Everyone knows what a scream sounds like. But do you know what it looks like?
This is what a scream looks like.
This is a mask from the Quake Mask Project, a mask-making project for children affected by the 2010-11 Christchurch earthquakes.
Scream Mask has been in a terrible earthquake . Eyes like fried eggs, blistering ever so slightly around the edges. Black magnetic blob on the end of its nose—that’s a nose for trouble if ever I saw one. The concentric rings radiating from the mouth really get our attention; they are so quake-like.
This painted quake mask resembles another, much-copied, painting: The Scream (1893) by Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch. Munch’s painting features an island, a beach, a bridge and a character fleeing from something monstrous. He spoke once about the lurid orange, pink, red tones used in his painting:
One evening I was walking along a path, the city on one side of me and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out across the fjord. The sun was setting the clouds were turning blood red. I felt a scream passing through nature. It seemed to me that I could hear the scream. I painted this picture; painted the clouds as real blood. The colours screamed.”
“The colours screamed” depicts the howling of terror and senseless loss, the not knowing what to do next.
Does this Canterbury-made scream mask give you the chills? Can you feel in your bones the threatening unknowable risk? Can you almost taste the exceptional danger? While some may think expressionist art is just random daubs with unclear meaning, Expressionism is a style of painting in which the artist seeks to express emotional experience, or feeling tone, rather than literal impressions of the external world. Expressionistic art often uses vivid colours. A bright map of worlds too terrible to contemplate, Munch’s The Scream became one of the most captivating images of all time. In 2012 Edvard Munch’s accurate depiction of ‘a crisis of knowledge’—that instant everything you ever knew to be true and correct fails you—was sold at Sotheby’s auction house for a staggering $120 million.
Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) was a Russian literary scholar who inspired The Bakhtin Circle, a school of Russian thought that centered its activities on a ‘philosophy of culture’. Bakhtin had a thing or two to say about terror and creative practice. He insisted that the human mind is adequately equipped to deal with terror.
He advocated being responsive, rather than reactive. Under urgent conditions a creative response absorbs our attention until the irrational monster force vanishes of its own accord. In our Quake Mask Project we saw evidence of this: our emergency mask-making activity was so absorbing that, at least for the time being, the quake kids forgot everything else around them. And for Bakhtin, this moment of ‘liberation from fear’ was, by definition, creative.
Bakhtin came to understand more about the creative process than many creatives do. He knew how we see. He knew about the time put in. He knew about the force of the form—in our case the face and how its inbuilt ‘sensing technologies’ can tell you what to do next (a blind girl’s mum once told us her daughter uses much of her face to sense what her eyes can’t see). Similarly in situations of ‘blind terror’ why not use a blind mask template to perfectly sense things around us? He knew how, like any rebellious teenager, the forming mask would resist being shaped by its maker. He knew how to be outside of it. He knew that symbolic language is a differently scientific form of knowledge. He knew that the world we are thrust into is a world of potential. He knew too that mostly we do not know how incredible this world we are living in is and that the mask, or whatever we are making, wants to show us…
Emerson, Caryl. The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin Princeton UP, 1997.
Annette Rose: Annette Rose is a registered nurse, doctor’s wife, mother & grandmother, social anthropologist, creative entrepreneur & storyteller, and in the future she wants to be an angel investor. She is writing a book about her work with the quake masks. Her address for correspondence is firstname.lastname@example.org