[ The first two parts of this essay can be found here and here. Some images and detailed description of this final section have been omitted pending permission from the individual to whom it refers. ]
“To my way of thinking, knowing an object does not mean copying it–it means acting upon it. It means constructing systems of transformations that correspond, more or less adequately, to reality….Knowledge, then, is a system of transformations that become progressively adequate.” (Piaget qtd. in Turkle 38)
The format of paper dolls links the entire project to the concept of playing. The parallel between creating art and playing is, as Ellen Dissanayake observes, well-established. As she and others point out, “the ‘metaphorical’ nature of both art and play, the make-believe aspect where something is, in reality, something else, was the salient core feature [of both]” (44). Playing dress up with ourselves and dolls was a valid path of self-definition and identity experimentation as children.
What if adults do it too?
Playing is described in terms of freedom from care, but great care is taken in the experience by its participants. What we describe as playing has a timeless quality akin to mindfulness. We know it is paradoxically important but unpretentious, and it is often impossible to recount precisely what transpired. In her defense of playing, Dissanayake contends that:
…the presence in human societies all over the world of valued avenues and occasions for fantasy, make-believe, and imagination suggests that far from being mechanisms of escape and regression, or immature and trivial exhibitions of frivolity, as current received wisdom proposes, they can be positive and integrative activities. (86)
Playing is an intense business.
This parallel between play and art initiated the second doll collection. An integral part of the process is the difficulty of describing fantasies such that a second party can depict them. As difficult as it is to see oneself, it is similarly challenging to see and paint another as they wish to be seen.
There is a fundamental difference between this paper doll collection and my own. My base figures exhibit various degrees of exposure but are uniformly brutal in their self-assessment and replication of flaws such as body fat and short stature. Similarly, the poses either squirm under or defy the implied gaze. Consequently, I assumed that depicting a friend involves providing the dignity of clothing. His request for less clothing to accompany a playful pose highlighted our different paradigms. I reluctantly submitted my figure to replication because it needed to be done, whereas he reveled in the attention because it was fun.
Fig. 10. Ladies and pirates (failure). Paper doll costumes. Watercolor on paper. 11 x 15 in. April 2014.
My initial instincts also led me astray when designing his costumes (Fig. 10). A request for tall eighteenth-century boots and a sword led my mind straight to “The Pirates of Penzance”, but that does not mean that a hairy-chested Pirate King costume (however glorious) fits the bill. Even his relatively straightforward appeal for a Marie Antoinette costume required clarification. Her elaborate court fashion is itself a commentary on over-the-top self-decoration. It also invites an exploration into the eroticism and oddity of support structures to temporarily reconfigure one’s body. Freed from the constraints of sewing skills or material expenses, the concept begs as many layers of absurdity, meaning, and recursion as possible.
Fig. 11. 18th c. underwear and accessories for the French court. Paper doll costumes. Watercolor on paper. 11 x 15 in. May 2014.
Although barely begun, this largely lighthearted collection of costumes already suggests the collaborative nature of paper dolls. As the artist I must avoid simply imposing a narrative on the figures. This project and his theatrical performances lend a degree of reality to fantasy.
“Originality is not the urge to be different from others, to produce the brand new; it is to grasp (in the etymological sense) the original, the roots of both ourselves and things.” (William Morrow qtd. in Schwartz 247)
Checking assumptions and rolling with others’ self-descriptions can be tricky. The importance of humbly listening and accepting correction is not limited to describing drag inspirations or queer theory. It arises whenever we act as sounding boards for friends who by speaking aloud seek their own truth (and often utter absurdities in the process). Juggling multiple paradigms and deferring quick categorization is uncomfortable, but it is the only way to break free from our own limited points of view. Even if transcendence eludes us, we can at least hope to expand our horizons.
[ 4] Regency menswear was the correct answer.