ABSENCE AS PRESENCE, Denis Masi - Constructions

Sarah Kent

"Most of what I have done has been concerned with repression"

There is something profoundly disturbing about Denis Masi's installations. The cold, bright lights, the impersonal surfaces of shining steel or matt black wood and their static emptiness are potent elements that create a bleak environment of alienation. A sense of absence pervades- of an individual or event awaited with fear or anxiety creating a tension similar to that experienced in a play by Samuel Beckett that traps the audience into the frustration of apparent helplessness. Beckett's characters are often inadequate or incomplete personalities dependent on, orservileto, an absent figure of strength - either a master, lover or companion. Their painful inadequacy is sensed as vulnerability verging on despair.

The subjects of Masi's set pieces are not human, however, but the animals used in behavioural studies, such as rats or dogs, stuffed in animated or life-like positions to present a dual state of life modified by the presence of death. It is a life frozen or suspended as in a photograph, or Beckett's half-life of helpless acquiescence to waiting and to servility. These animals are captives, constrained by various devices such as cages, muzzles, fences and barriers prisoners of an unseen agent.

In SEARCH (Rattus-investigatus), for instance, a number of hooded rats are placed on a sloping platformas though for careful observation, a special cage, used for restraining an animal during an injection, reinforces the reference to scientific research. Behind the platform, and open, ready for use, is a cabinet containing items that resemble surgical equipment, such as straps to bind down the 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. In this set piece the rats are clearly cast in the role of victims with the human agents as aggressor. A tape of shrill warning, attack and submission calls communicates the rats' state of alarm and alerts the observer to their imminent danger. S/he is free to remain aloof from the apparent drama or to become engaged on either side. Identification with the rats is likely to spark off a multitude of associations. The starkness of their tightly controlled environment is reminiscent of the conditions in our most bleak and overcrowded cities. Their restricted liberty pinpoints the friction between individual desires and group or State's requirements which can lead in extreme cases of conflict, to imprisonment or even death. The ca ptives' hopeless circumstances act as a metaphor of State oppression, brutality or control, rather than as a specific instance of cruelty to animals.

The work's emotional strength comes from attention to detail and from reference to actual circumstances, but it gains wider significance by, at the same time, avoiding the particular. The objects contained in the cabinet while resembling surgical instruments, are actually useless items designed by the artist to function as sculptural pointers to everyday objects of potential danger. As Masi wrote: "The materials and devices used in the constructions tend to be concrete; they are taken from the world of everyday life, but also operate as symbols, intended to stir the perceiver on an unconscious, private experience level."

Absence As Presence - Page 1