these adjectives might not be the first ones to come to mind when seeing the photographs. Yet, the portrayed people are wealthy, prominent and affluent, mostly straight and white men in power.               
The images come from the most intimate moments of transition that happens in strict privacy and secrecy among the hermetic, yet popular worldwide Masking fetish subculture.
Using silicone costumes that realistically imitates female bodies, Maskers transform themselves into their feminine alter-egos. Here, alike in theater traditions in the past where women were not allowed to act, the men are the experts on how to perform the most seductive kind of femininity.        
Although their queer desires are socially tabooed, Maskers, themselves belonging to the upper social class, are accepted as a source of revenue. While an industry producing the masks emerged specially to fulfill them, the silicone bodies are sold as high quality and costly commodities that only few can afford.
By adapting and mastering production procedures of film characterization and medical prosthesis, masking industry attempts to withstand its clientele’s demands. Maskers, despite multiple possibilities for identity change available nowadays – including VR, Second Life or AR – insists on analogous, physical experience of the transformation into the other.
Even though tangibility is a crucial aspect of Masking, the community is reluctant to physical encounters. Maskers communicate among each other almost exclusively via social media and online platforms, posting and commenting self-portraits in disguise and videos presenting themselves in the second skin.
As a young, middle-class woman, not much connects me with the characters of my work. Fundamentally, my experience of femininity comes from living as a woman while for Maskers, it derives from performing femininity. The only access to and connection with my models was photography.
While posing, the men permitted me to look deeper underneath the silicone costumes and their tailored alter-egos.
As a fetish practice, Masking perfectly balances between submission and emancipation, accepting objectification as a way for liberation and expression. To fulfill their needs, Maskers commodify and consume female identity. While self-expression, self-centeredness and consumption are characteristic for the present, Masking well illustrates how they blur the borders between a body and a fetish, desire and narcissism, emancipation and submission.

Make-up and beauty endeavors from the queer circles influence the straight aesthetics. Because can you imagine someone more camp and eccentric looking, than the embodiment of the perfect heterosexual femaleness, Kim Kardashian? It must be then something about the surplus, the excess, too-muchness in the masking practice, for what people consciously choose this excess and playing with it. We are coming back to the question of theatre. In many theatrical traditions, women were not allowed to perform (in Japanese kabuki and Elizabethan theatre alike), what not only caused men to take the female roles, but also laid grounds for a specific drag culture, putting an institutional seal over a situation where it is a man, who is the expert on how to perform the most seductive, attractive kind of femininity.

Text by Agata Pyzik