PLACE THE FACES Lundegard's mask show will be run through May 6 at A.D. Smull Gallery, 1606 20th Street NW. Weekend workshops are April 28 and 29, May 19 and 20 and June 9 and 10, and cost $85.
A dank, deathly smell engulfs you. Yet you are not afraid. Afraid to move, perhaps. That's why you withdraw deep within yourself, so far into your mind that when it's over time seems to have stood still. You're shocked, even disappointed, to find that very little has changed.
This is the experience of being buried alive, under plaster.
About 20 people have already submitted to brief entombment at the hands of Swedish artist Monica Lundegard, who makes masks by casting hot plaster facials on real faces. This weekend a show of nearly 70 of her masks, cast from 10 willing Washingtonians in the past year, opens at the A.D. Smull gallery near Dupont Circle.
Lundergard has seen all kinds of people play dead for her: fellow artists, physical therapists, models and one used-clothing shopowner. Their reactions are as different as any two of her masks. Many find the process relaxing, even therapeutic. Some are scared out of their wits and vow never to do it again.
"We knew before she went under the plaster she was going to have a hard time," says Lorraine Rose, a physical therapist who prepares Lundegard's mask workshop participants, of one subject. "You could see she was freaking out. She said, 'I have nightmares that things are closing in on me.' I felt her hand. It was ice-cold. The top of her head - you could feel her heart beating."
A few objections are no stronger than that of professional model Joel Kaplan. "I wasn't worried that I wouldn't be able to breathe; I just didn't know if I wanted to get all gooked up."
Others find the experience so soothing that they doze off.
"I could do it 24 hours a day," says gallery owner Andrea Smull. "It's the only time my mouth doesn't move."
Lundegard recently cast my face in Smull's living room. She would not say what was going to happen. ("There are some people, you don't know what to expect. That's why we don't tell anybody what we're going to do.") But I later found out.
Rose first gives a crash course in deep breathing. She massages the muscles around the neck and shoulders and applies pressure to the temples and forehead. "Get into a comfortable position," she says.
Seated, I leaned back as Smull greased my hair with cream rinse and smeared my face with Vaseline. She taped my eyes closed with tissue paper.
Lundergard applied the wet plaster gauze - the same kind used to make casts for broken arms and legs - from the crown of my head to my Adam's apple and all over my face. First one layer, then a second, then a third. Even as the first was barely complete, there was no sensation in my face. Only sounds like a rushing wind as hands worked busily over it.
Strange shadows fluttered before me - or was it only my mind's eye? - and water drizzled from the gauze onto my arms and chest. Then, waiting. You can't move a muscle, they say. Can't swallow. Can't blink an eye. Not a move of the lips. Not a twitch.
I remained frozen for 20 minutes, pushing my diaphragm out in the manner Rose said I should breathe and trying to imagine myself bicycling in the country. Voices surrounded me, yet somehow I was removed from them and from the living. My lip moved and I shuddered with a brief shock. The only thing seperating me from sure sufocation, I imagined, were two tiny holes at the nostrils Lundegard had left for me to breathe.
During this time the warm plaster was molding itself completely to the contours of my face. Without my even noticing, the tightening plaster broke blood vessels in my nose (rare, says Lundegard) and caused a bruise.
When the initial cast is removed and dried, Lundegard fills it with plaster to make a positive bust. From this you can clone countless other masks using surgical gauze and wallpaper paste. Mine she painted metallic silver and bright blue. She called it "Motorcycle Man" in honor of the helmet I carried with me.
Lundegard arrived here two years ago from Sweden with her husband, Mats, who in United States correspondent for the Swedish newspaper Daagens Nyheter, and their three children. She was determined not to become an American housewife.
"It was such a hard thing for me to come here," she says. "After two weeks, I think I want to just go out in the garden, dig a big hole and jump in."
Instead, she took up the craft she had learned while teaching mentally retarded children near Stockholm.
Today the Lundegard home in Northwest Washington is full of fanciful masks and art objects she has made from them. She is a close friend of Smull, has shown some of her works at the Smull gallery and exhibited this past winter with a group of area women artists at the Folger Shkespeare Library.
She decorates her masks with bright paints, lace, sparkles, bangles, baubles and beads to make creatures of her own fantasy. Most in the Smull show sell for about $65. CAPTION: Picture, MONICA LUNDEGARD, CENTER, WITH SOME OF HER TWO-FACED FRIENDS. BY JOE HEIBERGER.