About My Other Self
A project for the Art Map, Beijing, China
Photos Matthias Messmer
About My Other Self
When we caught sight of her, she was engaged in a common everyday activity typical of the Chinese countryside. – For several minutes an elderly woman with a baby strapped on her back squatted on the ground, preparing a chicken for cooking in a humble gray, concrete-paved courtyard. She was very quiet and concentrating intently on her work. Nothing but the baby’s occasional gestures or babbling distracted her from this chore. Muddy wash water spilled out across the floor, and particles of dust gleamed in the air. Yet, her quiet dignity lent a solemn atmosphere to her surroundings.
For her it would have been just another ordinary moment in an ordinary day, had we not intruded. For us, she was typical of her surroundings: an elderly woman, the daughter of a rural Chinese peasant family. When we approached her, her reaction was shy and hesitant. Still, after we explained our concept, she agreed to put on the mask. “I have never seen a Peking opera,” she said, “and I have no idea what a Peking opera mask looks like.” Like most villagers, she was self-conscious and nervous about donning the mask. She seemed suddenly disoriented. We did not ask her to pose in any way for the camera, but rather to continue her daily routine. She returned to doing her chores. For a brief moment, she was confused and uncomfortable, but soon she resumed her deft and graceful movements. We were surprised to see how quickly she became accustomed to the mask and could again concentrate on her work. It was almost as though she could live contentedly wearing the mask for the rest of her days, if need be.
Back in the urban surroundings and hectic life of the capital city, we continued to ponder over the meaning of “mask” and “face.” – Not much later, on a late summer afternoon, we were idling in some of the Hutongs, the traditional alleys of downtown Peking, enjoying the last rays of the setting sun that fell on the one-story stone houses of old Peking. Only a few meters away stood the former residence of Mei Lanfang, Peking’s most famous opera singer, who passed away almost five decades ago. – Suddenly, a group of children burst into sight around a corner, almost bumping into us. A bit startled, we saw that they all had on Peking opera masks and were divided into two parties, engaged in a mock struggle with one another. As we soon realized, in the game some of the masks they wore represented the forces of good, and the others the forces of evil. The colors and patterns of the masks already answered the question, “Who am I?” – a very simple and effective form of categorization. The kids had obviously “inherited” the meaning of the Peking opera mask and its symbolism, and applied it to “enrich” their game.
That was the moment when we decided to give the Peking opera mask another “revival.” We carried on the tradition in Peking itself. We asked young and old, men and women, people from other provinces and the capital itself to put on the mask. The reactions from the people we asked – sometimes a little hesitant, sometimes spontaneous, more often amused and seldom angry, but definitely with a “moment of joy and excitement” while wearing the mask – gave us the impression that the Peking opera is still a lively and relevant culture in its city of origin. For many, the Peking opera mask is a symbol of the Great Chinese civilization. However, for peasants far from the center of power, the Peking opera mask means nothing more than a piece of irrelevant and alien culture (and indeed one that, as we often heard from villagers, they have never seen). Looking at the photos of peasants wearing the mask provokes a similar feeling of inappropriateness, of an “out-of-place-situation.” Could this feeling of inappropriateness be a metaphor that is applicable to other aspects of life?
What does wearing a mask – itself a piece of history and tradition – mean in our modern world? As in the West (e.g., the Italian Commedia dell’arte), the Peking opera mask reflects a highly artistic and sophisticated way of “playing with one’s identity”: What is the relationship between the “real” face and the mask? Is a mask always a device for concealing something? What role does or can a mask play? Does wearing a mask do more to protect or to expose an individual's identity? Does every individual have a right to wear a mask? Is the “real” face not also a projection screen for a person’s life and identification? To mask or not to mask? That is the question. This photo series “About My Other Self“ reflects on the status of individuality in a vast country with more than 1.3 billion people. It tells about identities and traditions, about anonymity and the behavior of “keeping and losing masks.”