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I recently saw Batman: The Dark Knight Rises and glibly summarized it as “Occupy Gotham.” The film’s masked villain, Bane (Tom Hardy), inverts the social structure of an irredeemably corrupt urban metropolis, driving the wealthy to huddle around fires in the marbled foyers of barricaded corporations and leaving the rest–not sure what the pre-tax income level is to qualify for “the rest”–to run around and generally prove that the previous corruption was not SO bad in comparison. Tom Hardy’s character brings “he’s just misunderstood” villainy to another level, wearing a mask to keep his face together (though I had no problem understanding him as the mellifluous descendant of Seinfeld‘s J. Peterman) or to spare the world the sight of his baby-doll lips, whose bee-stung beauty would surely undermine his authority or frame the League of Shadows for colony collapse disorder.

Tom Hardy as Bane

I couldn’t help but think of this while watching the new video for “Ache” by Twigs, an electronic R&B artist. She’s the girl winking at you from the cover of the English magazine i-D in a Ray Petri-inspired mix of Balenciaga futurism and Elizabethan colonialism, ruff meeting roughneck to spin the moniker vividly associated with England’s sixties youthquake (Twiggy) on its head.

Ruff meets roughneck: Twigs

Twigs’ song reflects the gauzy, gothic R&B mood in contemporary electronica. Yet, the artist is nowhere to be found in the visuals. Instead, we have a portrait of a man in a mask, flexing his anguish like a hip hop MC in a smoky abandoned parking garage?

Man behind the mask: Twigs’ “Ache.”

Modern men continue to hide their struggles for fear of being “soft,” a pronounced issue in the city, where you’re constantly observed, and in minority groups, where numerous economic and social factors undermine traditional masculinity. The video subject can only cloak himself in the darkness that eats him up, never expressing it. It’s appropriate he’s wearing the wardrobe of urban warriors: a nylon bomber jacket and Nike Air Jordans. The camera never moves past his chest; instead, we find the iconic footwear deconstructed to mask his pain. This stealthy black ensemble mirrors the state of urban post-industrial manliness, highlighting performance of physical efficiency as marker of manhood, protection from damage and revealing individual emotion. There’s a vivid connection with Hardy’s Bane, but I thought further back to the work of artist Brian Junger.

Air Jordan Mask by Brian Jungen, circa 2000-05.

Air Jordan Mask by Brian Jungen, circa 2000-05.

Air Jordan Mask by Brian Jungen, circa 2000-05.

Jungen’s work also confronts the thin facade of civilization that masks the primal dynamics of power. The fetishization of the Air Jordan sneaker–strength as athletic prowess, corporate dominance, personal wealth–expresses ancient symbolic potency in the language of now. Jungen has inverted that narrative, literally turning our modern consciousness inside out, creating unsettling, exquisite sculptures from basketball shoes that mirror the storytelling and performance masks of “primitive” culture (a show at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian revealed a thoughtful contemporary embrace of this anthropological resonance). Though we try hard to hide behind them, our masks tell as much of our story as they obscure.

Check out the video for Twigs Ache below:

Click here to check out more of Brian Jungen’s work with consumerism and consciousness.

JVM

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