Rachel Mason, a sculptor, songwriter and performer, often explores the concept of ambition and what motivates the most powerful people. Her work comes from a personal place; her fascination with authority, and the desire to learn more about the world and its leaders. Rachel’s complex approach to these themes has resulted in a collection of works that encourages viewers to rethink power and politics, showing us there’s more than meets the eye.
In an attempt to see beyond their commanding, public facades and impose insight as to who they are, Rachel’s sculptures of political leaders evoke a sense of detachment, separating the “politician” from the individual. In her controversial piece, Kissing President Bush, a plaster self-portrait of the artist romantically locking lips with President George W. Bush, Rachel illustrates this point: there’s still a human being that you can relate to, barring all the criticism and mayhem surrounding his public image.
Rachel carries this same idea into some of her other work. With The Ambassadors, an extensive sculpture series of doll-like figurines and related performances, she showcases a number of influential politicians, world leaders and heads of state, who have been in power during her lifetime. There are so many people with clout and authority in the palms of their hands, elected at the hands of citizens or through other means, and Rachel’s depiction of these leaders makes us wonder, what do all of these influential people really have in common?
Currently based in New York, Rachel, 34, is an artist in residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council where she is embarking on her latest project, Doll Audience, a performance piece and series of figurines of women who have inspired her and helped shape her intellectually and creatively. We recently had the opportunity to chat with Rachel about her attraction to power and politics and the role they play in her work.
Women Talk: 6 Questions with Rachel Mason
What first drew you to politics as a source of artistic inspiration and expression?
RM: It all started when I scaled an 8 story building- the UCLA Dixon Art Building (which has since been torn down). This was in 2001 and I was completing my undergrad. I was 21, I think. After doing the climb in costume for a video, I received a letter saying I was going to be expelled and was called into the office of the “Dean of Deans”. During the meeting, the Dean of Deans proceeded to list all the codes I had violated. She ended our conversation by saying that she would allow me back in the school as long as I showed her the video of my climb sometime.
After leaving her office, I had this thought that I wanted to meet the other deans and I basically connived my way into meeting them all by emailing their secretaries and stating that I was writing a story about them, which in a way I was. I embarked on a little journey to meet them all and it culminated in my assembling a meeting of all of the deans of all the departments at the school. In fact, it was the first time some of them had ever met.
In my private meetings, each dean described to me what being a “dean” meant to them. I revealed this information at the meeting for all of the deans, and there I gave them all little sculptures I had made- literalizing their metaphoric ideas of what it meant to them to be “dean.” I was amazed at how seamlessly it all happened.
I would say that was my first piece about politics. I recall a studio visit at Yale where someone said that my work was playing around with the idea of “interior”, and I believe that has come to be the case.
In your works such as Kissing President Bush and The Ambassadors, you portray many important political figures from your lifetime. What intrigues you about political leadership and power?
RM: During the Bush era I was deeply angry at the government. The mind-numbing arrogance of that administration constantly disturbed me, specifically with Bush. I just needed to understand more than what I could possibly grasp in the news. Kissing President Bush was a recurring image that came into my mind- and I couldn’t get it out, which is what led me to make the sculpture. That’s what leads me to make everything I create. I am usually just plagued by something until I have to see it out, act it out, or just have it exist. I was disgusted with myself, with the country and with the government and perhaps that’s what the work embodied. But I remember Mel Bochner, the conceptual artist, at Yale saying when he saw my piece, he wondered if we were all somehow seduced by the President.
Around this time I was also performing a song that John Ashcroft wrote. It was called, Let the Eagle Soar. I felt compelled to sing the song in as many different kinds of scenarios as I could to see how it would play out- and what it meant.
The Ambassadors project extended out of this experience. This led to the project’s two distinctive parts including sculptures and songs/live performances. These two components completely unified the internal voice of the political figures with the focus on the little miniaturized bust, showing the shell of the person.
Dolls are typically associated with children’s toys and innocence. So, why use doll-like figures as the vehicle through which to make a statement about various political leaders and the implications of their being corrupt and power hungry?
RM: With The Ambassadors, I was actually thinking more about collectible sculptures. I liked the idea of making my own personal collectible set. I thought about that idea of making things that would become collected in that way. The idea of valuing the “entire set” or a small edition. The collected object is kind of in opposition to my performance work…that I have worked just as hard on, but which leaves almost no trace.
I’m not really that interested in making a statement that political leaders are power-hungry. I just am intrigued by them and want to look at their faces; there’s that basic impulse that underlies my desire to sculpt people. With the dolls, I also can only say that they emerged out of a subconscious desire to stare at the people who I am amazed by and in some ways in love with. I do have this sense of tenderness with each one that feels very different from the complicated feelings I felt toward the actual political figures.
(Political figures featured in The Ambassadors include: Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Mobutu Sese Seko, and Velupillai Prabhakaran, among others.)
Recently, you mentioned that your current work-in-progress, Doll Audience, is another series of sculpted dolls, which will represent women who have inspired you. Who can we expect to see in this series?
RM: In terms of who the dolls are, they are primarily artists of various sorts: writers, musicians, dancers, poets, rappers. They include Nina Simone, M.I.A., Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush, Bjork, Yayoi Kusama, Marina Abromovic, Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Yoko Ono, and Joan Jonas among others.
In addition to the dolls, there is also a performance piece to this series. I love to perform for people, but I never know who I’m performing for. To draw inspiration for this series, I imagined the most powerful and scary audience I would ever encounter would be that of my heroes. Alive and dead, if they were all assembled into this room, I would really have to do something major in order to make this work. Anyhow, that’s what’s driving me forward and I feel deeply compelled to make them.
Is sculpting women who you admire and revere any different than sculpting politicians who you don’t?
RM: It’s much more pleasurable. I have to say, there was one woman in The Ambassadors project, Margaret Thatcher. I had no desire to omit women from that project. I really had hoped I would find more, but there just weren’t any female political figures besides her that were directly involved in the conflicts I chose to represent. It was a very specific set of rules that determined the outcome for that piece and the choices of subjects.
Which women artists have been most inspirational to you?
RM: I am inspired by artists who have done the kind of thing I am in the process of doing, artists who span genre and do so successfully. A few that come to mind are Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, Miranda July. I am also inspired by artists who put themselves on the line. Valie Export is a hero for that reason. Chris Burden, Marina Abromovic and Yoko Ono’s early performances were huge sources of inspiration for me.
Rachel’s work has been exhibited and performed at the Whitney Museum, Queens Museum, Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art, School of the Art Institute in Chicago, Henry Gallery in Seattle, James Gallery at CUNY, University Art Museum in Buffalo, Sculpture Center, Hessel Museum of Art at Bard and Occidental College, Kunsthalle Zurich, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, The New Museum, Park Avenue Armory, Art in General, La Mama, Galapagos, Dixon Place, and Empac Center for Performance in Troy, among other venues.