Alphonso’s Jaw, 2016, Sarahjane Swan & Roger Simian

MIA Screens is an online showcase featuring contemporary experimental films and artist moving image works with introductions by the artists who made them.

Sarahjane Swan & Roger Simian introduce Alphonso’s Jaw (Beauty and the Silver Mask):

Alphonso’s Jaw (Beauty and the Silver Mask) is an eight minute experimental film-poem which links to the multi-format installation we created in 2016 for the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival.

Both the installation, and this short film, were inspired by our fascination for two objects we discovered amongst Edinburgh University’s Anatomy Collection: (1) the cast of a disfigured face; (2) a prosthetic jaw constructed on an early nineteenth century battlefield.

Through some research we unearthed the story of Alphonse Luis, a young French gunner struck by shrapnel at the Siege of Antwerp, 1832. Having suffered horrific facial injuries, losing his lower face, Alphonse’s quality of life was eventually improved when the Surgeon-Major and a local Belgian artist collaborated on the construction of a silver prosthetic jaw, painted in flesh tones and adorned with whiskers.

We uncovered historical accounts of Alphonse Luis’ injury, surgery, recuperation and rehabilitation in medical journals of the day, and drew on these for an exploration of identity, disfigurement and reconstruction.

In both versions of this work, the cinematic and the installation-based, we have imagined that Alphonse Luis has become dislocated from history to exist outside of any specific time or place, trapped in eternal convalescence, soothed in his delirium by dreams of his Battlefield Muse, who is equal parts Night Nurse, Scheherazade and Beauty from Beauty and the Beast. Luis’ Battlefield Muse is, in turn, both horrified and fascinated by her patient.

For the original installation we created an integrated, immersive experience featuring multiple video projections, music and sculptural elements – including dislocated white hands thrusting from walls clutching crimson rose buds; numerous handcrafted prosthetic legs; and an American army stretcher haunted by WWI shell-shock victims – as well as the poem, in the voice of the Battlefield Muse, which gives the film its structure.

La Belle et le masque d’argent
(translation by Raymond Meyer)

Je m’appelle La Belle.
Je m’appelle Scheherazade.
Fiévreusement, je me gave de mots
dans l’intimité de mon lit de prison.
Les mots nourrissent mon âme.
A chaque crépuscule je murmure
des mots de la liberté
et de la captivité.

Je suis la tristesse des femmes perdues.
Je suis la tristesse des femmes perdues.
Je suis la tristesse des femmes perdues.

Beauty and the Silver Mask

My name is Beauty.

My name is Scheherazade.
I gorge on words, feverishly
in the privacy of my cell cot.
Words nourish my soul.
Each twilight I whisper words of freedom and captivity.

I am the sadness of lost women
and the wild boys
who forgot the fluidity of youth
who forgot that skin and bones
will crystalize,
shatter into smithereens
like the Citadel of Antwerp
under the monster
mortar fire of the ticking clock.
Your name is Beast.
My favourite enemy, you invade
my dreams.
You are the Beast who imprisons me.
The shock of your devastated jaw holds me captive until morning.
They have allowed me one mirror.
In its shimmering skin, I see your face. Broken.

Your face has misbehaved.
It has smashed its shell open
with a spoon.
Form has fractured,
symmetry ripped in two pieces.
Did I smash the glass?
Did I smash it over and over?
Did I splinter your face to shards?

Your tongue is blind.
It falls, fat and undulating,
from the hungry centre
of your lost jaw,
craving nourishment,
searching all of the black space between stars for meaning.

I ache to have known your lips.

Through the haze of an
enchanted glass I see the dark forest,
your calloused hand tending to the wild flowers.
Your jaw is a ghost.
In the negative space
above your throat
I see the trace of your mouth’s memory
sucked like smoke into the Vortex.

The Void whispers to me.

Restless, fidgeting, I turn
a pawn shop ring round my finger, thrice
and watch your face fall apart in silhouette.

Dragged by my heels
through the dark forest,
beyond the scratching branches,
and twisting roots,
mauled by wild talons
and the jaws of monstrous entities,
I see the green shimmer of a clearing,
breathe the rose’s wild perfume,
witness the spilled blood of its petals, burgundy against the grass.
Your mouth has vanished into the mist, banished.
You have no words.
To hear your words I must first
enter your eyes, as green and deep and tempestuous as the ocean,
and become engulfed.
I must allow myself to succumb
to the brutal metamorphosis,
to allow myself to become you,
to become my favourite monster.

I fix my silver mask in place.

I will inhabit your skin and steal
the words from your mouth.

Find out more:
Sarahjane Swan & Roger Simian