Museo Nacional De La Estampa 2007

A large installation occupying the entire first floor of the museum Consisting of appropriated radiation masks used by patients from the united states as well as mexico.

Some masks were manipulated by me
Most were not
I placed them in dialogue with each other, addressing the commonality and universality of this horrible experience

The passage through discovery, horror, helplessness, rage, asking for help, surgery, curiosity about the tumor object itself, post-operative care, radiation itself, the use of the mask as both object of horror and liberator, the uncertainty of a future, relentless rage, and ultimate passage of both physical and spiritual transformation are addressed in sequence

Works on paper, sculpture, appropriated material

It is all one piece, designed to be seen as a whole I have terrible dreams at times about this work.

You Know Me: The Story

My recent installation at the Museo Nacional de la Estampa in Mexico City was a single piece entitled "You Know Me". It occupied the entire first floor of the museum. The work was inspired by the following experience.

Almost three years ago, a friend of mine awakened from sleep with a headache. A terrible headache. The worst that one can have. It was caused by a malignant brain tumor.

My friend approached me with a request. He began by showing me a scar on his head. He said, "Look at this, it's like they stabbed a scimitar through my skull..." He then made his request. "I know that you have sometimes worked with masks. The doctors have made a special mask for me, to give me radiation treatments. If I send you my mask, perhaps you can do something with this to try to explain to others what has happened to me and to so many others."

I agreed. He sent me the mask.

When I opened the box, I realized that under no circumstance could I dream to alter or change his mask. The object itself possessed not only the peculiarities of Stephen's head and face, but was stained on the inside by his sweat, and carried the technical markings of the doctors and technicians. The object completely alone was simply too powerful to allow manipulation. Most ominously I realized by the construction of the mask that it was designed to hold his head to the surface of the treatment table by screws and bolts, not allowing even a millimeter of movement of his head.

I debated whether there might be anything that I could possibly do to examine his experience. I determined that instead of manipulating the mask, that I would try to reposition the mask as part of his larger experience, to place it into a new context, to re-identify it as not only the symbol of his horror, but as the vehicle of his hope. And, as the project began to unfold, I realized that I was most likely illustrating the common experience of countless others, and additionally I was addressing the universal issue of mortal fear and the relentless universal hope for survival.

And so the project began.

The piece consists of the following. The entry rotunda piece extends two floors upwards and consists of approximately thirty masks, some Mexican, some American , men and women, and all bearing the marks of their original owners. Some bore the evidence of eyeshadow, some had lipstick, some had sweat, many had makeup, and a few appeared to bear the stain of tears. There were a few masks that were clearly from small children. For all of us, the actual installation and touching of these masks was a particularly difficult and painful experience.

On the side walls of the rotunda, I installed the poem that I wrote, entitled "You Know Me". This was done in both English and Spanish. This large area was intended to set the tone of consequence and serious intent of the project, as well as to illustrate the commonality of this experience. As the masks began to populate the wall, they seemed to engage in dialogue with each other, not unlike the silent dialogue of mortality that takes place amongst us all.

The main body of the piece then followed, consisting of fifty works on paper, six sculptures, and a drawing on silk. It was installed in specific order, to be viewed in sequential fashion so that the story being told could read as a visual poem and in a purposeful timeline. I attempted to tell Stephen's emotional and intellectual journey. The story begins with the unknown lurking inside, the moment of discovery, then horror. This is followed by terror, loss of all bodily and spiritual control, and then the moment of uncontrolled rage. After the rage comes the moment of asking for help. Then there is the giving up of control, the subsequent surgery, and then the helpless lying in bed while at the gentle mercy of the nurses.

There is a moment of abstracted curiosity about the tumor itself, how big it was. This led to the table sculpture which consists of a series of silver basins, each with a small round object: a baseball, a golf ball, a strawberry, a marble...

Then the scientists arrive. They measure the head, and create the plastic mask, and mark it, draw on it. Then the moment arrives for the mask to be used. This occurs in a special room with extraordinary radiation equipment, lifesaving it is hoped (and sometimes can be). The patient is place on the table, bolted down inside the mask so that only the most precise radiation is given.

The piece which illustrates this experience is a pivotal part of the installation. The mask is now acting not only as the object which signifies Stephen's terror, but is the instrument which can allow him to triumph, to survive even if for only a short while. This might even allow him to not only survive, but to once again be a predator, as we all must be to some degree. The next portions of the installation address how we see our future. Do we see it ourselves, or only through the eyes of others? This is followed by a shadow installation piece with the facial wire mesh mask placed upside down. All life is now upside down. Nothing will ever be the same. Everything will now always be calculated from the headache, before and after the headache.

There is now a small room with an acrylic work on canvas; it is a work of rage. And more importantly a work of vicious, fearless defiance.

The final object is a work on paper, eighteen feet wide, with a single mask at its center. The image is evocative of an airplane or a crucifix or an angel spreading its wings in flight. There is a sense of passage, with the mask in the center moving through an unseen barrier.

you know who I am
i am your friend
i am your brother
i am your child
i am a real person

you know me


Rick Levinson
December, 2007