Rachel Mason

In 2004, Rachel Mason began to make groupings of small porcelain figures for every year of her life. Each set includes, in addition to a self-portrait, busts portraying global political and military leaders who were chief actors in some notable geopolitical aggression or armed conflict during that grouping’s respective year. Titled The Ambassadors, the work is currently complete through 2008 (the artist’s thirtieth year), and includes 117 figures ranging from two and a half to four inches in height. At Andrew Rafacz the figures appeared on a long shelf that snaked around the gallery, and ran in chronological order from Mason’s birth in 1978 (Pol Pot, Le Duan, Deng Xiaoping, and Leonid Brezhnev, for the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia) to 2008 (José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Mikel Garikoitz Aspiazu Rubina, for the conflict between the Spanish government and the Basque separatist group ETA), with a cute and rotund baby Rachel Mason amid the first group and a stern and mature guerrilla Mason in the last. The busts—and these are busts in the classic sense, with armless upper torsos and heads—are treated with enough specificity to make George W. Bush (marking the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the 2004 coup in Haiti, and the 2007 cease-fire between North and South Korea) or Fidel Castro (standing for South Africa’s invasion of Angola in 1981, and again for the 1983 American invasion of Grenada) fairly recognizable, though most of the figures are lesser known and require the accompanying checklist for identification. Conflicts endure even while the faces change, and one has the sense that Mason will have no dearth of possibilities from which to choose in the coming years.

This is a curious project, a kind of rolling, fictitious autobiography couched in the glorification of violence as a means to political ends. By representing these conflicts with their protagonists’ mute heads, Mason personifies violence in a manner that alludes to the role of authoritarian portraiture. But at the same time, the figures’ bright colors and doll-like size have a distinctly comic dimension. (Mason has cited Honoré Daumier’s caricatures as an influence on her work.) This admixture of silly and stern creates an atmosphere that verges on the bizarre.

Her self-portraits are usually placed in the middle of each year’s group, not so much as a mediator, but as an earnest character transported into their midst in a kind of Zelig-like fantasy moment, dressed in appropriate ethnic garb. A video projection in a room adjacent to the Ambassadors display presented documentation of Mason’s ongoing series of public performances—including one delivered at the opening of the exhibition—for which, as a sort of revolutionary chanteuse, she dresses in the guise of a political leader and sings passionately. These performances betray an earnestness similar to that which is evident in The Ambassadors, while drawing together the political and the personal. One performance features Mason singing mournful lyrics while dressed as Saddam Hussein before he was hanged, complete with a noose around her neck. I Rule with a Broken Heart, 2009, a limited edition artist’s book accompanying the show, includes verses written in the imagined voices of political figures; these ruminations are based on letters Mason had written to erstwhile Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s lawyer. Like Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s installation Untitled, 1989, in which a long frieze of terse texts and dates, both personal and historical—diaristic notations, the date of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the names of friends, etc.—offers the self as constructed from some elusive and idiosyncratic commingling of the public and private, Mason’s show blurs intimate autobiography with the gravitas of official historical portraiture. In the resulting mélange, she becomes a succession of signs that present the self as a malleable fiction—a fiction that is rooted, however, in real scenarios where figures of authority preen their way into history, while others, forever faceless, die.

James Yood