Bury Me The Mask – Essay 2013

Posted on 6th March 2014

Shaun Caton with inserts by Andrew Cochrane.

Shaun Caton: I have been making performances since my childhood, when I created a secret world, with impossibly obsessive rules. A world of bizarre croaking languages, confined spaces full of weeds, broken glass and animal turds, with terrifying ghosts.  Long term exposure to ethnographic and primordial art, has nurtured a creative trajectory and I have been making ‘living, breathing pictures’ since 1984. Some people call this ‘performance art’ because they cannot find another frame to fit my work into. It is curious how life is often governed by categories and compartments of interpretation, to aid reduction and classification. Such atomisations are our post-Enlightenment inheritance. My work comes from imagination; my aim is to explore the peripheral to maintain a potent, brooding authenticity. I am attracted to the mysterious expressions inherent in ‘outsider art’ and the arts from deep history, or the misshapen woodcuts in disintegrating books of magic and folklore from the 1700s, with their grotesque distortions. Perhaps in my performances I imagine what it might be like to inhabit one of those woodcuts on a tattered and creased page, thumbed by a vagabond. The compression of time within a given performance space. Perhaps, in the creaking voice of old toady, I am the shape shifter of the talismanic tableaux. Stretching time to the point that it becomes something different.

Andrew Cochrane: Shaun Caton creates moments of hesitation for the spectator – the sublime mind-flash of uncertainty. He is an artist who draws inspiration from years of research. Percolating through his performances are resonances of Siberian shamanism, northern American totemism, Palaeolithic imagery and sculpture, with Neolithic figuration. This is by no means an exhaustive list and Shaun is not merely creating facsimiles; rather he is stimulating new environments via existing knowledges. By combining essences within the world – mixture of mixtures – Shaun explores and expresses what it is to be alive.

Shaun Caton: Some people tell me that my performances are like fractured stories that shift back and forth; shards of images chopped out of a kaleidoscopic dreamed reality operating on an emotive and psychological level. These stories do not make sense in any literal way. Such disjointed dramas highlight the gaps and absences within life; some of my work aims to flow and percolate within these eddies. In truth, I have no concept of a beginning, middle, or end – a performance is just a cycle of time in which I exist in an altered state, interacting with objects loaded with multiple opportunities. The objects have a life force all of their own – they are not a passive material substrate that patiently awaits the actions of a thoughtful human. Some people refer to the space in which I explore as the ‘zone’. It is indeed a sort of hinterland, a space for exploration and discovery. It is a world that constantly reinvents itself, that is capable of transporting performer and spectator into another realm that is vivid and profound, sleek with the sensations of otherness. Understanding the performance, or seeking meaning where it does not reside, in many ways misses the point. What is crucial is to have a feeling about it and to respond to the flow of microcosmic events. If the viewer is not moved in some way then it is an exercise in failure. People have been annoyed or upset during my performances, especially when I have struck dolls with clubs or sticks, such as in Switzerland (Festival de Belluard-Bollwerk, Fribourg, 1988). They have also shouted abuse at me, ‘I hope you get an Arts Council Grant for this rubbish’ (The Zap Club, Brighton, UK, 1994). Every response is unique. When I performed in Santa Monica, USA in 1989, Paul McCarthy was the only audience member watching me, after some time he fell asleep – perhaps out of exhaustion. Taking this as a cue, I also had a nap during the performance under a big pile of dead leaves, and when I awoke I painted a series of garish, barbaric pictures based on the dream I just had. It was about cannibalism, defecation and vomit; they could have been grafted from the dead dreams of James Ensor’s green and pink palette. I think it is fine for people to sleep during performances of long duration – dreaming is also a way of being. I wonder what they are dreaming? Once, I was paid a compliment by an American who remarked, ‘watching your performance is like walking into somebody else’s dream’. I think he hit the nail right on the head.

Andrew Cochrane: Shaun’s research leads to informed and nuanced engagements. Prior to performance, Shaun prepares by creating an augmented state of consciousness, via mind and bodily altering practices. Sleep and food deprivation is combined with the excessive application of powerful plant essences in oil, directly to the head and face, and overlaid with ceremonial masks. Here, ‘negative’ bodily expressions, such as hunger and thirst become a ‘positive’ corrosive force. Defacement and concealment allow him to become something other than himself. He becomes the conduit, the aberration, and the dissimulation.

Shaun Caton: I make performances as a way of interrupting reality and the routine rituals of everyday life, but the word ‘artist’ has diminished meaning to me. It is only another (in)convenient label which some people use to describe a strange and apparently pointless activity. By making the performances very long it gives space for the experience to transcend acceptable norms of presentation and to follow its own ritual flow. In this sense my performances could be called fluxions or fictions. The incorporation of authentic historical items might also render such narratives beyond mere fact – they are factish. I see them as visual poems that are alive with an ensuing disintegrating.

Andrew Cochrane: The masked Shaun reveals the ingredients of the Other – he is the punctum and the uncanny. Such rites facilitate Shaun’s passage into liminal zones – often producing somatic and kinesthetic hallucinations. It is during these moments that Shaun has entoptic experiences. These are visual sensations derived from the structure of the optic system from the eyeball to the cortex. These images are generally multicoloured geometric or abstract shapes and can be perceived when eyes are closed or as external hallucinations. Such images help render the performance which becomes a web of corporeal exchanges actualised through a multitude of triggers. For the spectator, this can create a fluid heterotopia, a counter-site, which simultaneously juxtaposes a single place with several places.During his performances Shaun is often ruptured and outside all places.


Shaun Caton: Performance is therefore an alternative expression in which anything can occur. I think in terms of ‘living pictures’ that may strike a sense of horror or wonder into the viewer’s eyes. I am preoccupied with sourcing unusual items to use in the performance:  enormous tree fungi, giant stuffed fish heads, foetal and amputee dolls, ancient ship’s nails, fossil shells, 17th century pottery shards from witches bottles, death’s head shells and so on. I have a deep rooted fascination with the concept of the wunderkammer or miniature museum, in which I try to construct an alternative universe as the living component and catalyst of a collection. People who come into the performance enter a cabinet of curiosities in which objects tell different stories and are given new existence by painting/drawing actions, which present them in violent colours on the walls. Spectators too, become objects of scrutiny in a sort of tableau vivant as they move about and morph with the situation. The spectator becomes the spectacle.

Shaun Caton: Sometimes, I give people fetish objects during the performance as a way of connecting with them. In Belfast, a man held a large stick with an embroidered bag filled with cowrie shells for a very long time. I gave him an 8000 year old Neolithic quartz bead, which I folded into the palm of his hand to say ‘thank you’. In Glasgow, I gave a woman a skeletonised leaf and she was thrilled enough to place it carefully inside a book as a souvenir. In York, I poured the same bag of cowrie shells over the head of a woman with very long hair who had been watching the performance for about four hours. In Cardiff, I gave a small boy a huge sausage of clay to play with after I had covered the floor with what looked like giant turds, or primordial worms. In another event, a street dog entered one of my performances and chewed up a wooden figure specially made for the performance. These relationships are very subtle and mysterious, they become a part of the performance as nothing is scripted or rehearsed beforehand. They are the ephemera. I feel a communion with people at times like these in a performance. In London, two small children watched my performance for three hours and when their mother suggested that it was time to go home one of them started to scream and protest. She was so inconsolable that I gave her a skeletonised leaf to try and assuage her distress. In return she gave me a drawing entitled, ‘Dear Strange man, I like your job and I love you.’ In essence, the carefully sourced talismanic objects used in the performances act as a kind of trigger for an action, painting, or gesture within the event and people respond to these. The influence of objects is pertinent. In the world of the performance, I am using and transforming objects that evoke a certain anthropomorphic character and a shifting grimace. This fleeting association with the object is crystallised in paintings and drawings often made on a huge scale (and obliterated, or over painted during the performance). The objects form the components of a voluble museum in which I am both curator and creator. I conceive of my performances as poems in their pure state, unadulterated by revision and editing, presented as a flow of fictions and factions.

Article Name
Bury Me The Mask

About Shaun Caton

Shaun Caton is a British performance artist and painter, who has created over 280 live performances worldwide since the early 1980s. Often characterised by extreme duration (some performances have lasted 3 weeks) or brevity (some performances just 17 minutes), his works incorporate the installation of ancient and organic items, with the making of gigantic paintings, often illuminated by ultraviolet lighting. These works strongly reflect prehistoric or apocalyptic imagery. Caton's work evolved through the 1980s gradually forming the ritualistic hallmark that he has come to be recognised and associated with. His work is deeply informed by a study of Ice Age cave art and portable art, and in 2007/2008 he visited many of the painted caves in the Dordogne region of France. Caton studied at Winchester School of Art and Goldsmith's London, and became interest in experimenting with living art and the human body. His work is emotional and operates on many levels employing specially created soundtracks (composed in collaboration with sound artists brownsierra), altered lighting conditions, use of shadow play with puppetry, live action and sculptural installation. He has also used smell as an intrinsic aspect of his performances to evoke a primordial atmosphere. The performances shares an affinity with the activities and cosmological work of shamans, the complex symbolism of alchemy, and a knowledge of prehistoric art. In many ways, it is evocative of the concept of the wunderkammer or the 17th century Cabinet of Curiosities – it frequently uses paradox. A typical performance may last up to 7 hours, during which time Caton creates hundreds of automatic drawings, which are often obliterated and turned into new images. Caton has amassed a considerable array of props that he animates in his performances, such as: huge stuffed fish heads, petrified tree fungi, lead and pewter medieval toys/pilgrim's badges, ceramic shards, fossils, bones, masks, ancient dolls, Victorian photographs. His performances are recognisable by their obsessive use of multi-layering and vivid colours – whereas, his paintings are often in a muted palette of browns, blues, greys and blacks. Recently he made hundreds of minuscule drawings that could only be viewed with a magnifying lens in ultraviolet light. View all posts by Shaun Caton →