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  • Body SurrogatesMannequins, Life-Size Dolls, and Avatars
  • Francesco Spampinato (bio)

One of the tropes of these early years of the twenty-first century is that of the avatar, a virtual representation of a human being used for entertainment, educational, technical, or scientific purposes. The avatar is a product of digital culture, but its origins are coeval with those of the human being and its evolution is affected by material conditions and the level of technology currently achieved by a given society. The origin of the word “avatar” has a spiritual connotation: It was associated with Hinduism and used to describe a deity who took a terrestrial form. More generally, however, whether in terms of religion or computing, we could define the avatar as a surrogate, a body—real or virtual—that replaces another.

The origins of the avatar in Western societies date back to the modern era, which was founded on mechanical technology and marked by the birth of urban culture. At that time, between the nineteenth and early twentieth century, a typical surrogate for the human body was the mannequin. Mannequins were displayed in shopping windows, bearers of fashion trends and styles. They later became a symbol of conformity that reached a peak under totalitarian governments, embodying those values of efficiency that put the human body on the same level as machines, both the machine of industrial production and the war machine.

As a substitute, the mannequin in society played a purely functional role, taking the place of the human body in activities that the human being, out of dignity or resistance, wouldn’t perform. These included mannequins used for commercial purposes as well as those later used for testing in the automotive industry and military engineering. Other mannequins, meanwhile, had a completely different fate: They became the subject of photographs and paintings, employed as cultural artifacts, fetishes or symbols of a mass culture that artists were either fascinated by or wanted to criticize. [End Page 1]

Two recent exhibitions have been devoted to the history of mannequins in art history: Silent Partners: Artists & Mannequin from Function to Fetish at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (October 2014–January 2015) and Mannequin d’Artiste, Mannequin Fetiche at Musée Bourdelle, Paris (April–July 2015). While they focused mainly on lay figures—those mannequins used by artists to study proportions and composition—from the Renaissance to the modern era, with few incursions into the contemporary, my focus explores a more articulated series of correspondences between visual culture and the arts, organized around several main areas of interest—metaphysical art, fashion, the fetish, surrealism, commodity culture, postmodernism, abjection, post-humanism, and digital culture—spanning the modern until today.

Substantial psychoanalytical thought is associated with mannequins and dolls, particularly as framed by the lens of fetishism. The idea of the fetish, indeed, represents a guiding thread through the survey here. “Puppets, mannequins, waxworks, automatons, dolls, painted scenery, plaster casts, dummies, secret clockworks, mimesis, and illusion: all form a part of the fetishist’s magic and artful universe,” wrote French psychoanalyst Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel. “Lying between life and death, animated and mechanic, hybrid creatures and creatures to which hubris gave birth, they all may be liked to fetishes. And, as fetishes, they give us, for a while, the feeling that a world not ruled by our common laws does exist, a marvelous and uncanny world.”1

While the general category defined by Chasseguet-Smirgel incorporates marionettes and puppets, I am considering only on mannequins, life-size dolls, and avatars—lifeless anthropometric surrogates of the human body. They are unlike dolls, marionettes, and puppets—also lifeless, but smaller and roughly controlled through wires or software. Mannequins, life-size dolls, and avatars are uncanny doubles, meant for a function that human beings would or could hardly perform, human bodies turned into objects or images, available to be exposed, exploited, or abused.

The matter of scale was crucial in selecting the artworks, objects, and artifacts to be discussed, as it was crucial for the artist Mike Kelley when he curated a seminal exhibition that addressed similar issues: Uncanny (1993) at Gemeentemuseum for Sonsbeek ’93 in Arnhem, the Netherlands, restaged in 2004 at Tate Liverpool and Museum Moderner...


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