Rachel Mason’s work is not easy to neatly summarize. I’ve been following her projects for several years now, and I still have difficulty explaining what exactly it is that she does. Rachel’s art is fluid — it’s always easing in and out of different forms. She is a songwriter and performer; she’s an actress, of a sort, who performs as if channeling the poetic inner souls of controversial leaders like Fidel Castro and Manuel Noriega. She’s also a sculptor who crafts idiosyncratic figurines that look like a cross between Hummel figures and Honore Daumier’s sculpted bronze caricatures. During the 2008 election season, Mason sketched political candidates in the process of stumping for votes, and she’s also choreographed a number of live group performances. For me, the salient feature of all of her work lies in its sense of empathy. In a world that seems to grow more grim and globally conflicted with each passing decade, Mason’s projects operate according to this blissfully simple principle: imagine yourself walking in the shoes of someone else, if only for a few brief moments.
I first met Rachel while she was studying art at UCLA. We reconnected almost a decade later when she exhibited at Chicago’s Andrew Rafacz Gallery in 2009. I fell in love with the series of little busts she created as part of The Ambassadors, a multi-media project spanning sculpture, video, and live performance. Writing about Mason’s show on Bad at Sports in 2009, I noted:
The empathy with which Mason approaches the subject of war and political leadership is an anomaly in this age of hard-line factionalism and harsh political rhetoric. It’s easy to wear your politics on your t-shirt, but far more difficult to cloak yourself in the garb of your political Other and, heart on sleeve, sing a song or write a poem in their name.
These words are still the best I can offer in explaining why Mason’s work feels both powerful and necessary at this particular time in history. Those of you living in the Midwest can decide for yourself: selections from The Ambassadors are currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit as part of an exhibition titled Life Stories. Curated by MOCAD’s Director, Luis Croquer, the show offers six idiosyncratic takes on the notion of personal history and biography, and as such seems an unusually perfect fit for Mason’s difficult-to-encapsulate body of work. In addition, on March 6 at the Dumbo Art Center in Brooklyn, NY, Mason will debut Code Flight: A Musical Tale of Dementia and Love, an album-length song cycle about her work in a nursing home. I recently spoke with the artist about her project and the ways that empathy and characters–as opposed to caricatures–inform her art.
Claudine Ise: How did you become interested in working with–and thinking through–the idea of characters as an art form?
Rachel Mason: Back when I was an undergrad at UCLA in 2000, I made some of my first videos and performances about an invincible figure in a white helmet, the Terrestrial Being. [It was about] things that I wanted to do I could imagine doing in the character, and in a way it gave me the feeling that I could do anything–like when I scaled UCLA’s 8-story Dixon art building and did other actions in architectural spaces. It was with this idea that I began to really sense that I could live inside a new skin in my work and that I didn’t have to be limited to being me.
CI: It’s interesting to think about character as a medium in itself — as something that has the plasticity of sculptural material. In thinking of character you can sculpt a little bust, or write a song, or devise a costume/physical stance with which to perform live.
RM: Yes, I like how you phrased it, that characters are themselves a medium and I don’t feel tied to the material, but more tied to the expression of the character. Even when I am myself in the work, I feel that I’m performing myself as a fictional representation. Like the sculpture Kissing President Bush; although it’s a self portrait–it is an imaginary self. That’s the freedom that I feel in making these representations, be they sculpture or performance. But for me, the two are one and the same. I often feel that making a song, is just like making a sculpture, and its just the same to perform. They feel identical to me.
CI: How did The Ambassadors come about?
RM: The Ambassadors started when I was struggling with how to comprehend the Iraq war. I was feeling so much anger and sadness and my waking life began to be consumed with a sense of what I could do about the war. I started making work about powerful people because I felt great emotion about them.
CI: I’m always impressed by how lacking in cynicism your portrayals of these powerful figures are. You’re dealing with people like George Bush, Saddam Hussein, Slobodon Milosovic…people who are often popularly portrayed in the media as monsters.
RM: I had been staring at [my figurines' faces] for so long silently in the studio that I naturally started to have one-to-one conversations. These conversations led to songs. In the songs I write in general, I become involved with characters, both invented and based on real people.
CI: How do you get inside their heads?
RM: Sometimes its just one thing I’ve read – a fragment of a moment in their lives that inspires the song. I’m aware that my versions of these people are all fiction and that for me to get inside of their heads I empathize with a set of feelings that I myself have. I thought it would be interesting to see what other people would do given the chance to step into this little world, and an album of songs came out of it.
CI: Which album was that?
RM: Volume I of the Songs of the Ambassadors albums is the collaborative one [click link to listen to the album]. Artists and writers wrote the words imagined in the minds of the political figures I had sculpted and I set them to music. Each song is written by a different writer, artist or musician who I presented the idea to and who took it and ran with it. I was amazed at the results. Josephine Foster wrote about Fidel Castro, Michael Queenland wrote about Thomas Sankara, the leader of Burkina Faso, Jennifer Herrema of the band RTX wrote about Guy Philipe, the Haitian rebel leader who overthrew Aristide, Emory Holmes II wrote in the voice of Mobutu Sese Seko.
I was so inspired by the first album that Volume II, the second album, almost came instantly. Some of the songs were written by the actual politicians, namely Saddam Hussein (“Unbind It”) and Jimmy Carter (“Life on a Killer Submarine”). When I first read the poem that Saddam wrote, it was in the New York Times right around the time of his execution and as soon as I saw the words I felt the song come through them. They read like a rock song right away, “Unbind my soul, it is my soulmate and you are my soul’s beloved…” The song by Jimmy Carter is from a book of his poems and it’s about his time on a submarine. I really liked the images of him on a submarine and somehow that’s where the songs really exist best to me–when they capture some fragment of the person’s life.
Click to play “Unbind It” by Rachel Mason, a song inspired by a poem written by Saddam Hussein.
CI: You’ve also had some direct communication with political figures and world leaders. In 2007, for example, you wrote to Manuel Noriega, and he wrote you back.
RM: A friend suggested I contact people who might be able to provide me actual insights into the people I was sculpting and singing about, Ramsey Clark and Manuel Noriega. So I wrote to Noriega and told him about what I was doing and he wrote me back saying, “Avanza avanza avanza! [Go forward!]” and he also said I should read his book, America’s Prisoner. The song I wrote came while I had a horrible ear infection. I came across a line that said, “My Canal is infected” (meaning the Panama Canal) and “Se Infecto Mi Canal” came to me as soon as I read it because my ear canal was infected.
Ramsey Clark, I called and he answered the phone and invited me to his house to show him the figures and we had a great conversation where he looked at the figures and gave me his thoughts on whether or not I captured their likeness and spoke about his friendships with many of them.
CI: When you perform as political figures you often draw attention to the emotive gestures, phrasings, and physical stances so familiar to all of us as political theater. Your sketches of political candidates do this, too. Since so much of your work is performed for groups of people, to what extent do you think of them in terms of ritual?
RM: Political theater feels like any other kind of theater to me but it is more frightening because its real, it effects the world. It has all of the elements of other kinds of drama: heartbreak, betrayal, love, intrigue. Some of the rituals are like rites of passage. The performer is in an absurdly powerful yet vulnerable position where he or she may rise or fall almost instantly. When I was sketching the candidates on the campaign trail several years ago, I felt in tandem with them. I had to make big gestures and really fast, and so did they. I divided my drawings into categories in the end, noticing the ways that they transformed in front of me: “Monsters” when they were brutal and ugly, “Ghosts” when I would encounter them in dimly lit clubs; there often was a halo around them and they would move rapidly and then be gone… poof!
CI: You’ve described your small-scale busts of world leaders as little dolls that you could imagine playing with – with yourself in the role of an ambassador (also miniaturized) trying to assuage conflicts. They’re like the opposite of fetish objects because your fantasy is to use them in a reconciliatory manner – to confront harsh contradictions and work them out, rather than deny their existence altogether.
RM: I’m never tired of digging a dental tool into a lump of clay to try to bring to life a face–and that’s the impulse that led me to just step into this whole enterprise–I wanted to sculpt to understand and to see who these people were. Not having any idea at all that it would take me so long, or lead into so many different directions, it was kind of a simple idea: what were the wars that happened in my lifetime?
I became aware of the theater of costumes in the research and decided to dress myself in whichever costume I liked best. For instance Mobutu Sese Seko’s Leopard Print, or Muhomar Qaddafi’s extravagant military suits.
CI: Your performances sometimes cross over into “real life.” You made a video for your song “My Chechen Wolves,” about Dzhokar Dudayev, using footage found on YouTube. When you re-uploaded the video you made for the song, it went viral. It’s fascinating to think of your song being used as a kind of patriotic battle song. After this you even became involved in the Chechen cause directly. Tell me more about the rally you attended in Times Square last December.
RM: The rally on the steps of Times Square was really amazing because it was so cold — 14 degrees, yet the gathering was going strong — they were from all over the Caucasus, not just Chechnya–they were there to protest the brutal racial attacks that were occurring in Russia. I had been contacted through Facebook about the rally so I went out with my gear and performed My Chechen Wolves on the steps.
It’s an honor that my song about Dzhokhar Dudayev got taken up as a protest song for the Caucasus. I wrote it imagining myself in the mind of the Chechen leader Dudayev defending his country against the huge force of the Russian army. The song arose from the image of David and Goliath which the conflict invokes the guerrilla fighters hiding in the magical mountains of the Caucuses. After I sang the song a Chechen man came up to me and said that he had met Dudayev personally many years before he ever went into politics and said he had “no idea this little man was so brave.”
CI: The Ambassadors is one of six projects currently featured in an exhibition titled Life Stories at MOCA Detroit. What parts of the project are being shown? How does the juxtaposition with other works—particularly Pina Bausch’s piece—resonate for you?
RM: The show includes all of the figures that I sculpted from 1978-2009 and a video of numerous performances of the songs that I did in various places. I’ll be doing a performance of the Songs of the Ambassadors in full costume at the museum on March 26.
What I most appreciate about the show is that it gives each artist their own world. The layout of the show matches the title very well. You feel like you’re moving through miniature life stories. I loved the rooms individually — Simryn Gill’s piece allows you to hold her hand-rolled balls of Ghandi’s texts while staring at these drawings made from bits of disembodied biographies. Ján Mančuška’s room is like a mental drawing, a line of stream-of-consciousness poetry runs along an elastic thread leading you to spin in a dizzying circle of words describing his room.
I feel honored to have my work situated in a room adjacent to Pina Bausch’s video Kontakthof. It’s a great piece in which dancers wallop and grope each other and then shuffle off into very formal arrangements but then suddenly break into slapstick. I’ve always been obsessed with slapstick and clowning, so it was a great opportunity to study from a master.