Jeni Allison

Simon Starling’s current exhibition at the Modern Institute is what could be described as “the support” act to his future exhibition at the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art. That’s not to say you get a “support”- style performance however. Project For A Masquerade (Hiroshima)/The Mirror Room is not only researched to an obsessional level, it’s also presented beautifully.

Past images of Henry Moore’s sculpture Atom Piece, we are faced, frustratingly, by a blank wall, positioned in the middle of the room. The intrigue caused mainly means you won’t bother looking at the aforementioned images, and instead will pass the wall and enter the “Mirror Room” from the show’s title. In Japanese Noh Theatre “the mirror room” is essentially the dressing room, where the actors will not only fit their masks, but in a step which puts the commitment of British actors to shame, will be possessed by the characters they are about to play.

Contemporary art seems to aim to be nothing if not interactive. Instead of simply examining eight masks and one hat temptingly positioned on head-height poles in front of a mirror, most people posed behind them while their friends captured the moment on mobile phone cameras. I would be surprised if any of them were considering the Noh actors whilst doing this, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. This seems to be an exhibition aimed at two groups – the aforementioned group, and the most ‘studious’ art aficionado.

The latter can immense themselves in the exhibition cateologue-cum-theatre programme where, for example we can find out that the role of kichiji will be played by James Bond as portrayed by Sean Connery in the 1964 film adaption of Ian Fleming’s novel ‘Goldfinger.’ There is method in this apparent haphazard association between fictional character and actor playing a different fictional character. Both characters are in some way implemented in tales of gold smuggling, which Starling fables as an analogy of the Cold War. This analogy is spread throughout the exhibition, which will, of course, culminate in a further exhibition in Hiroshima.

The stand out piece, not only by virtue of its not being a mask, is a bowler hat, which we learn is an exact replica of the one made for Harold Sakata, when he played the infamous Oddjob. Through its association to the Bond movies, this piece conjures up a glamourised world of spies, fast cars, glamourous women (no mention of Pussy Galore here though), and of good triumphing over evil. Refreshingly this exhibition is based around the idea of taking the build up to an event that was undoubtedly horrific, and reworking it through a cocktail of Western (mainly media-based) cultural icons and using traditional Japanese skill; the masks are made by a master mask-maker from Osaka.
I wish I could end this article with something about the two cultures being shaken-not-stirred, but perhaps that’s a little contrived. Regardless, go see it!


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