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ThemesCyborg BodiesDoll-Bodies
The Media/Games of the Doll [1] —From Model to Cyborg.
Contemporary Artists' Interest in Surrealism.
Sigrid Schade

The return of the doll

As was the case in the seventies, in particular since the beginning of the nineties one has been able to observe a more intense inspection by contemporary artists of Surrealist image motifs—mannequin, doll, body fragment, automaton, wax figure—that at the same time comprises a return of the figurative or of body (fragments) to various artistic productions and media, which had hardly played a role in Western art—except in Pop Art—since 1945. [2] In the nineteen-twenties and thirties, the doll—as whole body and as body fragment—was already a projection figure, an «objet trouvé,» which Surrealist artists, male and female alike, used to thematicize the relation between representations, mediality, perception and credibility primarily via the media of photography and film. As a central element of new conditions of production and design even in artistic work, technological development in the nineties led to an intense scrutiny of new digital image processing, which in turn resulted in a resumption of the discussion on the similarity and simulation of human bodies, not only on the part ofartists. The combining of the traditional motif of the doll with the automaton and the animated (or also murderous and dead) android (and the threats they pose) represents one aspect of the history of cyborg fantasies in contemporary media art. [3]

The tradition of dolls and the notion of the uncanny

The mannequin [4] who was thought to be alive—or the doll who was brought to life [5] —represents one of several figurations from the historical tradition of human machines or automatons. [6] Like Pygmalion's sculpture of a woman as a work of art, which in mythical tales allows its artist to advance to the Creator, [7] the doll is an android that can be brought to life through love/projection. Thus it belongs to the tradition of the artificial woman, which in the end is a story about the question of delusion, a story that manifested in mythical tales about perception, painting, sculpture, mediality and their illusionistic effects. [8] For the men who see a living woman in the automaton and fall in love with her, this can either be interpreted as an escape from the ‹real woman› as other or as love of the same (self-love). E.T.A. Hoffmann suggests this e.g. in his story «Der Sandmann» (1816/17), in which Nathanael, the principal character, is destroyed by the discovery of his delusion about the doll Olimpia, who embodies a narcissistic ideal of love. [9] Based on this story, Sigmund Freud developed his examination of the «uncanny» by taking up the doppelganger phantasm in the doll character. At the same time, he uses Hoffmann's story, in which the feeling of the «uncanny» is associated with the figure of the doll, to expound on the assertion that this uncanniness does not simply consist of projecting an ideal or an image onto the doll or doubting that the doll has been ‹given a soul.› [10] The projective fantasy of children who play with dolls, for instance, does not even require belief in delusion. And even being left in doubt about the doll being alive or not is not ‹automatically› threatening or uncanny.

In Freud's interpretation, the doll becomes a function of the castration anxiety associated with an all-powerful father. This is experienced metonymically as fear of losing one's eyes and thus represents an uncanny, paranoid repetition of the primal castration scene. At the same time, the threat of castration isalways a threat of death. The uncanny quality of the doppelganger fantasy is associated with the idea of the subject's fading away, with the fear of losing a clear subject position. In this respect fears of loss, which have historically been triggered off by newly emerging possibilities of technical simulation, are thematicized in the ‹doppelgangers› of both a technical and media nature.

Contemporary artists and their «dolls»

A number of names stand for the current discussion on the figure of the doll: Katrin Freisager, Kirsten Geisler, Lynn Hershman, Inez van Lamsweerde, Victorine Müller, Yves Netzhammer, Tony Oursler, Cindy Sherman, Judy Fox, Robert Gober, Mike Kelley, Kiki Smith.

The interest in the doll by each of these artists is individually motivated and must be examined case by case with regard to traditions and the references made to the current debates on mediality and perception. The doll is not merely viewed as a scene of phantasms of wholeness and dismemberment. It is also a figure based on which the connection between the unconscious and (automatisms of) creativity, the relation between art and politics, and the reflection of Surrealist experiments with media productions can be thematicized.

One can view today's increasing use of the doll motif as a symptom, i.e. understand it within the scope of a cultural analysis as a reference to discussions on contemporary body images that are situated somewhere between advertising, cosmetic surgery and gene technology. Or one can see it not lastly as a confrontation with the new, seemingly bodiless war technologies and the new wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which are mediated in the Western world by television images.

The return of the repressed

In this respect, the scrutiny of the doll may also possibly represent a «return of the repressed» (Hal Foster)—a return of the repressed traumata of two world wars and the insight gained by psychoanalysis in the twenties into the central meaning of the compulsion to repeat and of the death drivefor the constitution of the subject. [11]

The theses put forward by the American arthistorian Hal Foster historically situate Surrealism and its artistic experiments in the period after World War I and also consider them to indicate the processing of encounters with war neurotics and their compulsive repetition of the horrors of war. These encounters by Surrealist artists, e.g. in 1916 by Breton, who worked with war neurotics as an assistant in the neuropsychiatric clinic in St. Dizier, did not enter the official history of Surrealism. They are, as it were, its repressed «primal scenes» and according to Hal Foster go along with a dismissal of Freud's conceptualization of the death drive. Freud developed his concept on the latter subsequent to his thoughts on the uncanny and on the occasion of his own encounter with war neurotics. The Surrealists—above all Breton—had equated the concept of the unconscious with a concept of freedom [12] into which the idea of (unconscious) compulsion could not be integrated. [13] The current interest in Surrealism at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century can thus also be understood as a repetition of unresolved historical encounters within which current problems and questions are thematicized and reformulated. Three main complexes are up for discussion: – the inspection of the body fragment within the context of body perception, gender representation and the pornography debate; – reflections that make reference to a crisis of the subject position, the fading away of the symbolic order, and medialized perception; [14] – technoid fantasies within which both the monstrous as well as phantasms of autonomy shaped by various current technological and media developments are brought up. The last two complexes are virtually inseparable.

Gender representation, body (fragment) and pornography

Figurations of bodies or parts of the body are uncircumventably connected with traditional constructions of femininity and masculinity in art history and the mass media. At the latest since the Romantic Movement, the figure of the doll connotes more a female than a male—in particular in the sexualized variants preferred by the Surrealists, in which the secondary sexual characteristics were a central element of the visualization. In the history ofart, fragmentations or dismemberment scenarios have also been played through more on ‹female› than on ‹male› bodies. This categorization continued in the mass media of pornography.

In this respect it is no wonder that the subject of the doll has been taken on primarily by exhibitions and publications that have emerged since the eighties within the context of feminist-oriented artistic practices and theory formations [15] and in which the productions by Surrealist artists have been taken up again, restaged and reformulated.

A feminist debate on the meaning of the body fragment in modernity already set in in the eighties. [16] In retrospect this debate can be viewed as a delayed confrontation with the legacy of the concept of «degenerate art» (at least in German-speaking countries), the implications of which—long taboo—could not even be thematicized until the eighties. These implications concerned the Nazi glorification of an idealized body as a mirror phantasm of racial wholeness and perfection as well as the ‹literal› reading of body fragments as a metaphor for decadence and disease, which in a certain way was repeated in the «Culture Wars» in puritanical America. [17] For the Surrealists, who under National Socialism fell into the category of degenerate art, whose German protagonists first had to emigrate to Paris and ultimately to the United States, the doll was the scene of an intense inspection of fantasies that thematicized a fragile subject position with its projections and disassociations and which was interspersed with traditional gender images within the context of fears of dismemberment. These were produced against the background of projective phantasms of modernity [18] and set against—in an almost anticipatory way—the Nazis' aesthetics of thebody. [19]

The hybrid doll constructions and photographic series of dolls by Hans Bellmer, who is considered to be one of the German Surrealists, are e.g. a point of reference for the American artist Cindy Sherman, who cites the Bellmer doll elements in her photographs while at the same time forcing open conventional gender constructions. In contrast to Bellmer, in her photoseries with spare body parts, she mixes ‹female› and ‹male› parts of the body in such a way that the fears of dismemberment cannot be disassociated fromone's own body (‹gender›) and assigned to the «other» (gender). This is a continuation of her work on the deconstruction of images of femininity and masculinity in the mass media of film and photography and in art history tradition, which she has pursued since 1975 from her photographic series of Film Stills and Centerfolds, fairytale masquerades, History Portraits, to her Disgust Photos and the «Sex Pictures» from 1992. [20] Bellmer's influence can be found on the level of the representation of the construction of body images—in the exposure of the material, the observer's eye—as well as on the level of the reflection on the mediality of photography.

These aspects have also been brought out by the Swiss artist and photographer Katrin Freisager, who is based in Zurich. She accurately traced the constituting elements of photography, pornography, view and body construction above all in her ten-part photoseries «Untitled» (2002). The seven-part photoseries «Living Dolls,» which she produced a few years prior to this, could be associated with a further aspect of the Bellmer doll photographs, viz. with his concept of the body (image) as language and parts of the body as sentence elements. Bellmer translated the anagram's play on language into picture language and dissolved the body grammar of anatomy, which is bound to a traditional visual logic and to the notion of the «whole body.» He had compared his ‹impossible› combinations of parts of the body with the aesthetic possibilities of the anagram and at the same time linked them into a discourse that cites the unconscious and deference as central categories of perception and conferring meaning. [21] Katrin Freisager's photoseries combines the concept of the model in the sense of photographic model (her photos are of living women and men lying on a mattress in such a way that they appear to be incapable of ever getting up again) with the tradition of the tableau vivant. The positions of and the relationships between the limbs create the impression of having been positioned by an outsider (the photographer) in such a way that they appear to be jointed dolls or marionettes that can be turned or twisted into any desired position—regardless of how anatomically absurd it may seem. All together, the series of bodies forms a kind of alphabet. In this context, the significance of the serial for Hans Bellmeras well as for Cindy Sherman and Katrin Freisager must be mentioned. The serial principle made a decisive contribution to the potential of the media self-reflection of photography and enables expressing specific qualities of photography.

Medialized perception and reflection in the media

The doll or the model, the mannequin as a photographic or cinematic motif was not only a central theme for Hans Bellmer, but also for the other Surrealists such as André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Eluard, Max Ernst, André Masson, Man Ray, Raoul Ubac, Wols, et al. In 1937 Wols photographed the mannequins in the Pavillon de l’Elégance at the Paris World Exposition at night. His play of light and shadow made them appear dramatically alive, although they were obviously made of, amongst other materials, wire. The Surrealists produced a «Suite of Mannequins,» which was populated by their absurdly and hybridly equipped mannequins, for the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in 1938. [22] Man Ray in particular was interested in the photographic comparison of (death) masks, dolls, torsos and (living) persons. [23] Most of the Surrealist dolls have not only almost exclusively been handed down through media (in photographs or films), from the outset they were created for the sole purpose of being photographed. To use Benjamin's words, they reckon with being photographed: «To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.» [24] This means that historically, the Surrealists themselves did not understand the dolls to be the actual Surrealist object, but rather used them so to speak as a means of producing another Surrealist object: namely photography, or even better: photography frequently annotated with text. [25] This is why this artistic production also has to be viewed as a conscious and intense scrutiny of the mediality of photography and film.

This is not lastly the reason why this motif is also being taken up in current media art. The possibilities of video, digital photography, digital image processing and the moving digital image pose a renewed challenge to reflect on the mediality of representation, which in turn is bound to the tradition of illusion and dis-illusion. In their doll photographs, the Surrealistswere able to bring out the uncanny quality of photography, the mortification as well as the animation of the object being photographed. [26] The doll was particularly well suited for this. As was the case with Nathanael in «Der Sandmann,» it began as a dead object and was brought to life through the mortifying reproduction technique of analog photography—a tautological combination so to speak—through a lens or a pane of glass.

Reflection on the changed status and the changed reference to a referee in the images produced by means of digital image processing [27] is a central motif for contemporary artists in their exposure of the mimesis of contemporary simulation techniques using the figure of the doll. Not only do the possibilities of projection play a large role in this, be it the projection of a video or of digital images, so do the endless possibilities of the manipulation or simulation of all preceding image and sound media in digital processing. And not lastly, all of the potential of interactive constellations are also sounded out that combined with image, sound and activity can subject the senses to an immersive delusion.


Tony Oursler projects videos of people speaking e.g. onto objects and couch pillows in suitcases and boxes. «Uncannily» distorted, they nevertheless arouse the association of a living ‹thing.› His video installations are demonstrations of the human power of imagination, which ‹overlooks› the obvious apparatuses that have been placed into the respective settings and brings the carriers of the message (pillows, etc.) to life in his repetition of the childlike perspective. Frontal projections of life- size human images turn the observer into a direct addressee of the ‹dolls.› Kirsten Geisler has developed several interactive video installations, in which projections of virtual women who ‹converse› with the observer play a central role. The installations «Counting Beauty 2.1» from 1999 or « Dream of Beauty 2.0» (1997–2000) expose the ‹artificiality› of the new woman—she is the digitally calculated result of empirical data from behavioral research on ideals of beauty, whose construction is revealed.


In her life-size digital photoprints Inez van Lamsweerde also produces artificial humans, who at first glance appear to be real, but at second glance are perceived as construed bodies with doll-like characteristics. Small ‹physical signs›—dead eyes, missing nipples and orifices, slightly altered proportions—point towards a slight deviation, a shift from traditional analog photography to a digital monster. They are indications of perfection and beauty mania, much like we encounter them in the mass media, whose potential feasibility is promised to us daily by plastic and non-invasive surgery and, not lastly, biotechnology. [28]

Perception games

Yves Netzhammer's digital, moving images and his installations using extensive projections—such as the multipart exhibition project «Die überraschende Verschiebung der Sollbruchstelle eines in optimalen Verhältnissen aufgewachsenen Astes» or «Große Spiegel werden verloren. Informationen von Abwesenheit, damit Anwesenheit entstehen kann—thematicize the endless possibilities of transforming the human body image, which—as was the case with Hieronymus Bosch—is denaturalized and hybridized. It can emerge in the motion of the images out of a line, out of a surface, or out of another figure (bird), and in turn enter other figures. Yves Netzhammer's imaging is not aimed at delusion; rather his digital figures (not only humans, but everything represented) have a pronounced artificial character. [29] The smooth surfaces do not simulate skin or other ‹natural› surfaces; rather the digitally produced sheen appears to suggest the materiality of plastic. The surface and the motional mechanics of the bird are reminiscent of a tin toy. In their stylization and similarity, the bodies represent a new species of human being without gender difference; they differ from one another only in their colors (not only black and white). They have no faces. They also do not have any joints: as with dolls or jointed dolls, the transitions between the limbs are more reminiscent of welded seams.

On the one hand, the nearly armored surfaces of their bodies appear impermeable; at least the inside of the body is not characterized as muscular, organic orliquid. On the other hand, parts of the body open up or split off, are pierced through by other objects, at the same time becoming part of other body, material or texture units. If one perceives these ‹dolls› statically or describes them, they are reminiscent of sculptures by Charles Ray or photographs by Dieter Huber, both of whom take up the monstrous quality of new humans—or body images in the age of biotechnology—and thematicize the potential effects of cloning. [30]

However, Yves Netzhammer's digital images are always in motion. On the one hand they produce memory images of recognition in a permanent metamorphic shift, at the same time producing a perspective of extreme uncertainty. In many cases, the image details, the respective proportions and perspectives make the predictability and the transformation motion of the future form impossible. Yves Netzhammer uses the digital image to reflect on the human perception pattern, which is pervaded by automatisms against the background of what is known, expected and repeatable and which is exposed by the poetic images that emerge and then develop out of each other and after one another, because they are dis-illusioned. [31]

In this respect, Yves Netzhammer's digital figures do not really contribute to an identification with or to a warning about monstrous cybernetic organisms, but to a questioning of subjective perception, which is deeply normed and relational. The exposure of the connection between what there was to see and its interpretation in view of the relation to things that cannot yet or no longer be seen reveals the uncertainty and the conventionality of interpreting, and not lastly their deferment in perception. In other words: The media games of the doll take up notions of the uncanny again and produce them using other means. In Yves Netzhammer's case, the feeling of the uncanny is not produced via the simulation of the ‹authenticity› or ‹naturalness› of human doppelgangers and the uncertainty about their ‹having been given a soul.› Uncertainty arises out of becoming conscious of the automatic interpretation of what was seen. The latter is made impossible by the subversion of a uniform point of view or point of vision that constitutes the subject's perception. Fear creeps into the idea in sucha way that the digital doll bodies, which are in continuous metamorphosis, can possibly see differently, see us differently—or overlook us. In their performance «fontaine bleu», the Swiss performance group cpx explicitly take up the motif of the doll as a figure of the uncanny and associate it with current fears of becoming a cyborg. Five people stood motionless behind Plexiglas in a park for an entire night. Next to them was a computer from which the audience could retrieve data about the people on display. In this case, the doll-like humans represent human models in a society of control and availability, a fantasy that—as I have attempted to demonstrate—has a history. And yet in a strange way, the situation in the park was uncanny and absurd at the same time.

In the age of media art, dolls can return as cyborgs. The constructions of cybernetic organisms and their associated fantasies and phantasms are incomprehensible without the history of the artistic treatment of the figure of the doll. Even in times of their digital constructibility, they point towards references that connect them with the life of human beings. [32]

Translation: Rebecca van Dyck

© Media Art Net 2004