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  3. A recent group exhibition curated by Todd Levin saw a selection of works that combined to create a fascinating investigation of the doll as a transgressive figurative form. The term transgressive is central, it refers exclusively to graphic depictions that are taboo in that they violate perceived boundaries of acceptability. Two bodies of work by Cindy Sherman were shown alongside carefully selected individual works by other artists (some Surrealists) to highlight why it is that dolls can be so arresting, so affecting and so offensive when presented in a sexually distressed or exploited manner. 

    The first room displayed Sherman’s photographic series ‘Sex Pictures’ (1989 – 1992). The slumped body positions and tormented faces in the sex scenes express a real sense of loneliness and torture despite the fact they are very crude prosthetics and doll heads, as apposed to cute fluffy animals for example.

    The images are disconcerting due to the specific point of view offered by the photographs. Untitled #257 (1992) captures a drop of fluid dribbling from a squatting crotch. The doll in Untitled #304 (1994) seems to make eye contact with the viewer. Both of these instances should be an impossibility of dolls and mannequins. Although Untitled #325 (1996) is a photograph of Cindy Sherman’s face behind a mask, the other works displayed in the exhibition seemed to only contain inanimate objects but sometimes it was difficult to be sure. 

     
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  5. The works that Sherman’s series were shown alongside provided the investigation with a rich dousing of historical context and symbolism.

    The first encounter upon entering the exhibition was with a doll made by the freelance photographer, and doll-making hobbyist, Morton Bartlett (1909-1992). Untitled (Standing Girl) c. 1950 – 60 is a nude, life like (but not by today’s hyper-real standards), and anatomically accurate plaster doll, made at half proportions to that of a child. Below this was the score of Jacques Offenbach’s opera ‘Les Contes d’Hoffman’ (‘The Tales of Hoffmann’), published in 1814, from which “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” (“The Doll Song”) was being played. This was the first of a number of meticulously considered nuances that made the exhibition very special indeed. Written about a poet falling in love with an automaton (a mechanical doll), this dainty and unpredictable opera music added an eerie ambiance to the first room, which was possibly due to associating these subjects and the music with scenes from horror movies. The combination of the two works could be seen to question the potential sexual perversion of their creators or owners. 

    One of my biggest inspirations, because of his superb abstractions and reconfigurations of the human form, is Hans Bellmer (1902 – 1975). Incidentally, Bellmer is cited as having seen and been influenced by Offenbach’s opera. Bellmer’s anonymously published book ‘The Doll’ is perhaps what liberated Bartlett to begin making his dolls in the same year, 1936. However, I find the intentions of Bartlett’s practice morally questionable where as Bellmer’s work began as a personal tirade against the ‘perfect body’ being championed by a then fascist Nazi Germany. I first encountered his mutated forms at the MoMA just before I began my final year at college; ‘The Doll (Torso)’ (1936and ‘The Machine-Guneress in a State of Grace’ (1934-5) remain two of my favorite sculptures to this day.

    At the far end of the room a striking print featured a bust with a mask-like face, swarmed by the unmistakable balls, boobs and bumps of a Bellmer composition. Opposite the print, staring right back at it, was a Bangwa Cameroon Slave figure. The parallels in form and distortion were brilliant to see together at once, which appropriately illustrated the Surrealist fascination with tribal art. It also brought slavery related issues to the surface. The images of dolls and figures in this exhibition sometimes lead me to feel revulsion whereas towards others I would feel compassion. I think this is because we see dolls as a visual dramatization of ourselves, as well as associate them with primal childhood memories and a sense of innocence. Therefore, the feeling of unease that I thought the exhibition resonated seemed very appropriate.

    The signage in the front window of the gallery was printed in gold on a red wall that fittingly made the exhibition private to the outside world and featured an illustration that Levin chose as his Vivisector Mascot. It depicts a beheaded male figure standing in a pose inspired by da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, with a burning heart in one hand and a dagger in the other. It was drawn by Andre Masson for the cover of George Bataille’s ‘Acephale’ (1937), of which vintage copies were on display inside. The symbolic sex of Bataille’s writing is something I’m very familiar with having recently created work for an exhibition at Bruno Glint Gallery entitled My Bataille, which was predominantly inspired by his book ‘Story Of The Eye’ (1928). The artists’ brief was to respond to the connections and energy that run throughout the book’s objects (eggs, balls and eyes), liquids (blood, sweat, urine and semen) and ‘apparatus of filth’ as outlined by Roland Barthes in his essay ‘The Metaphor of the Eye’. 

    When I see Bataille’s name I can’t help but envisage the graphic scene from the book when a Priest’s eyeballs are ripped out of their sockets. Fittingly, directly above the display case that held the vintage Bataille editions was Bruce Nauman’s ‘Double Poke in the Eye II’ (1985), which consists of two neon heads poking each other in the eye.  This was another example of Levin brilliantly pairing two works from seemingly separate times or genres. This particular pairing physically highlighted aggression as another theme of the works on display.

     
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  7. The title of this exhibition was a superb accomplishment. The concept of a Vivisection and consequently the Vivisector as a title (or in this case as a title for Sherman) carries with it a colossal weight of meaning.

    A vivisection refers to the surgical cutting open of a living organism for physiological or pathological investigation. Physiologically cutting open to reveal the inner workings of a subject is a hugely significant artistic act. Damien Hirst’s ‘Mother and Child Divided’ (1993) is an obvious example of an object becoming completely transformed thanks to this simple and ostensibly violent act. The title draws our attention to the notion that each artist has performed a literal or metaphorical vivisection in his or her studies, particularly Sherman. The pathological (meaning uncontrolled and unreasonable, possibly in relation to poor mental health) aspect of the title executes a description further that is not only a key attribute of the work, but also raises a question about the artists’ personalities. A vivisection can be perpetrated as a form of torture and this is certainly a feeling that resonates strongly throughout the images on display.

    The key notion that this title propels in to one’s consciousness about these subjects, however, is the aspect of the living. The mannequins, prosthetics and figurines have all been subject to surgery, but a vivisection refers to something living. Although the subjects are overtly haggard in their attempted resemblance of the human form, inherently, you can’t escape that they are dealing with life. This is why the title is so clever, it not only describes the actions of these artists’ practice, it forbids you to dismiss the possibility of life in these works. 

    This is the critical point upon which my fascination in the subject matter lies; the potential for life in human replica. It is precisely the level of animate that exists in the eye of the beholder with regards to dolls (and certain other objects) that concerns me. I see a parallel between sex dolls and designer goods in that people believe that buying them will bring them satisfaction and happiness. My motivation is to make work that attempts to dispel such faith in certain products, during a time that we are ever increasingly reliant upon them.

     
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  9. The second series of Sherman works in the exhibition was ‘Broken Dolls’ (1999). These black and white photographs show Barbie dolls and other figurines that have been hacked up, sexually altered and tortured. The framed photographs were mounted in a conjoined, totemic, fashion in the corners of a smaller room which mirrored the work on the opposite wall; ‘Valaise d’Adam’ (1949) by Frederick Sommer (1905 – 1999). The inclusion of the Sommer work, itself, symbolizes the brilliance of Levin’s vision for this exhibition. It was Sommer’s belief that things, which appear to be unconnected, can be composed to reveal a coherent meaning. The photograph sees weathered found objects (including a doll) combine to create a totemic, tribal figure. This single work references almost every work in the exhibition and ultimately symbolizes Todd Levin’s minute attention to detail. The photograph is a small work, which at first may not appear to carry great significance or meaning. This exhibition was small and included works that are between 13 and 300 years old, however, the clarity with which Levin was able to combine these works to express specific ideas was very powerful indeed.

    Having seen the exhibition and revisited the Surrealist fascinations of automata and the femme-enfant, I have decided to post a work I created whilst at college in 2010 entitled ‘My Sex Barbie’.

     

  10. My Sex Barbie

    The reason I found Todd Levin’s investigation so interesting is because I amassed a very closely related body of research whilst at college, which continues to influence my work today.

    Something that really stands out from that research is the mannequin work(s) by the Chapman Brothers, also from the mid nineties, which are the epitome of the transgressive figurative form. The naked child-mannequins often either featured an anus for a mouth and a penis for a nose or conjoined heads with a vagina between the cheeks. 

    ‘Miss Hiropon’ (1997) and ‘My Lonesome Cowboy’ (1998) are seminal works by Takashi Murakami because they symbolize the cultural revelations that his work exposed about Japanese culture to the art world and the world at large. The life-size figures reference a sordidly sexual side of Japanese Otaku culture that exists in manga, anime, eroge, figurines and dolls. Modern day Otaku uphold the Surrealist fascinations of automata and the femme-enfant. Some Hentai  (Japanese for Pervert/related media) and Lolicon gokko (Play toys for men with Lolita Complex) can be extremely transgressive. The two dimensional origins of such products are easily dismissed as harmless because they are such a far-removed representation of human beings. However, with the realistic output that modern technologies now achieve, I believe certain products violate moral, if not legal, boundaries.

    The aforementioned works by Cindy Sherman, The Chapman Brothers and Takashi Murakami could all be described as the doll as the transgressive figurative form and they were all made in the 1990’s. I therefore wanted to investigate whether or not there was an even more explicit transgressive human replica to be found in the following decade. I also suspected that, whilst I admired the Japanese neo-pop art of ‘Superflat’ artists, the work that alluded to a transgressive side of Otaku culture did not unravel its’ full extent. This led me to discover what I believe to be the ultimate transgressive figurative form: hyper-real child-like love-dolls (such as those manufactured in Japan by Orient Industry). Love-doll websites, related forums and the doll based porn magazine iDoloid revealed the pseudo transgressive images that confirmed the vice I had suspected. ‘The Love Doll’ (2009-2011) is a series of photographs by Laurie Simmons, which feature love-dolls in a number of staged ‘real life’ scenarios. The images are unusual due to the model being a doll in what is otherwise a typical photograph. However, the unusual or bizarre nature of Simmons’ photography hardly even registers in comparison to the worrying images that the manufacturers publish themselves.

    When I created ‘My Sex Barbie’ (2010) I wanted to provide my audience with the opportunity to peer in to the dark world I had discovered; a world of doll pornography, masturbators and make-it-yourself sex toys. 

     


     
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  14. Present/Future

    The exhibition at Sprüth Magers brilliantly curated key features that are central to my practice.

     The work spoke to me on a personal level. Bartlett created his dolls from scratch, which is how I make my own work - entirely by hand.

    The notion that these artists were dismembering the human form and reconstructing it to produce something new is very significant to the way I think about sculpture. I physically did that with the life-casts I used to create ‘Marcelle’ (2012) and ‘Simone’ (2012).  I also have plans to create a piece of work in the future that will involve performing a vivisection of sorts.

    The combination of desire and revolt; to ‘simultaneously arouse and cripple the drive of sexual desire’ could almost be my mission statement. Particularly with the work I’m creating for my next exhibition, the presence of this aspect in my work will grow a lot stronger.

    Finally, the most important concept to understand about my work is that of the incomplete object. I am fascinated by how objects can affect people and I observe people grow emotional attachments to products that I feel are vacuous and hollow. The Vivisection highlighted that many of the subjects were incomplete; missing arms or legs. Whether I’m looking at dolls or designer goods, I see something missing. They are incomplete. They are devoid of the very experience that they promise to provide, whether it be an improved sex life or heightened sense of desirability. We are all in pursuit of happiness. But contrary to the messages of mass marketing and popular culture medias, it is not to be found via objects, be it designer goods or dolls. 

     
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