Many psychologists agree that there are six universal human emotions: fear, joy, surprise, anger, sadness and disgust. Portland artist Tony Fuemmeler has created a collaborative exhibit exploring these emotions, and just how universal they can be, while also being interpreted differently by people and cultures all over the world. Fuemmeler created masks based on each emotion and sent them to artistic collaborators who were then tasked with “completing” their mask, in their own way. Fuemmeler joins us to talk about the exhibit at Historic Alberta House and what he learned from the project.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Fear, joy, surprise, anger, sadness and disgust: they’re known as the six universal emotions. Some psychologists believe that there are universal facial expressions that communicate these emotions across cultures and lands. This was the basis for a collaborative project created by the Portland artist Tony Fuemmeler. He made masks representing these different emotions. Then he sent them to more than 60 artists all around the world. They could finish them however they wanted before sending them back to him. The masks are on display right now for the first time in Portland at the Alberta House. Tony Fuemmeler joins us to talk about this project. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Tony Fuemmeler: Hi there.
Miller: Hey. What was your initial inspiration for this project?
Fuemmeler: I think it was an inspiration that kind of mounted over time. First desiring to find new ways to collaborate with artists that I liked and then trying to figure out what would make that really a meaningful experience to me. I thought about the use of emotion masks in theater training and how that might be a really instantly gratifying launching pad for an international collaboration.
Miller: How are emotion masks you use in theater training?
Fuemmeler: It depends. But often, places we use them to kind of give a sense to actors of what it might be like to experience just one emotion for a period of time and how that shows up in the expression of the body as well as, what do we notice about how long can one really be purely angry? How long can one be purely joyful before other emotions kind of creep in, or the experience starts to change.
Miller: What drew you to masks as an artist in the first place?
Fuemmeler: I think I’ve always been interested in the transformative power and how they can really invite the wearer to experience new things about themselves and how they are in the world.
Miller: So you were eventually drawn to this idea of the six universal or universally communicable emotions. Do you believe in this theory yourself?
Fuemmeler: So far I think there’s a lot of good evidence, and I’ve had lots of conversations about this since I started working on this project. One of the things I find really interesting, too, is that there are some expressions which are completely understood, but in various cultures or in various settings, various families, they may not be used that often. Perhaps you only actually show your joy to people you’re very close to, but you can still understand it when you see another human expressing their face in that way.
Miller: How did you choose the artists to send… I should note that, as I noted in the intro, you created stripped down, not colorful versions of these six different emotions – a bunch of masks of each one – and then sent them to artists. How did you figure out who to send them to?
Fuemmeler: Well, I thought a lot about all the different people I had met throughout my life and the opportunities I’ve sometimes had to travel for work as a theater artist and mask maker. I started just kind of compiling who might really be an interesting person… Who would I like to see finish something I started? Or an artist I really enjoy their style: I wonder what they would do if they were working on a mask? So I started thinking about all the people who have taught me. I started thinking about the people I’ve met along the way, and there’s been a lot of them. One person I met in a hostel in Europe right after I finished college. We were in the same room; we started chatting; we kept in touch. Twenty-thirty years later, he’s interestingly a mask maker himself now. Who would have known. But trying to find people who I had some connection to and also that would represent a wide variety of identities, of nationalities, of experiences, of ages and art media – from dancing to music, to visual arts, theater, etcetera.
Miller: What directions did you give to them?
Fuemmeler: I was pretty minimal in my directions. I just asked that they really look at what they received. I didn’t tell them which mask they were going to get or name it for them. That would ruin the whole experiment. I wanted them to kind of take it in and then just complete it in whatever sense made sense to them. I did tell them, ‘You’re invited to use whatever art forms you practice, your own sense of identity, your own sense of style, the experiences you’ve had, your aesthetics, the culture or cultures you belong to.’ All those can kind of feed into this because I was very interested in what might happen for the eventual viewer to see that what causes joy for someone, or is related to joy for someone, in one part of the world and one set of experiences, may be so different than that same feeling in another set of experiences or another part of the world.
Miller: Oh, so the fear was that if you had said, ‘Here, friend in… Zimbabwe. Here is a joy mask,’ then that would have changed the way they would respond to it and, in your words, finish it. You didn’t want to give them that prompt.
Fuemmeler: Exactly. I did try to find enough of a finish to the mask that they would have enough to work with, without predicting or implying how they should finish it.
Miller: What was it like for you when the masks started arriving – they were sent back in the artist-finished versions?
Fuemmeler: I was giddy. [Laughs] Every day was like a Christmas present. Yeah, I’m really interested to see all the surprising things people have done. One came in refrigeration and a cooler because it had been remade entirely in wax. Another… gosh, some of them suffered a little bit of damage because… I learned a lot about shipping worldwide through this process, and I had to work with the artist to make sure that that damage could be repaired. But yeah, it was always a really exciting unboxing experience.
Miller: One of them, which was a ‘sadness’ one, was encrusted – that makes it sound not as beautiful as it is – but covered with salts, slightly different colored salts from all over the world. Can you describe that one?
Fuemmeler: Yes. That one was completed by Yazmany Arboleda. He does a lot of social practice work and is based in New York City. He did… when you look at it, you’ll see the form of the mask still pretty clearly, but the different kinds of salt have different colorations to them. It also sort of scintillates or reflects the light in an interesting way. It’s primarily a white kind of coloration, but the inside has a much more Himalayan salt, kind of pinkish salt, on the inside. I find that it’s one of the masks… they all got completed differently, but this is one that really seems to evoke an essence of the feeling in a surprising way – not necessarily for me a logical way – like, ‘Oh I would totally imagine, of course you go to salt for sadness.’ But when I see it, it’s like, ‘Oh no that really makes a lot of… it feels like it makes a lot of sense.’ Others really felt like they were trying to invoke a certain feeling in the audience, or in the viewer, by how they finished it, or even comment on their experience of that feeling in their lives.
Miller: One of the most striking masks for me was made by an artist who I think is an actress named Chantal Degroat. She called it ‘Ghost.’ Can you describe hers?
Fuemmeler: Yes. When I received that one back, I noticed that she had sent back the original mask, which she had painted primarily in like a silver color. But she’d also made a secondary face or mask, and they were tied together at the top. The first face was pretty smooth and shiny and had this expression of joy. Underneath there is another mask which is a little bit rougher in texture. It has a different expression. It’s a different size. It also depicts a brown skin and dark hair, and she had a lot of… they also invited everyone to add extra words to that if they felt that would help the audience appreciate their take on it.
Miller: I was really struck by this one because it was one of the– you sent her one of the joy models. And the outside, as you noted, it’s sort of silvery and it still looks joyous. But then the one that she added is maybe, I don’t know, sorrow, sadness – more complicated. It made me think of layers of an onion, that it’s sort of masks upon masks. You can have one mask and then beneath that another one, which either communicates or hides something else. How do you think about what a mask communicates on the one hand or hides on the other?
Fuemmeler: I think what you’re also pointing out is this idea of a social mask that a lot of us, whether you use that term or not, are very familiar with. Like what we present to the world and what we don’t. I tend to make a lot of theatrical masks, really ones that are intended for wearing, for the majority of my work. In those masks there’s often a sense that, ‘Oh, it’s hiding me, so maybe I feel freer.’ But what it actually hides is just the way that we most normally perhaps see your emotions expressed. We’re very accustomed to those slight variations of facial movements and muscles that kind of give us a sense of how a person is and what their experience is. When that is just not the tool that we have anymore because it’s covered, we start to pay attention to things that we already pay attention to but a little bit more explicitly in terms of body language. So, there can be the experience of feeling like I’m completely hidden while still being actually even more exposed in some ways when wearing a mask.
Miller: You finished this project just before the pandemic. How has the pandemic – when so many of us have worn masks to cover half of our faces for a long time in public – how has that affected the way you think about masks broadly?
Fuemmeler: Actually the first thing I think about is how we as the general public have gained skills in reading people’s emotions with different information. I also saw that there was a lot of pretty quick creativity with different kinds of protective masks already. People suddenly changed them into either fabrics as costumes they could wear or mimicking animal masks or mountains and cartography. All sorts of creativity came into play because I really felt like there’s still a great impulse to share something about ourselves. When we have to cover parts of ourselves up that we don’t normally cover, we still want a way to kind of share with folks who we are or how we’re doing.
Miller: Just briefly, some of these seem pretty fragile, but have you put them on? Even though they’re art, have you also worn them?
Fuemmeler: Most of them are not fully rigged for wearing. There’s not a strap that would hold them on and let you be hands free, but I have definitely held some of them up to kind of get a sense of what they suggest.
Miller: Tony Fuemmeler, thanks very much for joining us.
Fuemmeler: Thank you so much.
Miller: Tony Fuemmeler is a Portland-based mask maker, puppeteer and director. You can see his collaborative project of masks, co-created with artists from around the world, at the Alberta House. You can schedule a free viewing if you email firstname.lastname@example.org. While you’re there, you can also see four really harrowing, really amazing, large-scale paintings by the artist Henk Pander. They are images from the protests in Portland from the summer of 2020.
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