Rats are classified as vermin, however, and are generally despised as a species. To be caught'like a rat in a trap' is to sink to a state of abject despair and self-loathing. The viewer may feel disgust for the rats, rather than pity, and find it too disquieting to relate to their pathetic circumstances as victims. It may be psychologically necessary to identify with the more powerful, and therefore the more comfortable or desirable position of the absent aggressor, even though this implies acceptance of his sadistic potential

The power of Masi's installation is its ability to cause a switching of role identification. SEARCH (Rattus investigatus) acts as character stimulus like the experiments set up to study human behaviour. In one such experiment subjects were arbitrarily divided into 'prisoners' and 'wardens' and required to live in a simulated prison environment for a period of two or three weeks. As time passed the participants began to lose touch with their normal social status and, as the artificial reality took hold, to identify with the roles assigned to them, assuming the characteristics either of bullies or underdogs. Isolation in the laboratory was enough to supplant the moral codes of daily life with a regime based on power. Time spent with SEARCH (Rattus-investigatus) sets in motion a disconcerting swing to identification, alternately with both victim and aggressor. Each individual's potential to be master or subject, to act humanely or with callous indifference is activated with equal strength and authenticity. One's response to 'YARD'(Canes Lupi) is more clear-cut, since the spectator takes a more active part in the work's implied narrative. Invited toapproach the piece one's foot triggers a taperecording of low growling. Inside a stockade two Alsatian dogs stand guard, lit only by a red spotlight. The viewer is cast in the role of a night prowler attempting either criminally to enter private premises, or else to escape from capture. The stuffed dogs 'prevent' access and also spark off irrational fears - will the authorities be alerted to one's illicit presence?

Artworks rarely engage the viewer on such an immediate level, and in this respect Masi's constructions have closer links with theatre, than with, say, sculpture. They acknowledge the presence of an audience, being frontally orientated like a painting, photograph or a proscenium stage rather than functioning in the round like most sculpture. The use of sound, smell and dramatic lighting provide further links with the theatre. Narrative is also an important element, although the 'plot' is not revealed to the audience gradually in a planned sequence of events like the acts of a play, but is constructed through the creative interplay of the viewer's imagination with the cues that stimulate it. The 'story' is created and experienced independently, then, by each observer through his/her active collaboration with the work. " I am interested in the mental state of the perceiver as qualified by the information presented in the construction." The artist's skill lies in his ability to charge each environment with carefully planted triggers that will spark off a multitude of thoughts, memories and fantasies in the viewer's mind. To succeed, these works must be realistic and dramatic enough to engage the spectator both intellectually and emotionally, but ambiguous enough to allow conflicting responses and interpretations so that the audience cannot remain passive. They must be specific enough to refer to actual or imagined experiences, or to conjure up fantasy situations, but not too concise to limit conjecture. They should be pertinent, yet ambiguous, and realistic without defining an actual moment or incident. "Time and place are ambiguous, or completely eliminated in these tableaux These installations are, then, analogies of experience rather than illustrations of it.

Throughout his career Denis Masi has attempted to establish a bridge between daily lived experience, such as walking down the street looking in shop windows, with the knowledge and practice of art. "There is an old office front of a haulage company on Mulberry Street in New York, whose window unwittingly achieves everything that Ed Kienholz did in his early work." Masi left America to study in Italy, where his grandparents had come from, and came into contact with the presence and weight of art history. Somehow, he felt, he had to come to terms with this and relate it to contemporary life. His early works (from 1964) consist of Dine-like assemblages of objects and images on canvas. Mundane items like a mattarello representing contemporary living are juxtaposed with famous paintings, especially Ingres' Odalesque. Different levels of reality and methods of presentation compete awkwardly for attention in this curious amalgam of 'life' and 'culture'.

A more convincing marriage of past and present is achieved with simple sets based on old masterpieces in which a model assumes that the poses either of a Giorggione Odalesque or an Ingres beauty ready to be photographed. The artist also appears in some of these scenes, his face turned away from the model, and covered or hidden by a mask as though to express his alienation from the scene re-enacted, from the artistic tradition it represents, and from the traditional artist/model relationship. The artist inhabits the compositions of art history awkwardly, and with a profound sense of distance.

Absence As Presence - Page 2