Enter the Valley

Tokyo, June 2008

June 2008.  I was in a large department store in Tokyo, and was wandering around the space without paying too much attention.  Before I had realised it I had walked into a display area, and was surrounded by staring eyes, a family of manufactured bodies all dressed in their summer linens.  I had walked into a vast mannequin display, and it was genuienly unsettling.  I didn't realise it at the time, but I had entered the "uncanny valley".  I hadn't experienced this feeling before.  Since then I have been photographing mannequins and artificial bodies as a process of discovering more about the sensation of uneasiness that swept over me in Tokyo.

The uncanny valley is a term used in the field of aestheitcs, coined by robotic theorist Masahiro Mori, that relates to a hypothetical valley on a graph contrasting human likeness and familiarity, or comfort.   On the graph it is easy to see that unlike a fully industrial machine or a healthy human there are key areas that cause discomfort: prosthetic limbs, puppets, and corpses.  The association of death to the inanimate limb or prone body is a natural one, thus the common uneasiness with the subject matter.

The photos of Hans Bellmer (1902-1975) and Cindy Sherman (b.1954) instantly come to mind when we start to talk about dolls and mannequins.  They both approached the subject of a constructed body with a focus on the sensuality and sexuality of the limbs.  Bellmer's images resulting are surreal portraits, where the conventional body shapes have been distorted, malformed and reworked by the artist to be alluring and, at the same time, unsettling.  Sherman, on the other hand, explores the sexual, sensual, and humorous sides of the constructed body in her portraits.
Hans Bellmer, photographs of mannequins

Cindy Sherman, photographs with dolls

Although these are the primary names when addressing dolls and mannequins within photography, I have found the early photography of Eugene Atget (1857-1927) to be more appropriate to my investigation.  Rather than dwelling on the notions of body and limbs, Atget has focused on the mannequins functions and forms within society.  

Through his documentary street photographs of 1920s Paris he observed how we have integrated mannequins into advertising and shop displays.  Although he was living alongside the Dadaists and Surrealists, such as Man Ray and Picasso, he didn't see his use of reflection or superimposition (using the reflections on glass and windows) to be distinctly modernist - he was just documenting what he saw.

Atget, Paris street photos (1920s)

Although Atget didn't see anything distinctly modernist in his photography, he was capturing Parisian street scenes reflected in the windows and layering the internal shop worlds with that of the outside.  This is mirrors the early video art at the time, where superposition and collage were Modernist tools used by artists as varied as Man Ray to Dziga Vertov.  However, Atget was a documentary photographer and he was recording window displays, advertising, architecture, fashion, as well as Paris reflected on the glass.  His mannequins are the eternal inhabitants of his time capsule.  These images function as a great record of a society, but they are also haunting.

Anyway, I'll get some of my images from this series up soon!


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