PLANET OF THE SHEEPS
People often ask what the significance of the sheep masks are. What’s my thing with sheep? What am I trying to say?
Really its all a bit of an historical accident.
In 1985 I was in a Dunedin band called Crystal Zoom and we had just recorded our first and only single – Uptown Sheep. We were looking for ways to promote the song when someone noticed that a local menswear show had a window display of male mannequins wearing sheep heads. In 1980’s Dunedin this was the very height of bizarre. We approached the manager and asked if he would sell us one of the masks but he wasn’t keen. However he did put us in touch with the person that had made them – apparently molding them in fiberglass from the head of a dead sheep. After a bit of haggling we settled on $360 for two of them.
Crystal Zoom – AUCKLAND STAR – 1985 Uptown Sheep Single Cover -1985
As well as using the masks for the photo on the record cover we also wore them when we ‘performed’ ‘Uptown Sheep’ for a TV music show called Shazam. We had signed a contract to appear as a band but at the time Mike Weston and I had just moved to Auckland and the band was two members short. It didn’t matter much. We were wearing masks every time we played anyway so who was to know? It also didn’t matter that they couldn’t play either because we only had to pretend to play the song and were determined to do that as badly as possible.
Later on when the band broke up I got one of the masks and Mike grabbed the other one. Some years later he was kind enough to give it to me.
In 1996 Te Papa organized a competition to promote an exhibition of photographs by the internationally renowned Magnum Photographic Collective. The competition brief was to take a photo that captured something about New Zealand and there if there’s one thing that has always screamed ‘kiwi’ to me – it’s sheep (sorry kiwis!).
I went round to a friend’s place one summer weekend and persuaded the two of them to pose in front of their house wearing the masks. Believe it or not they were actually wearing those clothes and I didn’t tell Carey to pull his shorts up like that! But their house just didn’t work as a backdrop. Luckily we soon found the perfect building just around the corner. Not only was it the absolutely archetypical NZ state house – it also had the very cool letterbox number 123.
I took a series of colour photos and entered the best one in the competition. There was only the one main prize – which of course was won by a picture of a cabbage tree or a nikau palm–I forget which.. – However my sheep head picture was one of the ten runners up and a framed copy hung in Te Papa’s first floor foyer for almost a year.
Carey and Catherine – 1996- the first colour version
In 2005 I organized an exhibition with Stefano TeVega at the Wellington Art Centre (Toi Poneke ) where we both had studios. We were both big Warhol fans and decided to promote the show by recreating a famous poster of Andy and Jean Micheal Basquiat posing as boxers. Sadly the pictures we took of ourselves dressed up as boxers didn’t’ turn out too well. To tell the truth Stefano’s looked great but I thought I looked fat. We needed another idea fast.
Artist Stefano TeVega – 2006
I’d always liked the statehouse sheep-head picture – it wasn’t called ‘The Happy Couple’ yet – but thought that the colour detracted a bit and it might be a more successful image if I re-did it in black and white. So I went back to Carey and Catherine and persuaded them to put those clothes and masks back on again.
The Happy Couple – Wellington -2006
The second black and white version is more contrived than the first image (because I made them put on the same clothes) but I prefer its overall look and composition.
I used the picture for the posters for the show and people seemed to like it. It was also fun and easy taking photos using the sheep heads so it seemed like a good idea to do a few more of them.
So what’s the point of the show – if there is one?
It’s really up to the viewer to decide what the photos mean to them. The masks are simply made but extremely evocative. Sometimes they make the wearer look like an Egyptian god or a satyr or a character from The Magus. Sometimes they look friendly – at other times menacing. The slightest tilt of the head has huge impacts on the emotional tone of the photo. There have been comparisons with the American gothic tradition but I do not think it was a conscious influence. I am sure other people have done similar work but I have not seen it.
I have done work with masks before. As I mentioned Crystal Zoom started wearing masks in an attempt to separate our public musical personalities from our private ones . But it’s hard to play wearing a mask and they do set up a barrier between the band and the audience.
Yoh from Crystal Zoom in front of a car park in Aotea Square –1985
(Note holes in the windows after the Queen Street riot)
If there is something dark about the pictures it might be because I like my pictures printed pretty black. Yes – I do believe that the human race is on a fast track to extinction and a lot of my work does comment on this but the sheep head pictures are not my usual heavy warning signs.
They are a lot more playful than that – sometimes there may be some sort of comment intended but mostly they are what they are – pictures of people wearing sheep masks.
Mother and son – 2009
Contact – Ron Eskamp – the Exhibitions Gallery, 154 Featherston Street, Wellington.
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Website – www.exhibitionsgallery.co.nz
Phone 04 499 6356 Mobile – 021 062 2072
© Bruce Mahalski – 2009
Note – All artwork and photos by Bruce Mahalski except Auckland Star Photo (unknown) and Crystal Zoom single cover (Photo