This is a readymade work of art called Shutter, prepared and photographed by Vanessa Brassey. It is situated in a white walled space call ‘home’. If you like it, feel free to make your own and exhibit it in a similarly under-designed environment like this one.
The most famous readymade, now folklore and the First of His Name, is found in the first episode of that twentieth century screwball comedy series Modern Art, produced by The Artworld. Almost guaranteed to prompt ‘the face’ on an unsuspecting audience member, the pilot episode was written and directed by Michel Duchamp, and it sparked a furious debate about what art is. Duchamp’s pilot, Fountain, was created in the same year as the Russian Revolution. So, one might be forgiven for thinking that the reason it wasn’t aired at the time (in the show for which it was created) was because there were more important (and non-laughing) matters to consider. Actually, they just didn’t get the punchline. Nonetheless, despite the fact that the producers of the show for which Fountain was made refused to display it, word of the new artform spread and the readymade began to build a committed audience by stealth. By the time Warhol was writing season four, The Brillo Box, it was clear that the establishment had underestimated Duchamp’s exceptional gift for playing the long conceptual game. Not only had he secured his reputation as a strategic artist, claiming ownership of the porcelain throne, he had also convinced philosophers like Arthur Danto and George Dickie to promote the gag.
Joking aside, I have always been astounded by the thought that Duchamp produced Fountain more or less at the time the alchemists Matisse, Cezanne and Gauguin, produced their golden masterpieces. Honestly, I still feel intrigued rather than engaged by the readymade movement. Yet recently I have been wondering if it’s not on them after all. And the item that has made me reconsider this attitude is the humble surgical mask.
The surgical mask, like Duchamp’s urinal, is now a ubiquitous commodity. Access to it is supplied in almost all public spaces. It is concerned with hygiene. It’s frowned on to stand right next to someone using one. An attempt to share one would be regarded with horror.
By what magic then, can one become a surgical mask ‘become’ an art object? I asked my favourite GP and running chum, Dr. Carmel Sher. This is what she said.
In the pre-covid era the natural habitat of a surgical mask was the hospital (or dental surgery) and specifically in the surgical department. We would don them to protect patients from our germs while we carried out procedures that required concentration and usually completed in silence. They conferred status and the symbolised that communication was over and work, usually involving cutting and injecting was to begin. They also perhaps helped patients think they were in ‘safe hands’ and definitely sent a message that they were in the right place and they were appropriately dressed in pjs in a place that was not their bedroom. On a personal note they terrified me as I was a fainter (at best) in theatres, therefore a useless member of any surgical team, and terrified of being unable to communicate normally with a masked dentist as he put six metal instruments in my mouth and asked me “so, how’s the family?”
When I looked at a plain surgical mask I saw silence, surgeons and sweaty panic.
Fast forward 27 years, I work in general practice and also teach and train Doctors and Medical Students. I find the plain surgical mask has appeared again in my life like an unexpected item in the bagging area.
It appeared first slightly out of place in my GP surgery and then spread like a nasty rash and appeared outside in shops, bars and schools. It then evolved and spawned colourful creations that allowed the surgical mask its professional status back again.
Donning a surgical mask a year ago would signal end of chat concentrate on the job at hand.
But what if the chat, the curl of a lip, the faintest of expressions, is essential to work you do? Silence is too, but silence often allows the unmasking of feelings. Even after 20 years in general practice I am caught out when I ask a question or allow a silence and then get a response I was not expecting. Sometimes I only catch the response because I notice a quiver in in a patient’s mouth. Tears can follow later, but they often only do if the quiver has been noticed or the box of tissues that sits on my desk been offered.
So how do I learn again to practice after 20 years of unmasked luxury?
I guess I have allowed the mask its place in the consultation. Rather than being an object which is unnoticed – in its expected place carrying out its functional role, It is now in my GP Surgery and out there, sometimes loud and patterned, sometimes itchy and hot – but getting noticed and joining in. Sometimes it has joined in in a funny way – gulping tea whilst wearing it during medical student teaching and forgot, but more often it has become part of the consultation. It has barged in. I has assumed a new status. The mask is essential.
In the new Corona age we need permission to take our masks off. Discussing bad news I ask permission to take mine off. Post-natal depression, bereavement, pain, the struggling student, the burnt out colleague – each interaction requires recognition of the mask in the room, like the zoom in the room, it’s status, the role it will play and the real conversation is changed and with it, our relationship to it.
All this is to say that when I look at a plain surgical mask now, I see The Mask.