The current exhibition “Silent Partners” at the Fitzwilliam Museum charters the history of the artist’s mannequin.
From Walter Sickert’s corpselike dummy to Alan Beeton’s androgynous muse, propped up at a writing table in the gallery just as it appears in Beeton’s oil paintings, the exhibition reflects on mannequin’s shift from a functional stand-in for the human model to a site of fascination in its own right.
Curator Jane Munro, speaking with the Cambridge Globalist, said the task of assembling the collection’s uncanny subjects felt at times “perverse”. Where the gallery space traditionally seeks to present us with the finished product, here on display are naked tools of its realisation. The mannequin, it would seem, debunks a corner of the behind-the-scenes of human representation in cultural production, and indeed provokes questions of what it means to be ob-scene.
In a world in which we live increasingly in virtual space, with CGI modelling allowing us to substitute and manipulate the human form more readily than ever before, with medical science dedicated to the collaboration between the body and its prosthetic supports, the presence of the look-alike, the stand-in and the add-on has become a common and even idealized aspect of the human image. Munro describes the task of bringing this uneasy Other of the human reflection into the spotlight and considers whether or not she herself participates in perpetuating its fetishization.
The Uncanny – a conscious curatorial choice?
“Many of the reactions I have had to the exhibition have been along the lines of: “Have you seen the horror movie in which…?” Other people just mention Hans Bellmer. What I wanted to do with the exhibition was precisely to tell the story of how we have got to this point where we are talking about uncanny human simulacra in the movies or Hans Bellmer. The Uncanny is a 19th Century term, but there was a sense of the uncanny avant la lettre. Do I react differently to these figures than an artist would? I suppose yes in terms of the fact that I am not using them as a tool and that they are research subjects in many ways. But does that mean that I look at them in a purely cold, objective, researching manner? I don’t think that’s possible!”
How to display a fetish
Where does the mannequin’s companionship take over from its horror?
The mannequin and the moving image
“One of the hypotheses for the reason artists began putting these mannequins in images in the first place is that, for example, if you had a little bendy toy beside you, most people I know like to put them in bendy positions and twist them round. A former colleague here had a doll on her desk that she never moved. She had cut out a face from a photograph and put it on the doll, but the creepiest part of the whole thing was that the doll never moved. She never manipulated the doll’s position. I think the question is, do we feel differently when we are sitting next to a life-size doll? It looks a lot like us, but somehow not quite like us enough. And then when you’re working with them, you can put them into all sorts of different shapes just like my friend over there (Jane points to a mannequin behind us sitting on a chair in the corner) and they can become quite companionable. That sounds like quite a sad old lady thing to say.”