‘Appearance Research’

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I came across a place called the ‘Centre for Appearance Research’ recently. I was almost ready to choke on my muesli, imagining it was the academic version of the Daily Mail website’s ‘sidebar of shame’ (ie endless ‘pap’ photos of women in the media in various states of undress with appalling ‘judgements’ cast on their myriad appearances and behaviours…). It came up in a Guardian article from last year, about the link of female depression with anxiety about appearance.

The C.A.F. is concerned with how ‘invested people have become in their appearance, how central it is now to the value they place on their themselves’.On further investigation, the C.A.F. is no superficial, commerce-driven ‘think tank’ but a faculty of the University of the West of England that ‘strives to make a real difference to the lives of the many hundreds of thousands of people with appearance-related concerns both in the United Kingdom and across the world’. That is, people with facial disfigurements through birth defects, injuries, burns etc.

It’s moving to look at the case histories and research currently being undertaken there and it presents a sobering counterpoint to the hysterical imperatives from mass media to ‘Remove the visible effects of aging!’ ‘You too can have perfect skin!’ ‘Beyond natural skin matching make-up’ ‘The Eraser perfect and cover foundation’ ‘Face the future with firmer skin’ and the endless ‘fat reducing’ adverts ‘lose Ibs in one week! by obeying 1 rule!’ that scream at me every time I go to email or a social networking site…there may well be an advert at the base of this WordPress post, I do hope it’s a weight loss ‘miracle pill’.

We’re living in an appearance obsessed society for sure – young women particularly are under enormous pressure to resemble the perfected media images we’re all bombarded with everyday.

‘The psychotherapist Susie Orbach, (who, since publishing Fat is a Feminist Issue in 1978 has become a loud and public voice in the conversation about body image) points out that ‘none of us live in a vacuum…simply acknowledging the pressure doesn’t eliminate it’.

‘Look the Doll in the Eye’ is a kind of riposte to all of this – the only answer I have – in a world of artificially perfected images of the idealised female, impossible ideals to attain that achieve only self-loathing and discontent. The discontent that of course fuels our consumer driven society.

The doll symbolises the alienation the girl can feel, the manipulation that she’s subjected to, the objectification of her very self that this wretched state of affairs propagates: There is indeed a mental health condition called the ‘Marionette Syndrome’, for which I substitute the doll: ‘an emotional complex of feelings of powerlessness, emotional rigidity and ego alienation’. My images of the doll/female pretty much embody these conditions. The doll is also, however, the human substitute as perfection, as idol, as simulacrum to be worshiped. More on that in another post.

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Look the Doll in the Eye

baby skin‘Look the Doll in the Eye’ is a working title of a new project that will explore ideas around women’s self-image, funded by Arts in Essex:

‘…the more women self-objectify, the more likely they are to be depressed.’

(The Guardian 10th June 2012)

The title relates both to the idea that images can ‘unlock’ intuitive responses in the viewer and to the complex relationship women often have with their own self-image.

‘Self-objectification’ is perhaps particularly prevalent in Essex with its ‘TOWIE’ mass media identity and stereotypical ideas of a certain ‘beauty ideal’. This project will serve as an ‘antidote’ to negative self-image. It will offer an opportunity to take part in an art event to make a playful, creative response to such objectification, which will empower women by encouraging them to ‘own’ their self-image. To support this there will be a number of new workshops with teenagers, building on the success of ‘Superstrumps’, my previous female stereotype project with Syd Moore.

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I will be producing a large print run newspaper of the same title:

I have found the ‘free newspaper’ format to be a very useful one: I am interested in its all-pervasive distribution, its accessibility and availability. Rather than trying to bring an audience to the artwork ie into the usual gallery setting, the artwork goes out to the audience – the wider public.

I will also be presenting a ‘live drawing event’ at First Site Colchester:

This will present dolls and mannequins as subject and muse. Although reflecting on complex themes, the emphasis during the event will be on ‘imaginative play’, this will include:

Projecting drawings back on to the self (you literally ‘become’ your drawing) and a collaboration in making life size paper cut-out doll’s clothing, ‘dressing-up’ and documenting as Polaroids.

My work explores feminine identity through my representations of the female figure and the complexities surrounding this image.

‘Look the Doll in the Eye’ refers to the idea that the doll is a perfect vessel in which boundaries dissolve between ‘self’ (human) and ‘object’ (other) and for exploration of our relationship to body image and objectification of the female form. In this way I use the doll as a motif in my work. I’m interested in its role as a silent witness to female narratives, it has a special place in the female imagination and can communicate complex ideas around identity.

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I am currently engaged in research which explores the inter-relationship between drawing as an act of transformation and the female doll as representation of the human ie something that looks human but is not human. This work reveals my perception that drawing itself can be considered to be inherently ‘uncanny’.