1926, fin-de-siècle Austria, Arthur Schnitzler, known as Freud’s doppelganger, publishes Traumnovelle (Dream Story).  Set in the birthplace of psychoanalysis, it takes place just before the end of carnival period. As theories of the subconscious are formulating, masks are interpreted as revealing deeper psychological truths beneath the face of civilization. The protagonist, a doctor, signifying both science and social standing attends a secret masked orgy and is drawn into a dream world exploring his own and society’s repressed dark desires, revealing underlying misogyny, gender and class exploitation beneath the deceptive facade of the sophisticated, Austro Hungarian Empire.

1999, Stanley Kubrick directs his final film Eyes Wide Shut transposing Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle to turn of millennium Manhattan. Set in the festive season, gaudy lighting illuminates the commercial emptiness and spiritual bankruptcy of Christmas masquerade. The mask is central both as costume and prop but also as film itself, the industry’s obsession with superficial glamour turning famous faces into fake surfaces. Real life Hollywood society couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are cast as the doctor and his wife. Are they staging the vacuity of celebrity life or simply being themselves?

Delving into the secretive world of New York’s moneyed classes, uncovers billionaire bankers, media moguls and royalty engaged in all kinds of depravity including sex slavery, child sex trafficking, gang rape, and murder. In these times of Weinstein, Trump, Epstein, Maxwell and British royalty, all seems totally plausible. The appearance of a Venetian plague doctor’s mask, references to AIDS, private health care and anxieties of contagion between classes resonate powerfully with current Covid times.

2020 London and masks are in short supply, the government having deemed we will be immune simply by being British and won’t be requiring such old fashioned unscientific measures. Notting Hill Carnival has been cancelled due to the pandemic. Set up in the 60’s in response to widespread racial attacks and riots, it celebrates Caribbean carnival traditions rooted in emancipation from slavery and promotes wider cultural unity. 

As the virus runs its grim course, the lie we are all in this together becomes crystal clear with disproportionate death rates in BAME communities. As we hang suspended in lockdown, the connective tissues holding the old world in place are detaching. As everything loosens, the main fault line of racial inequality ruptures with the killing of George Floyd.

In the UK, the statue of slave trader Edward Colston is cast into the waters of Bristol harbour. Things once set in stone are liquidating. Will Britain keep its eyes wide shut or have the courage to look itself in the face? Can we free ourselves from the fossilised masks of Empire and collectively envisage truly new more human faces?

On the night Colston’s statue lies under water I am sitting in my garden in Finsbury Park. West-Indian communities here go right back to Windrush generation. Suddenly I hear a Jamaican voice near by sounding forth. Someone, a live voice not a recording, sings repeatedly one line over and over ‘Caus all I ever have…

I recognize the lyrics of Marley’s Redemption Song, familiar but like nothing I’ve heard before. Slowed down, loosened by alcohol, reverberating deeply in another dimension, beyond this single individual, it is filled with multitudes of ghosts filtering inexpressible pain, relief and hope.

Occasionally in life the skin of reality rips off exposing for a moment the unmediated space behind normal perception. This was not an earthly sound but rather some strange and beautiful intoxicated angel of history, facing forwards, repeatedly incompleting a single line of the old lyrics, opening up over and over again endless new possibilities.

* Laura Emsley is a British South African artist, living and working in London, interested in how the present connects to deep human and historical time from an end of empire perspective