Declan Long, Source Photographic Review
Masks - Belfast Exposed
A few years ago, at a wedding reception in the Irish west, I stood baffled at the bar as the familiar party-scene was interrupted by the sudden arrival of men wearing elaborate straw masks: absurd head-concealing cones that looked a little like upturned wicker baskets. The freaky wedding crashers prompted whoops of delight as they pulled the bride and groom into a ritual routine that was, to my amazement, enthusiastically recognised by more-or-less everyone in the room. Later, I learned that these men were the 'Strawboys': representatives of a lingering carnivalesque tradition in the west of Ireland. Their time-honoured role has been to wish the happy couple well, while warding off any lurking evil spirits. But without any knowledge of who they were, the ‘Strawboys' out-of-the-blue presence seemed entirely ludicrous - and not a little creepy. Hidden behind their bizarre masks, these costumed men were sinister, uproariously antic presences, merrily disrupting the customary choreography of a present-day wedding with an anachronistic pagan practice.
The simultaneous strangeness and accepted ordinariness of this scene - a combination that is almost the definition of uncanny experience - comes to mind again on seeing Masks at Belfast Exposed. This was an exhibition focusing on the curious adornments and peculiar characters associated with regional folk traditions across Europe - of which, as the show made clear, there are many. Bringing together distinct bodies of work by two artists, Frenchman Charles Fréger and German Axel Hoedt, Masks is a photographic line-up of outlandish figures. Freaks, demons, harlequins, beasts and, yes, straw men: this was a parade of monsters and mummers in home-made outfits, a Who's Who of necessary dramatic personae at country carnivals.
Over recent years Fréger and Hoedt have each - quite independently - backpacked their way to numerous mountain villages and rural towns to study these manifold forms of vernacular masquerade. Fréger's travels - which have taken him to eighteen countries - concentrate on what he calls 'tribal Europe'. His main intention has been to track manifestations of the 'wild man': a widely found figure of great mythic potency who appears in varying forms in manifold settings, shape-shifting according to local culture, landscape and climate. Sometimes, these figures have a recognisable mimetic beastliness. Clad in animal fur and sporting horned headgear, certain versions resemble bears, stags or bulls. Each one, though, is a distinct ‘manimal': a hybrid creature symbolically connecting human society to an idea of natural, primal existence. Fréger finds degrees of fierceness in the forms of these imaginary beings. Some look straight out of Maurice Sendak. Others have the goofy preposterousness of vintage Dr. Who aliens. Others again seem more spookily intimidating - at least to the uninitiated. However, having journeyed to the diverse locations of these dress-up customs over two winters, gaining a sense of the deep embeddedness of these ritual performances in everyday life, Fréger has emphasised an atmosphere of daylight ordinariness in his photographs. His subjects are pictured posing in fields, on hillsides or beside rivers; they are shot clearly and brightly under sunny skies or in extending snowscapes. In their homelands, these characters thus seem to endure, season and after season, through great stretches of time. But in small ways, Fréger's images also place - or seek - the 'wild men' within the specificities of our own time: allowing us, here and there, to catch glimpses of the real, modern people underneath the masks (in a few cases, for instance, I can't help but notice the contemporary hiking boots that are just-about visible below the otherworldly costumes).
If Fréger's account of these remarkable ritual phenomena is delivered in a relatively straight-ahead - though very striking - documentary style, Axel Hoedt tells a more convoluted tale. Though dealing with very similar subject matter - and concentrating on carnivals in Germany, Austria and Switzerland - Hoedt’s Dusk series is less a documentary representation of an extant reality than it is an absorbing gothic mystery. These are photographs that don't settle easily on a trustworthy approach to their topic. The images of masquerade we see throughout Dusk are shot in studios and in the street, in colour and in black-and-white, from close-up and from further-back. Some photographs are tinted or purposefully corrupted: treated in ways that stress perceptual uncertainty. And where Fréger's images are, in general, fascinating, Hoedt's are more often frightening. The clownish characters in intricate motley that he studies are likely to be much-loved, locally, as high-spirited festival `tricksters'; but pictured in black and white before a plain backdrop, Hoedt presents them as figures of inexplicable menace. Another masked, burly figure - wielding a heavy chain - seems closer to the world of cinematic serial killers than seasonal community festivals.
Both Fréger and Hoedt's encounters with the curious 'otherness' of traditional carnival practices raise familiar ethical, ethnographic issues (simply put: what are the responsibilities and implicit prejudices of photography in such situations?). But a detail worth knowing here is that Hoedt himself hails from an out-of-the-way German town: a village called Staufen at the edge of the Black Forest, best known as the place where Dr. Faustus made his deal with the devil. Perhaps what we find in Hoedt's photographs, therefore, is a personal relationship to a folkloric realm that is simultaneously close-to-home and convulsively, monstrously unreal. Rather than allowing us to reflect - from distance - on authentic varieties of 'tribal Europe', he finds no easy, determinate object of analysis, offering instead hallucinatory images of a world suspended anxiously between artifice and fact, between enduring fantasy and fugitive reality.