Michael Archer

In 1984, Denis Masi spent a period as artist-in residence at the Imperial War Museum. Although the experience did not result in an entirely new piece of work, it did act as catalyst for the completion of a project which had been under consideration since 1980. This sculpture is Shrine, in the current exhibition, and it marks a considerable development in Masi's work.

As he remarked at the time, one of the more interesting aspects of an institution like the Imperial War Museum is not the way in which it commemorates and glorifies conflict, but rather the mechanisms by which it turns the instruments of any particular confrontation into benign cultural artefacts. As they age these objects become further and further removed from their original reasons for being, and one begins to look at and to appraise them according to quite different criteria. A sword or shield would be admired now for the degree of craftsmanship evident in the forging, shaping and decoration, rather than as an implement of attack or defence. Given this sense of acculturation, Masi has made Shrine as an object which belongs more completely within the cultural space of the museum or gallery than did his earlier work.

Clearly this earlier work was shown within such a context, but it took the form of a series of tableaux and the viewer needed to retain the notion of these being, in some way, 'slices of life' for the full power to be revealed. Throughout the sequence of constructions that commenced with Search (1975/77) Masi deliberately chose to use 'non-art' materials; fine art media were eschewed in favour of the sort of high-tech finishes - matt black wood or metal, chrome, polished copper and mirror - which denoted a kind of mass cultural image of sophisticated detachment. In this way, his central concerns of power and alienation were pictured by means of the cool imagery presented. With Shrine, however, Masi has changed directions, taking up marble and bronze, the paradigmatic traditional fine art materials, and combining them with unpolished copper-plated steel and black canvas, cruder substances with abrasive textural qualities that nonetheless mesh sensually with the marble and bronze, suggesting expressive potential within the context of art.

Despite this change, what sustains in Masi's work is the onus it places on the spectator to move continually amongst a range of judgemental 'positions'. His work addresses power as it is structured within society, and provides a consistently negative critique. What Masi rejects is that power is always the power to do some particular thing. It is its fixity which proves problematic. There is no flexibility, no 'not-knowing' about a situation. Increasingly, also, the idea of knowing something is itself becoming reduced to a question of whether or not one possesses some piece of factual information. This scenario has been extensively dealt with by Adorno in his analyses of the fully administered society, and it was from Adorno that Masi took the epilogue for his last catalogue in 1981:

"In principle everyone however powerful, is an object".

Objectification and alienation are the ever-present adjuncts to the existence of institutional power.

While the themes of power and alienation are evident throughout Masi's art, the work is in no sense didactic. Its strength is in the single-minded negative critique. Didacticism implies the intention to communicate something specific which, even if the sentiments were opposed to existing social conditions and relations, would require the taking up of exactly that unequivocal authorial voice which it is attempting to deconstruct. Using an educational reference to convey his approach, Masi cites A.S. Neill's Summerhill as an admirable project. Rather than being taught through the transmission of fact and opinion, one is there educated in the true sense of the word; one is led out from one's own experience. What is challenging and hence, of course, frightening about such a process is that one doesn't know what the results are going to be. In the case of a Summerhill, the difficulty is that it is continually compromised by the need to justify itself against standard institutional practice and statistics. You can play a different game as long as you use the same rule-book.

Monuments to Collapse - Page 1