Costumes and the erasure of self

Costumes and the erasure of self

A week or so back, someone asked Nick Cave, the musician, what he thought of Nick Cave, the artist who makes "soundsuit" costumes. He said:

I have admired the work of the American artist, Nick Cave, for many years. In creating his soundsuits he famously and audaciously turned the rage, grief and helplessness he experienced after the LAPD’s beating of Rodney King into deeply joyful, even rapturous art. The soundsuits became a kind of ecstatic armour.

You can read an in-depth account of their creation and subsequent proliferation here, but I was drawn to the origin of the first one.

I can't find a higher resolution image.
It was a very hard year for me because of everything that came out of the Rodney beating. I started thinking about myself more and more as a black man – as someone who was discarded, devalued, viewed as less than.
I started thinking about the role of identity, being racially profiled, feeling devalued, less than, dismissed. And then I happened to be in the park this one particular day and looked down at the ground, and there was a twig. And I just thought, well, that’s discarded, and it’s sort of insignificant. And so I just started then gathering the twigs, and before I knew it, I was, had built a sculpture.
I was inside a suit. You couldn’t tell if I was a woman or man; if I was black, red, green or orange; from Haiti or South Africa. I was no longer Nick. I was a shaman of sorts.

Cave has continued to make soundsuits over the years and uses them for performances and exhibitions.

Yesterday, in their "my best photograph" feature, the Guardian had Charles Fréger’s photo of three Babugeri, "men who dress in full-body animal costumes and perform rituals intended to banish evil spirits",

Fréger says:

It is obvious this costume is phallic – a lot of these traditions are associated with fertility. There is also a Greek tradition called Arapides, where the guys dance in a circle dressed a bit like this, with very tall costumes made from animals. You have to be a teenager or a young man: no children and no women are allowed in the circle. The rules are very strict and you always want to know why. Because at the end of the day, what is this? In Bulgaria, it’s a group of guys who are going to spend three days jumping around and dancing, drinking too much alcohol and posing for selfies to post on social media. I think the combination of wearing the costume and the lack of oxygen inside, plus the alcohol consumed, can make people believe they are a real animal.

They are visually very similar, of course, which is why I'm writing this post. Synchronicity is fun and pattern-matching can lead to interesting thoughts.

Twenty years ago, when I was doing random minimum wage jobs as a temp, I took a job at Birmingham's Sea Life Centre during the school break. Two of us were to take it in turns wearing an otter costume to entertain the queue. One in the costume, the other to shepherd past obstacles and guard against unruly teens.

The otter costume.

I blogged about it at the time (saved by the Internet Archive) and remember it being a revelatory experience, being in a full body costume. My identity had been erased. Everyone other than the smallest of kids knew there was a human in there, but they didn't know what kind of human. I could dance around like an idiot without any fear or shame. This costume which restricted my vision and movement gave me an incredibly visceral freedom.

This is quite different to wearing a distinctive piece of clothing for the first time, which will make me feel immensely uncomfortable. I guess I want to be relatively invisible as I move through the world, and changing how I appear changes my visibility in ways I can't assess.

But I can't feel seen in a full body costume, because I can't be seen. Only the costume is seen.