Stuart Morgan

Rats escaping from cages glimpse a cabinet of devices which may have been instrumental in their torture. A muzzled dog is subjected to training or interrogation. As part of an obscure game rats have been released and are kept waiting for the next, more sinister stage of the proceedings. Confronted with Denis Masi's tableaux the viewer begins by being outraged. It seems that principles of justice have been flouted, that suffering is being paraded for aesthetic delectation. Eventually, however, these and other feelings are subordinated to the sense that the context these structures demand is particular and untranslatable. Seduced at first by the elegance of finish and materials, then jolted into ratiocination by sensory interruptions which function like Brechtian alienation effects, the hapless spectator, caught between sensuous apprehension and didacticism, moves from emotion to reason, from style to logic, from what Masi calls the "taste" of the work to a more reasoned response, then to a third, nameless, heightened area. The world the work inhabits is life-size. The tables and chairs are tables and chairs. The stuffed animals are life-size too, yet their odd aspect, the angle they subtend to reality, is an indication of the way the 'truth' of each situation differs from its day-to-day equivalent. The medium resembles sculpture, yet operates according to laws of arrangement. Finally separate elements reach a point at which amounts are correct, effects are gauged precisely, information is presented clearly and the very occasion when these disparate units are marshalled and their rhetoric acquires a specific tone is made poignant, emotive and strange. Beyond its obvious connections with lecture-rooms or freak shows the working method permits a high degree of artifice and an alarming amount of plain speaking, seeks to transcend its physical existence as easily and powerfully as music,to destroy and remake the terms by which its components achieve meaning in the world. Without obvious expressionism each installation indicates a cold, thin, nihilistic realm where impact is paramount. Like Baudelaire, Masi could write "I have no desire to demonstrate, to astonish, to amuse or to persuade. I have my nerves and my vertigo."

In the early seventies Masi's bodyworks explored a hysterical threshold captured in still photographs of performances. All nerves and vertigo, they marked a point beyond which features become indistinct, expression of pain was no longer proportionate to that pain and an absence - of sound, for example - was considered more telling than the effect itself. A similar unfocused cry was featured later in GYMNASIUM, in which a single rat screams in one corner of an exercise space, and also in YARD, a fenced area in which two dogs bark ferociously as they stand guard over a mysterious bundle and a coil of barbed wire. From 1971 to 1973, beginning with a double exposure photograph of himself getting up from a chair, he experimented with implied human activity in photographs of aspects of his own personal environment, fragmented or cropped feelings of imminence, mystery or nostalgia were evoked by these attempts to locate absence it make it tangible. From art about repression in which boundaries of 'normal' behaviour were broken, those works Masi calls "derogatory" he had moved to an art of suggestion and understatement. Though he talks idealistically of art which would be as wide-ranging as cinema, his sculptural environments are best described as "theatrical". Spot-lit sets define their own space amid surrounding darkness. Props indicate relationships. The environments encapsulate every aspect of his previous work, constituting the cleverest in a series of stratagems to avoid direct first-person confession. Camouflage had always been of prime importance; in one of his early photographs he appears with a paper bag over his head. A two-word Latin sentence in the notebooks provides an apt commentary on this aspect of his art. "Larvatus prodeo", it reads, "I come forward pointing at my mask".

As actors Masi employed dead animals which he helped taxidermists to pose. In the natural caste system his creatures are untouchables or Uncle Toms. The very fact of their being stuffed without having been hunted hints at their total domination by Man. Though their presence and smell may repel us, no-one could condone the cruel treatment they suffer. If they begin downtrodden, however, they do not remain so. It is no accident that Masi's retrospective exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1979 was reviewed favourably by THE BEAST, Britain's leading anti-vivisectionist magazine. By probing the roots of aggression and the human will to power Masi becomes an advocate of animal liberation. More significantly, perhaps, he turns the tables on trainers and tamers by subjecting them to stimuli so powerful they resemble commands. A recent interest in subliminal perception is revealed in his sound tracks. "There's a firm in New Orleans" he says, sounding like William Burroughs, "which claims that through subliminal tapes they've reduced shoplifting by forty per cent. 'I'm an honest person ... I don't steal', says a voice above the muzak".

Theatre as Metaphor - Page 1