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Masques and the Macabre at Somerset House

9 April 2014

It must seem peculiar to a good many people. Why do this thing called life modelling? Whatever is the point of performance art? Answers may be various, but for me: I find it ever more enriching to do fabulously weird things in increasingly wonderful places with truly extraordinary people.

For example, take the evening of Thursday 27 March, deep in the Deadhouse beneath Somerset House in London’s Strand. Nine of us assembled to enthral fifty fee-paying artists amid tombstones, dripping water, skeletons, dolls and bloodied rags.

This was Art Macabre tackling British history’s Jacobean era.

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As ever, Nikki Shaill (aka Raven Rouge) was creative dynamo, director of ceremonies and now orator of history. Linsay and Aaron were geniuses of make-up and costume. Heather and Tiffany took care of other logistics such as catering, art materials, crowd control, and so on. And then there were the four life models:

Carmen Mon Oxide sang and portrayed Queen Catherine of Braganza,
Mika portrayed Queen Henrietta Maria of France,
Alex B portrayed Queen Anne of Denmark,
and I would be King James I of England / James VI of Scotland

Weird… wonderful… extraordinary.

With the event due to begin at 7:30pm, we all gathered 90 minutes beforehand in the designated ‘green room’ to give ourselves plenty of time to prepare.

Carmen would be wearing a wig of elaborately-pinned chestnut hair. My first role of the evening was to sit beneath said wig whilst Linsay orbited around me, twisting, braiding and fastening it in readiness for its eventual star occupant.

Meanwhile, Aaron wove an intricate wreath of plastic laurels and flowers into Mika’s hair. Her only other attire would be underwear bottoms, embellished with fabrics and assorted items of exotica.

Nikki and Linsay next turned their attention to the most intensive piece of preparation: pinning Alex’s magnificent, long, naturally white hair into a particularly complex style of the period. All manner of sophisticated paraphernalia was fastened in and around it, creating a delicate work of art that was worth the entrance fee on its own.

By now Carmen had changed into full head-to-toe costume for a preliminary show in the Deadhouse, providing sumptuous song for the early arrivals. I was rather sorry to be missing the performance, but we would see much more of her later.

If it’s an Art Macabre event you can be certain that at some stage the face paint will come out and I’ll be given a good working over. Aaron, Nikki and Linsay all had a go, starting with a ginger base for beard and eyebrows, darkened in the goatee area and topped off with real hair stuck to my chin with double-sided sticky tape.

26 March – @ArtMacabreLDN on Twitter:
Having my hair cut by @owllady80 ready to make fake beard for @charoigne to wear @SomersetHouse tomorrow eve! #sacrifice #forartsake #snip

Wearing nothing more than a large black hat, lavishly bedecked with huge feathers in the manner of the era, and a prim lacy collar, I was all set.

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© Art Macabre, David Geewai Ho 2014, all rights reserved deathdrawing.com

The artists had arrived, the time had arrived, so we left the green room for a short walk in secluded open air to the subterranean Deadhouse.

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Carmen and Mika entered first and made for their allotted places in the damp, snaking catacomb. Alex and I followed together, Queen and King, slowly pacing to the farthest depths where we would pose facing one another. All around us was cold stone. As we would both be naked from the shoulders down, we were rather relying on the artists radiating a generous portion of their collective body heat to keep us comfortable.

With little room for large crowds to assemble, the plan was to rotate artists between models in four separate groups. For each group, models would present one dynamic five-minute pose and one longer 15-minute pose. In theory therefore, we only needed two poses to keep us going all night. Professional pride could not be doing with that, however, so all eight poses were made original.

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© Art Macabre, David Geewai Ho 2014, all rights reserved deathdrawing.com

Alex and I were opposite and apart for the first group. We began with dynamic dancing stances, and then we sat: Alex regal; me pensive with affairs of state.

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© Art Macabre, David Geewai Ho 2014, all rights reserved deathdrawing.com

For the second group we began as dancers once more, this time with my right hand supporting Alex’s right hand, as a gentleman to a lady.

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© Art Macabre, David Geewai Ho 2014, all rights reserved deathdrawing.com

With the dancing done, Nikki decided to move me to a clearer space in the catacomb. There really wasn’t enough room around me and Alex together for 20-25 artists to get the view they deserved and be able to draw in comfort. I concluded alone with a longer standing pose for my sub-group.

Halfway through, I was suffering. Not so much with the cold – although it could do with losing its edge – and not even from the occasional drip of icy water falling on me from the arched stone roof. No – the villain was my stupendous hat… or my head. Whether the former was too small or the latter too large, after an hour I felt I was being crushed close to unconsciousness.

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Drawing by @silveraj – © Aaron Jacob Jones

I eased the hat up slightly before the next group encircled me. A five-minute standing pose was followed by 15 minutes seated on the floorboards. Aware of my costume drama, for the last group Nikki told me to part with the hat and – with inspired quick thinking – introduced me as Charles I instead of James I. Two kings in one night: my personal best. Charles posed standing, and then sitting on a stool in mental anguish.

Job done, artists happy, Alex, Mika and I returned to the first corner in from entrance where Carmen was still performing. Not only standing without a stitch of clothing, but also singing with the most wonderfully pure, clear baroque operatic voice. She moved with small gestures, sublime and transfixing, worthy of the rich applause elicited.

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© Art Macabre, David Geewai Ho 2014, all rights reserved deathdrawing.com

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Drawing and photograph by @silveraj – © Aaron Jacob Jones

Retiring to the green room, we shed the trappings of our characters and munched on the generous buffet provided by Nikki’s mum. It had been another great original event, doing weird things in a wonderful place with extraordinary people.

But what is it that motivates us to do these things? To answer the call we crave and express ourselves through our bodies, in beauty or absurdity, naturalness or fantasy, standing exposed to the world?

The answer may be that there is no answer.

I find similarity only in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind – unconnected people from every walk of life feeling a deep-rooted irresistible compulsion to be at a certain place at a specific time, to be part of something they can’t explain. I’ve felt it all my life but only in these recent years has it found focus. And it is…

Weird… wonderful… extraordinary.

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Carmen as Queen Catherine of Braganza
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Mika as Queen Henrietta Maria of France
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Alex B as Queen Anne of Denmark
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Me as King James I / King James VI
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