Sunday, January 22, 2012

Chatty Cathy's great-great-great grandmother

Oh Lor', oh Lor', we can't get OFF this topic now.

I've known about this little monster ever since I wrote a novel called Bus People back in 2005. (Yes, that's right. Bus People. Ever heard of it?) One of the characters was obsessed with old wax cylinder recordings and eventually found herself talking to one of them. Imagine her surprise when the recording talked back.

This doll talks back too, in a wretched, wobbling voice that must have been pretty awful even when it was first recorded on a tiny gramophone-like disc inserted into the doll's hard metallic abdomen. (Like Chatty Cathy, whom she resembles in many ways, she has a grillwork of holes in her back to let out the sound.) This recording is particularly gruesome because in the "cleaned-up" version she sounds even worse, like a bug in a bottle.

These dolls didn't last long because they broke after only a few cranks, and the mechanism inside couldn't be fixed. Most of them were returned for a full refund, but the remainders soon became collectibles. I'm not sure any of them really play any more: it's possible this horrible sound has been recreated just to scare the bejeezus out of us on an otherwise peaceful Sunday.

Do I have to post any more creepy doll pictures? Please. I really need to lie down now.

It's the Harold Lloyd doll!

Oh, I never should've gone there! Never!

Every instinct of decency in my body told me not to go there. And I went there. Am I out of my mind?

I am under enchantment, there's no other explanation. Walking through the waxy, pollen-scented underworld of Marina Bychkova and her ball-jointed porcelain dolls, haunted by the memory of Victorian post-mortem photography displaying dead people propped up with staring eyes: it all got to me, I guess, and then I remembered a little black-and-white photo of "something".

Something from my scanty but cherished collection of Harold Lloyd books.

This. This thing, this strange thing. Free Harold Lloyd Dolls While They Last from the Piggly Wiggly. What the fxxx is the Piggly Wiggly??

The fact that you can still buy one of these things from antique doll sites is more than creepy. They average $175.00 and strike me as, well, probably knock-offs, or the cloth would be all brown and greasy like cloth goes when it's turned rotten.

Or loved to death.

The doll looks too fat to be Harold, who was pretty lean and toned from all those stunts, and I can't figure out why his feet are turned backwards.

Okay, next comes the Harold Lloyd paper doll, and I have even more trouble believing this is authentic. When I was a girl you didn't punch out paper dolls (don't take that the wrong way), but cut carefully around them with scissors. It was a tricky business because the paper was so flimsy, and vital parts were often lopped off. But I wonder how such a fragile artifact could ever be so well-preserved. Perhaps he was printed on card stock, making him nice and stiff?

Whatever. I really like the upside-down Harold: he did, after all, hang off the hands of a huge clock in his best-known movie Safey Last!, and was often upside-down in one way or another.

I should apologize for this, but I'm in so deep now I must continue. This thing puts Marina Bychkova's fair lilies of the funeral parlour to shame. It's a hideous object, something that I presume has a big key in its back, and I have to admit at one point during my research I wanted to buy one. It's something like a thousand dollars, but when I discovered it doesn't walk (a Harold toy that doesn't WALK??), I gave up on it. What it does, if it's working at all, is wag its head back and forth, probably with an awful grinding noise. I think its eyes crank open and shut, and the big seam above its upper lip implies that its mouth also moves. In light of the fact that he was in silent movies, this doesn't make much sense.

I'm beginning to feel a little sick. This is a Harold Lloyd bell. That's right. A bell. It rang, probably like an alarm clock.  I think there must have been a Harold Lloyd clock somewhere, maybe with a tiny bespectacled man hanging off the hands. But this is just so useless. Why would anyone want a Harold bell?

Old toys creep me out, sort of like those bisque dolls with sunken eyes and cracked, mottled skin. The sarcophagus look. Tin things kind of shrink up and warp and look tarnished, and the paint flakes off. But the representation of Harold is hideous to begin with, like a nightmare. The back view of the bell looks sort of like an upside-down kamikaze angel made of lead.

Excuse me, I'm going to go lie down for a while. 

Embalmed beauty: the dolls of Marina Bychkova

Oh great, now I have a new obsession! These dolls really are fetish objects and are very, very strange. Beautiful, but disturbing.

They are created by a young Russian-Canadian artist who lives right here in Vancouver, Marina Bychkova. Her eerily-beautiful Enchanted Dolls are celebrated and avidly collected all over the world.

Dolls are supposed to be the province of little girls, playthings that are somehow expected to imbue them with the desire for conventional social roles (wife, mother, virgin-whore). If Bychkova's dolls are playthings, then Barbie is a stick of dynamite.


These dolls have some highly unusual features. I doubt if I can name them all.

(a) they all have childlike, barely-pubescent bodies and look both virginal and somehow spoiled or besmirched; 

(b) many have tears swimming in their eyes, melancholy expressions and pouty lips;

(c) most, if not all, express a theme of captivity, i.e. heavily-costumed royal figures, concubines and erotic slaves, some even displayed under glass bell jars (and at least one has bound feet, which I have written about in a couple of other posts);

(d) many are meant to be displayed nude, and all the joints show, very creepily, as if they are mechanical (which they are!), contrasting with their “lifelike” faces;

(e) in spite of their waxy-looking marionette-like bodies, the poses are eerily natural due to the extreme flexibility of the ball-jointed limbs;

(f) they all have visible genitalia, which you just don’t expect on an adolescent-girl doll (and which has led to some ludicrous examples of censorship, such as pulling the dolls from store window displays);

(g) the fingernails look bitten-down or broken-off, as if the doll has been scratching and clawing to get away from something;

(h) many of the costumes/contexts are from darker versions of ancient stories and Grimm’s fairy tales;

(i) paradoxically, there’s something modern, stylish and haute-couture about them which contrasts with their ancient roots;

(j) the dolls remind me very strongly of the Victorian post-mortem photography I explored in a previous post;

(k) the dolls call forth a welter of responses, as in: awe; admiration; disgust; horror; feeling creeped-out; curiosity; obsession; sexual fixation; maternal response (i.e. wanting to take care of wounded little girls); anger (i.e. these dolls all seem to have been sexually trespassed); confusion (not knowing why you feel all these things, not being able to find a context for them); feeling disoriented, as if lost in the woods (no other way to describe it); suffocation; astonishment (when realizing the artist is only in her 20s, and that the dolls can sell for $40,000.00); and on and on it goes.  So looking at these things (and they are, after all, “things”), you really don’t know how to feel.

That kind of response usually means we're in the presence of real art, whose purpose is not to please us so much as to throw us off-balance. They seem to “make a statement”, and that can seem tedious after you’ve seen the fiftieth face with pouty lips and brimming eyes. Then you see some of the costumes and you want to fall over.

It seems impossible. NO one could have created anything this sumptuous and elaborate. It seems like a throwback to some past century, when women spent the entire day embroidering and sewing on minuscule glass beads.

This dollmaker whose creations seem to exude so much subversive feminism seems to spend the majority of her time doing traditional women's work. The paradoxes never end.

My own response to the dolls has been confusing. Whatever she is trying to accomplish, she must be doing it if she can command prices like that, where she would only need to sell a few per year to keep going. Also, how can she have produced so many? Seems like it must be in the hundreds. All different, but somehow, creepily, all the same, with identical bodies unless customized with elaborate tattoos (or pubic hair, or even "bites and wounds": no, I'm not making this up, it's on her web site,

Also, if these "things" are made of porcelain, how can their faces be intricately molded like that? I don’t know. I thought porcelain was like china. They are “fired”, according to an article I found. There is almost nothing on her web site, and that too adds to the mystique: just how does she produce these things?

There is a book coming out, but it’s limited edition and $75.00, so I won’t be getting one any time soon. Meantime, I think of this as a rather unhealthy obsession (but maybe useful in getting me away from Harold. Oh my God, what if I had a Harold Lloyd doll?! I would be busy all day. Come to think of it, his Glass Character, with its white face and stylized clothing, is doll-like in many ways.)

Strangely enough, I had quite a few pictures of Bychkova's dolls filed away in my Favorites section, maybe for a year or two, and didn’t feel much curiosity about them until now. So I’m opening a treasure-trove, or unleashing a floodgate, or however you want to express it. And one that has been there all the time. What a bizarre phenomenon, such a strange art! It reminds me, for some reason, of people who used to paint beautiful faces on corpses so they would look "lifelike" during the funeral. Embalmed beauty. (p.s. do I have a favorite? Yes, I do. Imperial Concubine. Not sure why; she is both tearful and regal, and her costume is to die for.)


Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book
    It took me years to write, will you take a look