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Who Is That Man in the Mirror?

He looks like any other dad at Safeway, but artist Walter Ratzat lives a secret life.

Walter Ratzat keeps his chastity belt in his chilly underground garage in Silver Spring, tucked away in an old suitcase amid a sloppy medley of skis, rolled carpets, orange extension cords, and cardboard boxes. He made the contraption, which resembles a bronze jock strap, 10 years ago, and he used to wear it to public bathrooms. Inside a locked stall, he would spin a 45 rpm record—usually a love song—on a stylus that he had welded to the front of the belt. The discs screeched unintelligibly.

Ratzat, 36, is a noisy artist with a quiet life. He’s a Clark Kent figure with a full-time job—a guy who takes his three kids to museums on weekends. Yet under the guise of the family man lurks the alter Walter—the performance artist who fashions Hannibal Lecter-like masks, strap-on tails, and confessional computer art. Like Dorian Gray, Ratzat relegates his dark side to the attic of his life.

But lately, it’s become harder for Ratzat to hide his freakish obsessions, because curators and tastemakers are discovering his offbeat oeuvre. Currently, his work is on view at 57 N Fine Art, a warehouse gallery on N Street NW, until March 4. And he may soon be taking a defining leap to a bigger pond: Last June, curators from New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art noticed Ratzat’s work at the blockbuster Art-O-Matic, a group show of local artists, and considered him for its Biennial show this spring.

If you glance at Ratzat’s portfolio, you’ll see photographs of a skinhead, a long-haired blond slacker, and a lumberjack with a black beard. They’re all Ratzat: He is his own canvas, as it were. Last winter, he shaved off all the hair on his face and head and then let it grow, unrestricted, for seven months—which frightened his children. “I’ve had a lot of identities over the years,” Ratzat says. “I like to look in the mirror and not always know who’s going to be there.”

Although his appearance can morph from week to week, Ratzat currently looks like your typical suburban dad. He wears T-shirts and jeans and has the receding hairline befitting a worn-out father of three. He explains himself with broad gestures and enunciates his words with the polite tone of a Midwesterner (though he hails from Oakland, Calif.).

Recently, his left eye bore a sunset of yellow, purple, and black and the hatch marks of tiny Band-Aids. “Basketball,” he explained. “One of my co-workers is very enthusiastic.” Ratzat works as the art director at HT Medical Systems Inc. in Gaithersburg, where he develops software that mimics scope operations, allowing doctors to practice procedures on a computer before operating on a patient. “We’re working on one for a colonoscopy,” Ratzat said. “You have to get over any squeamishness.”

If there’s a common thread in his work-work and his artwork, it’s that he’s always busy looking for the interior self. He designs and dons odd-looking “suits,” like the chastity belt, that raise existential questions about identity. “It’s very demented, in a very good way,” says Richard Dana, an artist and arts organizer who helped assemble the Art-O-Matic show. “There’s a fetishistic aspect to it.”

Ratzat’s art blends performance and sculpture. In his latest work, an interactive, computerized piece based on the board game Operation, his audience can X-ray and operate on Ratzat’s body. Successful surgery rewards the user with a story Ratzat narrates. Three wrong moves and he flatlines (though Ratzat leaves off the reproachful, buzzing red nose).

Ratzat created the game as part of a multimedia triptych called A Means to an End, which is now showing at 57 N. At the foot of a staircase in the gallery sits the central work of the piece, one of Ratzat’s most powerful: It’s a portable “womb box,” a suitcase with a fetus-shaped cocoon lined in red velvet—a box big enough for Ratzat to enclose himself. “People have really strong reactions to [Means to an End],” reports 57 N curator Randy Jewart. On the wall hang photographs of Walter dragging his womb box across city streets, as if it were an oversized briefcase. The work, Ratzat explained, explores the period of time between his own birth and that of his first child, and acknowledges the hope and reluctance each generation has for the next. “The minute my daughter was born, I realized I was not the end of the line,” Ratzat says.

The Ratzat house looks like the set for Everybody Loves Raymond. Five miniature pumpkins line the mantle. The dining room table is littered with classified ads for cars and the remnants of a bagel breakfast. Morning light shines in through a picture window.

Ratzat, in his full parental mode, bends down to help his 3-year-old daughter put on her coat.

“I have new puhple shoes,” she announces in a tiny voice.

“Yes, new moccasins,” Ratzat adds.

His oldest daughter, 7, reels into the room and chatters. Ratzat grins as if to say, “Kids!” With a tired smile, his wife, Carrie Ganz, shuffles the children outside. The front door thuds shut, and the house is suddenly still.

“Want to go downstairs and have a look?” he asks.

“Downstairs” has become Ratzat’s curious realm. He walks through the low-ceilinged basement and opens the door to the garage. Balanced on his workbench are three pairs of polio-era leg braces, one with clunky black shoes attached—the beginnings of another project. “I’m a major trash collector,” Ratzat admits. Amid the debris lies a punch clock Ratzat tinkered with: He replaced the old motor with a more powerful one. “Now an eight-hour day goes by in 10, 15 minutes,” he says with a grin.

Not all of Ratzat’s pieces are so playful—some are brooding and, well, dark. Old suitcases on a bookshelf stash pieces of his early work. He opens each one and reveals its contents: jumbled wires, helmets, and unrecognizable gadgets. These are costumes, shreds of other identities.

Ratzat first began experimenting with performance art when he was 22 years old and a sculpture student at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I really didn’t belong in a sculpture department,” Ratzat admits. If anything, he was the sculpture. As an undergraduate, he designed gadgets, strapped them on, and took to the streets of Richmond. In a video that forms part of his portfolio, Ratzat dons one of his early works, called Spoken Fingers. On each finger he wears an audiotape head. Ratzat studiously pulls ribbons of audiotape through his fingertips, making a sound like a needle dragging across an LP. He leaves a trail of ribbon behind him, blowing in the breeze. Pedestrians hurry past. Two children peer through the window of a store behind him.

“Basically, I got treated as if I had a disability,” he says. “Everybody acted like, ‘Oh, we can’t look. He’s obviously a derelict; there’s something wrong with this picture, and it’s rude to stare.’ In a sense, [I] almost entirely disappeared.”

Ratzat reappeared on the streets of Chicago a year later, in 1989, when he enrolled as a graduate student in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and began to evolve as a performance artist. Ratzat entered the school’s “Time Arts” department, a program that meshes video, sound, sculpture, and computer art. In another video, of a work called Ventriloquist, the artist stands with his back to a Chicago skyscraper, his arms outstretched and his palms to the sky as if he’s feeling for rain. He wears a helmet like that used for fencing. If passers-by were to look closely—which they don’t—they would notice two tiny Walkman speakers taped to his palms.

When one man approaches him, Ratzat cups his hands over the stranger’s ears and opens his mouth. This motion triggers a tape-recorded message of an arcane dissertation on art. If Ratzat opens his mouth wider, the recording changes to a confession: “I feel partly responsible,” it says. Suddenly, Ratzat’s mouth snaps shut, and he is silent.

In his basement, Ratzat scrapes three large wooden cases across the green linoleum floor. He flaps them open and looks at them without saying anything. The room suddenly feels a little smaller, as if someone had just blurted out a secret and no one else is sure what to say.

Inside each case is a contraption—a suit—strapped into its container, like an instrument in a Fisher-Price doctor’s kit. One of the wooden cases holds a pair of translucent wings; one holds a wooden, segmented tail; one contains neon-orange flippers.

All three suits, Ratzat explains, are his responses to gifts from his father. The first gift was his name—his father named him after Ratzat’s uncle, who died young in a car accident. The second was a gun. The third was pornography—a couple of skin magazines. The suits, he explains, are failures. Though each was meant to serve a purpose, none of them do.

“Just like these objects don’t allow me to do things, [the gifts] were things my dad gave to me because they had a certain meaning to him. But, for me, they had a completely different sort of meaning,” Ratzat says. “He was trying to give me something that would enable me to do something, open worlds up to me. But when he gave them to me, [they] sort of had the opposite effect.” Ratzat calls these pieces Cleave I, II, and III, because the verb can mean either to adhere to or to split apart.

“These suits are a great metaphor for the way a person has to be certain things at certain times,” observes curator Jewart. “The question becomes, Which is really you at the bottom of it all? Is it the suit, or is it something else?” CP