Not Without the Mask

Belfast photographer Brian J Morrison delves into the weird world of professional wrestling for the latest show at Catalyst Arts

Against a crimson background, X sits placidly. Looking like a Mexican luchador, his identity is represented solely by the mask he wears, which is tight, black and marked with an assertive white X.

We know almost nothing about X other than the fact that he appears to be a professional wrestler. The viewer can see that his eyes are closed, perhaps in reflection. Is this a rare moment of vulnerability in the life of someone who deals in aggression, or simply the calm before the storm?

'X' forms the backbone of Brian J Morrison’s collection of photographs collectively entitled Not Without the Mask, which is part of the current group exhibition at Catalyst Arts in central Belfast, entitled WE. The exhibition features work by Craig Cox, Kevin Gaffney, Cecilia Giménez, Anthony Luvera and Artur Zmijewski, but it's Morrison's contributions that catch the eye of this writer.

Along with a slideshow of the wrestler otherwise known as X, two large prints explore the intersection of contrived masculinity, theatre, performance and athleticism that is professional wrestling. Morrison's work sticks closely to the brief, exploring 'issues surrounding indentity' close to home.

Morrison was a latecomer to the world of art. After leaving secondary school in Bangor, he worked for a time as a mobile phone salesman, a job he couldn't stand. On a lark, Morrison enrolled in a photography course at Bangor Tech at the age of 25. It proved to be a revelation. 'I got an A, which is the first time I got an A in anything, ever. I thought, "This might be worth following up".'

At 27, after finishing the two-year course, Morrison enrolled in photography at Blackpool and the Fylde College in Blackpool, England. In his second year, a gender theory lecturer changed the course of his work by asking his class, 'What does it mean to be a man?'

'I was kind of bemused, going, "What the hell? Why have I never thought about this? Why don't people think about this?" I went off to find all the art work and all the fascinating photographers and artists making work about masculinity only to find it doesn't really exist,' says Morrison. 'I was in uncharted territory.'

Morrison delved deeper. He focused on males in groups and masculine environments. His work explores males in groups and masculine environments, what it means to be a man in contemporary society, how and why the man's role in modern society is in flux.

In 2012, Morrison produced a piece entitled 'Our Aim is to Survive'. It centred around a gun club in Blackpool, whose membership was shrinking. The work proved popular and Morrison mounted a show at a Blackpool gallery called Supercollider. Later, the photos were published by The Source, the Belfast-based photography magazine.

The publication of his work precipitated a return to Northern Ireland for Morrison. 'I wanted to be in Belfast while the magazine was on display so I had an opportunity to talk to people, and I had this thing where I could say, "This is my work".'

Although he planned to move back to England as soon as possible, Morrison's career as an artist began to gain steam in Belfast: he was taken on as an intern at Belfast Exposed, then hired at The Source as the director of cinematography for a series of videos the magazine produced.

He also managed to finagle a job teaching photography at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, which means he flies to England three days a week while keeping his home in Belfast. 'I fly out Monday, fly back Wednesday. I'm like a renegade teacher. It's two nights a week and it facilitates me to have my studio here and keep up the stuff from my life here. It's good.'

It was in Belfast that Not Without the Mask, Morrison's latest work was born, though it went through a long gestation period before the final work was comlete. It started with a friend who invited Morrison to a pro-wrestling show produced by Northern Irish performers. The aggressive mix of theatre and athleticism, jumbled together with feminine overtones – the tights, the sequins, the hammy overacting – drew him in.

'I got interested in the reasons behind what these people were doing, why they want to do this instead of wanting to do Shakespeare, or wrestle for real,' Morrison explains. 'They would get totally psyched up, slapping themselves in the face and all this sort of stuff. I could see there was this performance element and they were turning themselves into these characters.'

It was this transformative element that Morrison came to focus on: the way in which the mask turns X into a different person altogether. At the same time, 'X' fits into the strictly prescribed idea of manliness that pro wrestling offers. It’s these limits – the way that identity is constructed in the hyper-male world of pro wrestling – that Not Without the Mask is all about.

'I was interested in that idea of a constructed persona and what that says about these people, and what it says about the world in general,' Morrison reflects. 'They will all individually create their own persona. There's this faux-masculinity. I feel like it's unique.'

It certainly is. Not Without the Mask is certainly one of the more interesting facets of WE, which runs in Catalyst Arts until 7 December.