I am not a regular viewer of Artsnight or Newsnight. I guess I’ve always thought it was a bit pretentious for my tastes, on the other side of the culture divide to me. Sure I like a bit of Shakespeare, I wander round art galleries every now and then, and I’ve been to see the ballet once, but I’m happiest at the low end of the culture scale. High culture is for people who learned Latin at school and not for the likes of me.
Obviously this is ridiculous, and a series of stereotypes that need to be overturned, but it’s a rich vein for comedy. The co-presenter of Nina Conti’s Artsnight was keen to play with this whenever anything troubled her finely-tuned bullshit meter “I know this is Artsnight Nina, but there’s no need to sound like such a pretentious wanker”. Good advice, especially coming from a glove puppet monkey.
Nina Conti is a well-known comedian and ventriloquist who pops up on UK tv pretty frequently. Her glove puppet characters and the face masks she uses on her audience members let her say the unsayable. She was just the right person to investigate masks in theatre, film and music. When we perform behind a mask are we assuming an identity or revealing an alter-ego, the true self?
Nina meets a series of people whose careers relate in some way to masks – Mark Wardel who has made casts of David Bowie’s face (which now looks like a series of serene death masks), a theatre group who use masks to help actors unleash their imagination, and two members of the metal band Slipknot who famously only appear on stage in their masks.
I remember when Slipknot started getting media attention back in the days of nu-metal. Everyone wanted a gimmick to set them apart from the baggy-trousered, floppy-haired, eyeliner-wearing boys, and I thought this was theirs. A bunch of frightening masks that didn’t really group together easily. It looked like they’d raided a costume store and bought the leftovers from Halloween. I thought they were probably style-over-substance and not worth listening to, but I’m happy to report that I was wrong.
These days I really like their music and their live shows are fantastic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Clown (aka Shawn Crahan) unmasked before. He and lead singer Corey Taylor agree that the masks are essential to their music “This thing (the Clown character) has no fucking limits”. Corey says the mask is “a physical representation of this person inside me, who never had a voice. It allows me to be me.” And of course, it sits in the long tradition of rock and metal bands dressing up. It might be all about the music, but it’s important to look good on stage.
David Lloyd, the artist behind the V for Vendetta graphic novel, says he’s never worn the iconic V mask. He says he’s too cynical for the protest movement that uses his mask, but he’s happy that its caught on with idealists. He says “I’m not V. V is better than me”. The masks that he’s created has a powerful life of its own.
And maybe Nina needs to watch out. Maybe the masks can exist without the wearer. Monkey interviews the feminist arts protest group Guerrilla Girls alone (with Nina under the table). Who needs the hand when the puppet is such a great journalist? Disturbingly Nina regains control at the end, and we see her drop the puppet, lower the hand and Monkey’s voice comes out of Nina’s mouth. This is far scarier than any Slipknot mask. Thank goodness for the soothing tones of Daft Punk over the end credits.
Nina Conti’s Artsnight is available on BBC iPlayer for another month – click to watch