Valley of the dolls: Susan Low-Beer’s uncanny portraits

Recently we saw Susan Low-Beer’s newest work in an exhibition titled About Face at David Kaye gallery. Twenty-six heads mounted to cylindrical bases or spools and displayed on shelves lining three of the gallery’s walls were the central focus of the show. All of the heads were created using the same mold, into which Low-Beer pressed an array of texturally varied clay pieces in order to produce the range of dispositions on display. The artist called them emotional portraits.

The work exerts incredible tension on the viewer, as the difficulty in looking at what initially appear to be wounded, sliced, gouged, scarred, diseased, and/or decomposing decapitated heads is counterbalanced by the paradoxically serene expressions on most of their faces, as well as the artist’s deft application of textures and colours to each piece, inviting close scrutiny and discovery.

Not quite human, the heads retain just enough of the childlike quality of the original mold to give them a vulnerable, doll-like presence. But these seem descended from the likes of Hans Bellmer rather than Madame Alexander (far less in terms of sexual themes than in their viscerally mutated physical qualities, however). Indeed, several would even appear to cross into cyborg territory, embodying hybrid beings that are both biological and artificial.

And perhaps it is here in which the essence of this viewer’s conflict lies: cyborgs, corpses, zombies, even certain puppets all occupy a zone of human response within which emotional unease, fear, or revulsion arise in the face of something that is almost, but not quite, human. This hypothesized zone, termed the uncanny valley by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori (and most well-known as an explanation for audience aversion to certain CGI films such as The Polar Express), encompasses many of the deep-seated questions we all have pertaining to fears of slippage and loss of identity, physical deformity, spiritual uncertainty, and our own inevitable death. In populating this territory, Low-Beer’s heads elicit powerful responses that verge on shock and wonder, if not quite recognition.

A week before the exhibition closing, nine poets and writers assembled in the gallery to read poems and prose they had written in response to the work. The event was organized by Kelley Aitken and included Grant Carmichael, Beth Follett, Margaret Hollingsworth, Maureen Hynes, Sue MacLeod, Jim Nason, Ruth Roach Pierson, and Sheila Stewart. Those twenty-six mute heads gave the poets much to work with, and their words were in wonderful abundance that evening. Each gave unique and memorable form to his or her highly personal response; below, excerpts from four of the poems, courtesy the authors.

from About Face, by Beth Follett

Swimmers in a white room, crypt—quiet water,
secret, still. Nobody breathes without nostrils.
Here is dark, confusion. By the bright, orderly
arrangement of these heads, the
atmospheric lighting, do not be fooled.

Cynical, broken, clownish, hurt, with circles
encircled, with orifices closed, skulls cracked,
re-assembled, re-membered, they are
neither male nor female, and decidedly
not children.

These unchild faces charge me
with claustrophobia. I want to run.

Cracked, we were never, without speaking,
without breathing, they cry never, we were never

from Heads, by Ruth Roach Pierson

some scalps are stenciled with henna
designs, tattooed by cartographers
blue-printed by architectural
draftsmen      every head bearing

the traces, the surface scars
or knuckle-deep gouges
of family inheritance—
the financial pages

from his father’s Wall Street Journal
wall-paper one son’s face, yards of twine
are wound around a second scion’s head,
running-shoe laces,  tied-end-to-end, a third’s

a former student of mine insists
we’d recognize our beheaded bodies
for as long as forty seconds, time enough
to know we were dead unlike these

stoically alive
and surprisingly young
to be thus tabernacled
to such relentless witness      their eyes

whether cock-eyed or cornea-scratched,
whether eyelashless, lidless or pupil and iris-
less, whether clouded over with the milky
film of glaucoma               every pair

focused on the eye of its inner

from Fractals, by Margaret Hollingsworth

My first viewing’s from above. Massed on the artist’s bench,
Their necks replaced by collars and industrial spools, they signal
heinous acts – I think of the severed heads of traitors
spiked on Tower Bridge, vanished, spirited away,
leaving no trace of DNA. But these heads felt no torture,
Experienced no whiff of pain or death.
Decapitation was accomplished not with a sword or axe,
But with the sharp wire potters use to sever clay from clay.

Careful mouths are zipped, but, wordy woman, I crave speech.
I try to find my own vocabulary stamped on every missing
Throat.  Approaching the grouping from behind, hoping to surprise,
I stumble on a river meadow I once knew, mud-cracked, tufty,
meadow flowers hung with small life, and then I find pods
of milkweed, seminal, half open, cracked and spilling seed,
Feel the persistence of Monarch butterflies about to feed
See myself mute and standing ankle deep in grass.

Dodging round the front I see a slab crowded with heads of wounded
dolls – I’m in the Dolls’ Hospital, my childhood haunt in days when
dolls had china heads that broke and needed expert care,
their eyes wantonly put out, their noses chipped, lip paint kissed off
they spent their days in fear of the doll’s cemetery,
each one was different, each the same, each begged to be reclaimed.
I cried their homelessness, wanted to comfort, want comfort,
Cry my own abandonment,

I leave the hospital, approach the grouping once again, this time
They turn into larger canvasses, singing we are here and we belong,
Made by one hand, a mob, I see the thousand thousand souls who wept
False tears for Kim Jong Il, the writhing snake of Tamil protestors who
Stopped the traffic on the 401, the faceless Royal wedding crowd awash
In cheer, the bobbing Syrian sea, inured to the likelihood
Of being drained, I see a single pulsing entity identical and shouting
Difference, unborn, un-dead, made up and making up all of humanity.

from Questions for and from the heads, by Maureen Hynes

But first I want to know what your eyes saw when you emerged from your plaster molds, what name was embroidered on each of your hard white pillows.
Do you speak among yourselves at night in one ceramic language?
What do your heads contain and why do you frighten me?
O little ones, what sports most attract you? What herbs and fruits, jewels, birds? What tastes – ginger or chocolate or linden flower tea?
What dwellings do you favour? Nests or treehouses or mansions?

See all twenty-six heads plus additional views and work from the exhibition as well as past work by
Susan Low-Beer on David Kaye gallery’s website

Read more about Beth Follett in this interview from 12 or 20 Questions
Read more about Ruth Roach Pierson in this interview from Open Book Toronto
Read more about Margaret Hollingsworth plus see notes and excerpts of her work on her website
Read more about Maureen Hynes in this interview from Open Book Toronto

images: Susan Low-Beer, About Face, exhibition views in David Kaye gallery, all photos by Shani K Parsons
full disclosure: Susan Low-Beer is on the board of TYPOLOGY Projects

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