1984 IS TOMORROW, The Work of Denis Masi

Sarah Kent


Currently there’s an advert on British television for Wang computers, which offered “a revolution in office management”. “Wang opens doors” to reveal the office of the future - a clean and antiseptic place in which inefficient workers have been replaced by beautifully functioning machines. The boss appears, like Huxley’s Big Brother, only on television to observe events and give orders to the machine minders. Physically absent, his presence is nevertheless felt over everyone’s shoulder as absolute authority.

A row is now raging over the moral issues arising from the production of test tube babies and embryo backs and accompanying experiments in genetic manipulation and cloning - identical sheep have already been produced and people are theoretically, at least, on the way - 1984 is tomorrow.

This is the context of Denis Masi’s work. His installations resemble the Hi-tech utopia offered in Wang commercials. His impersonal, stainless steel, glass and mirror environments are designed and made with surgical precision to mimic the achievements of the industrial designer rather than the artist, their immaculate finish demonstrating the skills of numerous technicians. Built to a blueprint, they utilise industrial processes and working methods at the other end of the creative spectrum from the playfully spontaneous searchings of the artist in his/her studio. Rejecting that traditional role, Masi operates as director, overseeing the work at one remove. The touch of his not apparent - like the Wang boss, he is experienced as an absent manipulator, a brain rather than a hand, as cool reason rather than intuition.

Each installation is a self contained world. An environment in which a chilling sense of order and perfection rules. Like the city of the future in Godard’s film Alphaville, everything is under control - materials are man-made, lighting is artificial and sound is pre-recorded. Each piece is laid out like an immaculate stage set or tableau vivant with table, chairs, lighting and screens creating the formal atmosphere of a chic office or laboratory, rather than of a domestic interior.

But these environments are inhabited not by people, robots or clones like Alphaville or the London of Orwell’s 1984, but by animals such as rats, rhesus monkeys and dogs - species chosen for laboratory experiments because of their social structures and behaviour patterns reflect our own. In ‘Search’ (1975-77) a number of hooded rats are placed on a platform as though for careful observation. A special cage, used for restraining an animal during injection, reinforces the reference to scientific experiment. Behind the platform and open ready for use, is cabinet containing items that resemble surgical equipment, such as straps to bind down an unwilling patient and scalpels for performing the operation. A spotlight, switched on as though in readiness suggests that the action will soon begin, while an empty chair awaits the arrival of the protagonist or ‘human understood’, as Masi defines the absent presence. A tape of shrill warning, attack and submission calls communicates the rats’ alarm and alerts the observer to their imminent danger.

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