Living dolls and sentient wheelchairs

Keith Gallasch

Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth: Sophie #2, 2005

Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth: Sophie #2, 2005

Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth: Sophie #2, 2005

Van Sowerwine speaks affectionately of her creations at a Stills Gallery artist’s talk, of the making, naming and keeping of them, these disturbed and disturbing dolls. Here, it’s Sophie in a series of large photographic images that suggest an incident and subsequent distress in Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth. Upstairs in the gallery, on a video monitor, it’s Clara grappling with the torments of the imagination in the wake of a fellow child’s death, and torturing herself in an act of grief-relieving masochism.

As you enter the gallery you come face to face with a large portrait of Sophie, the classically inscrutable doll-face onto which we can freely project. Inside, again staring out at us, Sophie sits alone at the end of a table on which are placed a model cooked chicken and 2 plates of vegetables. In an adjoining image her plastic hand reaches out to touch a very real bright-eyed but very dead fish. Elsewhere she’s on the floor: perhaps simply at rest, thoughtful, or withdrawn and upset. In another image, milk is splashed across the floor, a small toy bear lies on its back, broccoli heads nearby. To the right, another shot of Sophie, this time in profile, perhaps crying, her skin eerily real, yet plastic at the same time. Finally, right down on the carpet, a dustball or dried weed cluster. Like the fish, it’s as if the object has caught Sophie’s gaze, entrancing her, and us, with its reality in an otherwise synthetic environment. There’s a narrative being played out in this series, perhaps as mild as a temper tantrum when compared with Clara’s pain, but it’s up to you to decide. Certainly you can’t escape Sophie’s sense of isolation but, just as intensely, her curiosity about the fish and the dustball—it’s as if you’re stretched out on the floor beside her with the extended concentration span that educators sometimes would deny in children. It’s this play between views detached and subjective that gives Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth its peculiar power. Whether working with stills or animation, Van Sowerwine expertly and vividly suggests emotions from barely inanimate materials. Clara won a Cannes Film Festival Best Mention in the Short Film Palm d’Or.

The photographs in Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth are large and glossy, the details however sometimes raw. Sowerwine explains that the images were taken straight from transparencies without any touching up, the closeup, for example, of Sophie’s hand reaching for the fish, revealing the powdery edges of the body. Sowerwine designs the doll which is then sculpted in plasticine from which a model-maker casts Sophie in silicon. Sowerwine chooses eyes, the hair type, inserts each hair and sometimes makes the clothes. She designed the space for Sophie and worked with a commercial photographer, John Billington, using a Hasselblad. Much of the work is painstaking: lighting such a small figure over a week was, she says, a particular challenge, especially given that Sophie is not as manipulable as the multi-jointed Clara in the film. However, working on the film, says Sowerwine, was infinitely more labour intensive: the team included animator, designers, composer and cinematographer (Billington) over an 8 month production period with a 10 week 16mm shoot with a parallel video recording to check the movement was right.

At Artspace I finally got to experience Mari Velonaki’s magical and curiously affecting fish-bird. Two wheel chairs wander the space, face and skirt each other, pump out messages (on small strips of paper) sufficiently enigmatic to yield many interpretations and not a few eerie personal synchroncities for viewers. Even stranger, they seem to sense your presence, moving away as you advance or sometimes following you. Their association with vulnerability and service, their prosthetic function, makes Velonaki’s mutation of them into apparently sentient beings particularly potent. As with Van Sowerwine’s dolls, the encounter is both eery and amusingly prophetic.

Van Sowerwine, Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth; Clara, animator Isobel Knowles; Stills Gallery, Sydney, Oct 12-Nov 12; Mari Velonaki, fish-bird circle b-movement c, mechatronic system design David Rye,, software architecture Steve Scheding, track system & software design Stefan Williams; Artspace, Sydney, Sep 22-Oct 15

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 55

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2005