May 26: Who’s the dummy?
These days we understand a mannequin to be a dummy in human form used to display clothes, though the recent use meaning a human model is still implied; The Bystander, of August 15, 1906, has it that
A mannequin is a good-looking, admirably formed young lady, whose mission is to dress herself in her employer’s latest “creations,” and to impart to them the grace which only perfect forms can give. Her grammar may be bad, and her temper worse, but she must have the chic the Parisienne possesses, no matter whether she hails from the aristocratic Faubourg St. Germain or from the Faubourg Montmartre.
It has a Flemish origin manneken, a diminutive of ‘man’, a use popularly known from the Manneken Pis, a 1618 statue of a small boy urinating into a fountain in Brussels. Sometimes too, ‘mannequin’ was used in English to mean ‘artificial man’, and the miniature jointed wooden figure used by artists is known as a ‘manikin’.
Three artist-photographers who may be said to represent these meanings of ‘mannequin’ in their work are associated with this date, May 26.
British artist Ian Breakwell was born this day in 1943. A retrospective by French artist Valérie Belin (*1964, Boulogne-Billancourt) opens today at The Three Shadows Photography Art Center in Beijing City’s Chaoyang District at 155 Caochangdi. And an opening reception for the show Public Performance by UK photographer Simon Roberts (*1978) is being held tonight at 7pm at Robert Morat Galerie, Linienstraße 107, 10115 Berlin
I have to say I have always been uncomfortable with student photographers resorting to taking pictures of shop dummies; it invariably represented a lack of effort or imagination, the easy way out, and so often they failed to either convincingly represent a human being as probably intended, or to dissect the idea of the simulacrum in some useful way, and one would be just left with a residual creepiness or slapstick joke. Sometimes, in street photography for example, mannequins provoke a double-take that is amusing, or bizarre, but it takes an exceptional photographer to pull it off.
Valérie Belin, winner of the 2015 Prix Pictet, is the one of these three who uses the mannequin in the most direct manner, both in 2003 in straight, smoothly-lit large-format monochromes, and more recently, and with a more nuanced ambiguity, in 2015. Here the model is suspended within a gridded field over which suprematist forms play, and their colour ranges through pale pastel to day-glo saturation. The colours remain transparent despite the multiple layers and where it overlaps the body, at the lips or hands for example, enlivens its pale plastic ‘skin’ so that we read it as real epidermis, but only in limited passages.
The Beijing retrospective covers Belin’s very first projects to her latest experiments in digital and overlay techniques and is jointly curated by Karen Smith, Art Director of Shanghai Center of Photography, and Chen Shen, Curator of Three Shadows Photography Art Centre.
The survey confirms a remarkable consistency in Belin’s fascination with the signs of life, ranging through the Robots (1998), Bodybuilders (1999), through two series of photographers’ models, masks, imitators who ‘clone’ themselves as Michael Jacksons, magicians and Lido performers, to women wearing tiaras in Crowned Heads (2009)
In most of these series the one subject is repeated, sometimes even, as in the case of Lido and Black Women II, the face stays the same but the costume changes, like the clothes on a child’s doll, only in this case it is a living person, the one model. The repetition has the same unsettling effect as do groups of shop dummies in the same pose.
In Crowned Heads a kind of vibration is introduced, multiple overlaid printings slightly distorted. This visual vacillation appears in the All Star comic book series, this time in the form of the apparent application of a lenticular screen that merges in the example below with the striped shirt of the heroine.
It is a shimmer that we are used to from CGI effects in sci-fi movies where some kind of transformation or morphing is occurring, but it also draws on Benin’s very early experiments with crystal objects in display cases and elaborate venetian glass mirrors, printed from underexposed negatives of the crystal, and in negative for the mirrors, in which surfaces and reflections dissolve in a shattering cubism, removing any certainty about space and placement.
Belin’s interest is in the deceptiveness of appearances, not that she herself is trying to create convincing illusions; rather, she grapples with what might be the minimum necessary for an appearance of life at the margin, or in the case of the clone or replicant, with questioning the nature of individual life. A mask example, such as that worn by the actress Alida Valli through most of her role in Georges Franju’s 1960 French-Italian horror film Les yeux sans visage (‘Eyes Without a Face’), when studied by the camera hovers uncannily between living and inanimate, so that we are set of the brink of comprehending what is the essential ‘liveliness’.
Ian Breakwell (†2003) was one of a group of radical British artists, the ‘Artist Placement Group’, a pioneering artists’ organisation founded in 1966 by Barbara Steveni and John Latham, together with David Hall, Barry Flanagan, Anna Ridley, and Jeffrey Shaw who, in the 1960s, challenged the conventional orthodoxy of Modernism.
Their strategy was to ‘dematerialise’ the art object from commercial, marketable painting or sculpture substituting those traditional media with text, documents, photographs or other cheap, reproducible or even ephemeral material. Instead of the expressiveness and creativity valued by Modernism they adopted the detachment and the techniques of the social scientist, recording their lives or the lives of those around them using photography, recorded notes and journals. It is a life of which Breakwell writes in The Artist’s Dream:
The Artist is a reasonable man. He can account for his time. All his time is accountable. He is calm, cool, he keeps himself in check. He is demonstrably not odd, though he cultivates minor eccentricities, for he is constantly aware of his public image. He keeps a low profile. He is a serious person. His world is his studio. It is a world of logic, rationalism, aesthetic niceties, pure forms. He counts the grains of dust on the floor. He has a system. He mistrusts love, desire, magic, emotional disturbance, convulsive laughter or tears. He carefully refuses to be overwhelmed. He is in control. He has it all sewn up.
It was in this spirit that Breakwell began writing a Continuous Diary in 1965 which he maintained until 1985 (what a undertaking!) and from this documentation created a series of related text, collage and photographic works, the individual Diary Pages.
Among these is The Walking Man Diary records his observing, from his third floor window overlooking Smithfield Market in the City of London, of the repeated appearance of an unknown man walking a regular route past the shop windows of the market:
…just as purposeful as those around him but not engaged in any business except that of walking continuously on a circuitous and regular route around the market area. He had white close-cropped hair and a stubbly beard. He was dressed, whatever the weather, in a long heavy overcoat, thick trousers and boots, but he was not a tramp because he carried no baggage … Sometimes he would suddenly halt, freeze in one position for perhaps half an hour, then start walking again at the same relentless pace, his head bowed, never looking to either side.
I began to take photographs of him if he happened to be passing by when I looked out of the window. All the photographs are taken from the same third floor window vantage point: the view is the same but the time passes. Two adjoining photographs may be separated by seconds, or weeks, or months.
Breakwell used the man’s sudden disappearance in 1977, to make his diary, ‘in retrospect’ and when year later, the man unexpectedly reappeared, he continued to photograph him. The eleven collage panels of The Walking Man Diary are from three years of these records and they combine pictures of the old man, circled to highlight his position, with cut-outs from calendars and diaries, photographs of a wristwatch on a wrist (à la Joseph Koudelka’s Soviet invasion of Prague 1968), handwritten questions and typewritten fragments of descriptive text. Like Thomas’ (David Hemmings) enlargements in Antonioni’s Blow Up of the decade before, the images prove too grainy to identify the man…the tell us nothing about this mystery.
Through his detachment, Breakwell’s endlessly tramping old man becomes his manikin, his artist’s model, a postmodern version of the traditional jointed wooden figure. The high angle of the photographs from his flat-cum-studio on the third storey diminish the figure and turn him into the ‘little man’, and the fuzzy nature of the black-and-white blow-ups objectify him.
Simon Roberts continues in the same vein, but in the by now more established topographic approach to photographing landscape, though with the variation of including the human figure in his studies of English society for We English (London: Chris Boot, 2009), National Property: The Picturesque Imperfect and other projects. From 2007-2008, Roberts traversed England in a camper-van (known as a ‘motorhome’ in the UK) with his pregnant wife, two-year-old daughter and a 5×4-inch camera to photograph the English at leisure. It might be seen as being a continuation of work done by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr, except that these are landscapes first. The figures that crowd these well-known popular and very often heritage holiday destinations are shot from high vantage points;
Where possible, I’m looking for a high vantage point from which to frame my photographs and more often than not this is from the roof of my motorhome (or using a free-standing stepladder when I’m not permitted to park near the scene). As a result, the viewer is often placed at a slight distance and elevation from the subject so they are not part of the action but detached, critical viewers. In essence, I attempt to map contemporary life governed by forces that are not possible to see from a position within the crowd. The perspective echoes that of history painting
This is a strategy repeated in National Property: The Picturesque Imperfect (2013-15) in which historically important sites feature more prominently, and in a challenge to the concept to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ he reveals their state of preservation at the same time as revealing their artificiality. The broad perspective also enables us to see groups jockeying for a good spot to take a selfie or a view, or to find a picnic spot less disturbed by the crowd, but not sufficient detail to read individual emotion; people remain generalised figures and ‘types’.
In his recent The Last Moment (2011-2014) Roberts retains the distant viewpoint, but rather than make his own photographs, he scans published press photographs of significant world events printed in British broadsheet newspapers, and then reduces the wide-angle views to a mere trace by masking them back to near-white. He then identifies every instance in each image of a person also documenting the event with their own camera or mobile phone, ‘spotting’ them with a circle which appears on the barely-readable background like the disc of a lens.
Each translucent ‘bubble’ represents a moment of individual self-contained perception of the whole, each from a different vantage point, every one of them different, but of the same scene. In this case each ‘manikin’ is diminished still further, to an artificial eye alone, but remains anonymous, the artist’s model.
Who’s the dummy now?