Posted by: Marisca Pichette | September 21, 2018

Performance and Reading by Ronaldo V Wilson, September 19, 2018, 7:00 pm

Ronaldo V Wilson’s event centred around a performance of the self, in the whole and in parts. He began by displaying images he had taken in the morning, where masks are positioned on a stone wall by Upper Lake. These photographs are staged, just as Victorian photography is staged, conscious of positioning and light. However, unlike Victorian photography, which takes place in the closed world of a studio, Wilson’s photographs make use of the natural world, while at the same time presenting images that jar with nature: the masks. One is animalistic, an eagle with bright orange plumage. Another is human, a silicone face occupying an uncanny valley between familiar humanity and imitation. It lies on the stone, crumpled,  the eye slots vacant. The final mask is neither animal nor human, but an angular, blackened Other. This image of the black man, the black figure set against the natural landscape, is a motif that comes to vivid life when Wilson begins reading his poems aloud.

His poems focus on the idea of Lucy, an alternate persona he has created using the human mask of a white woman. In the course of his reading and performance, he shows several videos where he is wearing the masks. First, the eagle mask as he dances with the rising sun. Here, again, the light of dawn is prevalent, shining over the roof of Kendall. The effect produces a kind of dichotomy, between the masked man dancing, his face covered and his identity hidden, and the sunlight breaking over the scene, straining to reveal what hides behind the mask. These details draw my attention back to Victorian photography, with both its posturing and the underlying fear of the starkness of a camera lens, threatening to highlight every detail and imperfection on the subject, laying them bare to mechanical scrutiny. Wilson cements this relationship when he idly quips that he cannot hide his stomach from the camera, he cannot edit it out. Though the videos and photos are constructed, the details of his body are as they appear in real life, and cannot be concealed from the unrelenting gaze of the video.

Following this first video, Wilson projects another clip, this time of him in the Lucy mask, occupying a new persona. Through this persona he deals with race, reading poems about the black man, the black body too close to Lucy for her comfort. She struggles with the appearance of her skin, with the differences between her outward appearance and her inner thoughts: “you can see inside of me”. There is a strong tone of illusion, a fear of being watched, revealed. Wilson exists as both Lucy and the black man, occupying the space of the watcher and the watched, the interrogator and the interrogated, the scrutiniser and the scrutinised. He is divided within himself, and within his poems we witness a kind of conversation between these personas, and an ongoing tension as distance stretches and compresses.

Wilson stops the video as Lucy draws the black mask over her face. The layers of self, persona, and skin bespeak a complicated dialogue of visuality. How Lucy sees herself is complicated by how Wilson sees himself, and how, in a way, they see each other.

Toward the end of the event, Wilson shifts from video to voice, now addressing his poetry through melody. He interacts with the audience, asking a student to sing a line of his poem. He says that music and melody helped him to teach himself about blackness, and therefore access another aspect of his self. He begins to sing the poetry, unearthing a new voice through song. It is with this melodic voice that he concludes the evening, singing a duet with a recorded version of his voice. In this way, he separates himself again into two parts, the past self and the present self. Both are Wilson, but one is restricted to the recording; meanwhile, the other wears the Lucy mask. The other is in front of us, exposed, but also hiding behind a mask, a persona. Throughout the evening, I am never sure when he is improvising, and when his words are pre-planned, recited from some script committed to memory.

Wilson’s event was like nothing I have ever attended. It was loose, free to change (or perhaps only planned to seem that way). He made use of multimedia, ending with a recording of another song he sang, consisting of only a single line: “I did it”. While the song played on the screen, with a video of a Smurf figure gazing out of a window, Wilson himself danced, drawing our attention away from the surrealism of the screen and so dividing himself yet again, body separated from voice. This, too, reminded me of the silencing power of photos, immortalising an image while cutting away the person behind it.

Wilson worked consciously to express himself in almost every way, but in doing so, he caused me to consider how these disparate representations of selfhood divided him into parts: voice, body, face (sometimes masked), and writing. I was confused at times, and entertained, and even uncomfortable—but I walked away with immense respect for Ronaldo V Wilson. He put himself in the spotlight, under the weight of the camera’s lens, and under the weight of our collective gaze. He had the courage not just to present himself as he is, but also as he was—in writing, recording, and film. He donned masks, and removed them. Through his performance, he captured the diverse aspects of selfhood, and encouraged me to question my own internal disparities, and begin to prize them apart, so to better appreciate their radical identities.

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