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Phenomenology of the face mask

An object that has become part of our everyday life, despite everything: with good (?) and bad sides

By Francesca Parravicini

Well, it is now official: from Monday 28 June we can circulate outdoors without a mask. With the passage to the white zone of the last region left in the yellow one, Valle D’Aosta,  in Italy we see the beginning of a new summer, in every sense.

Obviously we must not let our guard down and it will be necessary to wear face masks in the presence of gatherings or where social distancing is not guaranteed. The situation seems more rosy, thanks to the increase in the vaccination but with a few unknowns, such as the Delta variant, the fear of a new wave this autumn and the general sense of uncertainty that this pandemic has accustomed us to.

Yet the desire for normality returns, to get back to a normal life. Symbol of this "new normal" post-pandemic life is precisely the face mask, an object loved, hated, always necessary. A small object that we can study from multiple points of view.

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Un post condiviso da Milano Art Guide (@milanoartguide)

I don't know about you, but in "better" times, when the word pandemic seemed like a concept from a catastrophic film broadcasted on secondary channels in the late evening, the face mask seemed to me a decidedly exotic object, associated with large distant cities in which unfortunately the pollution levels are extremely high or worn by hypochondriac people at very exaggerated levels (and I say this as an hypochondriac myself).

Then the first cases of Covid-19 break out, this film scenario enters our lives with all its load of unreality. With the confirmation that the main transmission channel of the virus passes through the respiratory tract, the face mask also enters the scene: the WHO, the World Health Organization indicates it as a PPE, a personal protective equipment, with scientific evidence on its effectiveness.

We enter that surreal period in which, as during the wars of the past, certain goods become extremely sought after and their price rises dramatically: the pharmacies are raided, the notorious FFP2 sold at embarrassing prices, every mask is sold out everywhere.

Trivial objects for extraordinary times. And now that even these extraordinary times have become more "banal" the mask has now become a common object, almost an accessory. We can now find them everywhere, from supermarkets (which now have almost Covid-19 mini-departments, with masks, gels and sanitizers in all forms and for all surfaces) to the tobacconist and the florist near our houses, certainly we cannot be afraid to remain without them. It's all part of the new normal.

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Un post condiviso da Taylor Swift (@taylorswift)

If initially we limited ourselves to the simple surgical mask or the highly coveted FFP2, then a desire linked to fashion took over.

An explosion of masks of all shapes and colors invaded the streets, it almost seemed like a competition or a parade in the open air: there are those who were satisfied with new colors and patterns, those who launched themselves on more improbable things, like fluorescent sequins, fake logos, various more or less blinding fluorescent tones.

An accessory that found little space in everyday life, it was already widely used by the fashion system and the world of music, as a statement piece: in this case, business meets pleasure. And it was definitely fun to see celebrities during the first red carpets and live events wearing very creative masks, often matching their absolutely not ordinary outfits.

It may seem decidedly frivolous to think about the aesthetics of an object that should protect our health in the first place and perhaps it is. But it falls into that typically human tendency to seek beauty even in the most dramatic situations, to put a touch of color over what is gray, what is broken, to helps us living.

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Un post condiviso da Just Jared (@justjared)

As in any "traumatic" historical situation, there are those who, despite everything, deny all evidence, such as the wonderful tribe of negationists, those who think that face masks cause carbon dioxide poisoning and still persist in writing delusional posts on Facebook, then some on the other side, almost stuck to the idea of the face mask.

One of the most vivid images of my early post-lockdown wanderings was the gaze of the people above the face masks. A look full of an indescribable series of feelings, united by a bewilderment, trying to find into each other's eyes  something understandable, a sort of contact.

Relationships have changed. It may be the fear of contagion, the fear of a hostile world, but the mask has become for many people a shield, a sort of protection, a screen to filter relationships and also to cover many insecurities, which already existed, but which have sharpen.

A state of crisis that distances us digs into collective but also personal wounds. Nobody expects us to heal them immediately, it is something difficult, complex.

We will probably continue to live a little longer in "mask on" mode. It seems strange to us, it seems normal to us now, but we can not help but seek a fragile balance in this changing chaos and slowly try to build new dimensions, to create contact, despite the barriers.