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Unmasked!

MFA exhibit uncovers the secrets behind our facial disguises

The mask is an object and a concept common to many cultures. It speaks to us because we identify ourselves by our faces, not hands, feet or, generally speaking, any other body part. Obscuring, altering or representing the face immediately intrigues people.

The mask prompts us to investigate our temporally and geographically varied responses to questions like, How do we cope with the infinite mystery of death? How do we ensure that spring will come or the old year will pass into the new without incident? (Think we're too advanced for those "primitive" concerns? You must not remember last year's millennial paranoia.) How do we best protect ourselves in armed combat?

The Museum of Fine Arts's "Masks: Faces of Culture" has many different answers to these questions -- all in the form of objects used to cover the face, from Paleolithic to modern times. The exhibition expands exponentially on our initial associations of the mask, fulfilling its objective to serve as a departure point for cultural exploration. And here's one of the main points you'll undoubtedly walk away with: A greater understanding of other cultures and time periods affords us a clearer view of our own. In other words, you may never view a hockey mask the same way again.

It's spooky and it's kooky: A 7,000-year-old funerary mask from the Middle East.
Museum of Fine Arts
It's spooky and it's kooky: A 7,000-year-old funerary mask from the Middle East.

With lenders as diverse as All-Star Sporting Goods Company, the Sultanate of Oman, Walt Disney and the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan, the exhibition, grouped in five sections, works on a variety of levels. A NASA astronaut's helmet and the creepy headgear of Darth Vader have instant pop-cultural resonance, but with even a cursory reading of the informative catalog essays, lesser-known objects also come alive.

In the Rites of Passagesection, the masks offer insights into the varied cultural responses to death. A 7,000-year-old carved stone funerary mask from the Middle East is an amazingly empathetic object that might have been displayed in a home. Only six and a half inches high, it could fit neatly in your hands. The vacant eye sockets are skull-like, but the nose is abbreviated into a dotlike hole over a wide, genial grin, melding the spooky and the comical for a strangely tender appeal. Was that done on purpose? Did the people who made it interpret facial expressions in a similar way? The piece does not read as an individual portrait, but perhaps as a symbol of one who is dead, or even as a symbol of death itself. Is the way we respond to the object today the same way they would have responded 7,000 years ago? Most likely not, given that the oh-so-crucial element of context is missing, right along with the shells that may have inlaid the features. In any case, something about the objects makes us stubbornly, if incorrectly, feel that the particular arrangement of features must have engendered a similar response all those years ago.

With its attention to detail, the carefully inscribed shapes of the eyebrows and moustache and goatee, the Chinese gilt bronze Funerary Mask of a Qidan Male, from approximately 1000 A.D., implies a portrait of the deceased. The mask would have been placed over the face of the dead, almost as a hopeful prayer from the living; it has the elegant serenity of untroubled sleep. Although the Qidan dynasty ended nearly 900 years ago and was more than 7,000 miles away, the mask still instills in us a reassuring vision of death as tranquil repose.

The coming of spring, carnival and the new year are just some of the events celebrated in the Festivals of Renewal section. Created for the god of spring Xipe Totec, better known as "Our Lord the Flayed One," an Aztec stone figure is presented in a dramatically lit case. The figure depicts a Xipe Totec priest, and on closer inspection you realize he is dressed in a "mask" composed of the skin of a flayed man. To celebrate and ensure the return of spring, a young man would be fattened and feted for ritual sacrifice. Life was considered the most precious gift humanity had to give and therefore the best possible offering to the gods. Expertly carved, the priest's eyes and mouth are eerily visible under the covering, perhaps a metaphor for the same renewal ritual that takes place every time a snake sheds its skin.

Less visceral but no less ominous is the Ugly Chlaus mask, named for a demon who represented darkness and death. Switzerland, with its reputation of ordered banality, gives us a furtive glimpse into its pagan origins with this bulging-eyed, fanged and horned forest nightmare. Its dress crudely constructed from straw, leaves and bells, it was intended to scare away evil spirits from villages before the new year. Apparently the Ugly Chlaus scared villagers as well, and the church tried to eradicate the ritual. To counterbalance Ugly Chlaus, the church introduced two pink-cheeked and cuckoo-clock-cute characters, the Young Man Chlaus and Young Maiden Chlaus, terrifying only in their saccharine folksiness. The Chlaus masks provide examples of how traditions mutate and adapt to changing tastes and sensitivities. As happens the world over, a masquerade that began as an attempt to deal with the unknown is transformed into a ritual event. It exists more for the perpetuation of the ritual itself than for the fulfillment of its original purpose.

In Offense/Defense we see man's attempt to mask himself for physical, spiritual and psychological reasons. The Japanese Somen mask was developed in the 16th century during a time of civil war. Firearms had been introduced in 1543 via a shipwrecked Portuguese trader, necessitating further developments in armor. Fiercely grotesque, the Somen masks were designed for protection and to inspire terror in the enemy; the psychological side effect, of course, was to create an invincible persona for the samurai who wore them. Today's hockey masks operate under a similar set of principles. They protect the player from flying pucks, but they also present an intimidating and dehumanized appearance to the opponent, an image of invincibility that can inspire the player as well. The similar offensive and defensive functions of the mask call to mind the ritualized ways in which professional sports mimic warfare -- loyalties, rivalries and the drama of combat.

The exhibition's installation becomes a little strung out as it runs across a series of galleries in the back of the Caroline Weiss Law building. Awkwardly bisected by a museum shop with mask-related merchandise, the show jolts you from viewer to consumer mid-exhibit. There are a host of compelling and provocative objects in the exhibition, but they would be better served by a warmer installation. Whether a budgetary or aesthetic decision, the predominance of stark white walls feels too clinically sterile and removed from the context of life. The several places that utilize color or a backdrop work much better, although their infrequency makes them slightly awkward. The exhibition catalog, by contrast, is wonderful; its lush images are shot against a dark background that highlights the objects.

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