Emily Mast’s Messages in a Bottle

The RU.in.ART commission at Frieze Los Angeles channels the history of Californian performance into a celebration of the present moment 

BY Megan Metcalf in Collaborations | 15 FEB 19

What do we gain from straining to decipher a language at the edge of our understanding? In struggling to find the right word to say? Continuous Wave (2019), Emily Mast’s project for the RU.in.ART lounge at Frieze Los Angeles, floats these questions like bubbles, offering brief moments of reflection and connection.

Like in Mast’s other projects (and those by some of her forebears), Continuous Wave produces missed and mixed messages, offering tantalizing mysteries that hover just beyond what can be immediately grasped. Visitors to the work at the lounge are invited to submit five-word responses to the poetic prompt: ‘what message would you leave the world if you were out at sea?‘ A translator then converts each linguistic phrase to Morse code – a string of dots and dashes - that three professional singers turn into short songs on the spot.

Emily Mast, Continuous Wave (2019), performance documentation at Frieze Los Angeles 2019. Courtesy: the artist/Frieze

Sung together from a small platform, the singers’ extemporaneous compositions variously evoke doo-wop, the sounds of a children’s choir, a jazz combo, a barbershop quartet, a college acapella group. Layering the linear language in this way gives it expressive potential and complexity that is quite different from, yet still related to, the images and emotions evoked by the economical messages-in-a-bottle provided by the audience. In a recent rehearsal, Mast said she was hoping visitors would register both sets of associations, even seek to uncover them using “decoder” napkins, provided on the lounge’s tables. Gone fishin’Feed the catsThe reception sucks out hereTake care of my baby.

Spatial elementsalso contain hidden messages: light-projections cover the performers in Morse code, and the lounge’s windows are papered over, with outside light entering through punched out dots and dashes — also contain hidden messages. The different representational systems in Continuous Wave — language written, coded, and sung, live performance, graphic abstraction — all inject mystery, desire, and levity into the communicative act. As with much of Mast’s practice, the work proposes language as an inherently collaborative project that distributes and defers meaning as much as it conveys it. In Continuous Wave the living moment provides information that symbols and sounds alone cannot.

Performer in Emily Mast’s Continuous Wave (2019) at Frieze Los Angeles 2019. Photo courtesy: Frieze

Such meta-theatrical and meta-linguistic queries have arguably been more often the domain of theater and literature than visual art performance, yet Mast’s multimedia, performance-based pieces bring this history and perspective into dialogue with works of performance art, video art, installation, and even painting and sculpture. In Offending the Audience (2011), the artist staged a notoriously difficult play by avant-garde playwright Peter Handke with child actors in an idiosyncratic LA venue that features a 360-degree 19th-century style panorama. For The Least Important Things (2014), Mast transformed writings by Catalan poet and playwright Joan Brossa into visual vignettes that erupted across LACMA’s sprawling campus. These were as minimal as a Zen koan: a game of checkers with white and brown eggs, a deadpan striptease, children playing with an oversized beach ball. The work combined the lightness of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton with the singular, visually arresting gestures of performance artists such as Yoko Ono, James Lee Byars, or Guy de Cointet.

Emily Mast, Continuous Wave (2019). Performance documentation at Frieze Los Angeles 2019. Courtesy: the artist/Frieze

The influence of the late de Cointet on Mast’s practice is explicit: she has described her lauded B!RDBRA!N, which has had various iterations on stages and in galleries from 2012-2017, as a response to de Cointet’s legacy. De Cointet, a French artist who settled in Los Angeles in 1967, made works ranging from newspapers written in code to paintings with hidden messages to performances with simple, graphic props. The set for Mast’s B!RDBRA!N featured colored shapes evoking these props along with Minimalist sculpture and the wooden blocks played with by children. In keeping with the rest of Mast’s oeuvre, the work used pre-existing visual and verbal languages to create its own semiotic system—and then introduced elements that disrupted or broke it down, in this case characters such as a sign-language interpreter, a stutterer, and an auctioneer.

De Cointet ripples through Mast’s Continuous Wave as well: in January 1975, de Cointet presented Lost at Sea, one half of a pair of performances in which an interpreter interacted with messages encrypted in letters and numbers in puzzle-piece-shaped paintings before an audience in a gallery. (In comparison with its companion Going to the Market, Lost at Sea has been lost itself: it has not been performed since.) A few months later, Bas Jan Ader, another European performance artist who landed in Los Angeles in the 1960s, arranged for his students from UC Irvine to perform sea shanties at the opening of his solo show at Claire Copley Gallery in 1975. The singing was part of his last group of works, ‘In Search of the Miraculous’, in which the artist sent himself off on a sea voyage, from which he never returned. Both de Cointet and Ader have lived on in the work and imaginations of many artists in Los Angeles and beyond, including Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, who are more commonly identified as major sources for contemporary performance art in the city.

Emily Mast rehearses with performers in Mast's Continuous Wave (2019), at Frieze Los Angeles 2019. Photo courtesy: Frieze

The subtle, salty strains of these earlier works run through Mast’s current presentation, which reveals lost histories and languages lingering still, despite the years and the seemingly fragile medium of performance. Yet as we record, recode, and decode the Mast’s mysterious missives,  Continuous Wave also provides a pleasant pull towards toward the present, making sure we’re alive to each new moment.

‘Continuous Wave’, Emily Mast’s RU.in.ART commission, is on view in the Ruinart Lounge, Paramount Backlot during Frieze Los Angeles 2019

Megan Metcalf is an art historian and writer based in Los Angeles, USA