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Stills Gallery offers a quiet space to actually spend some time with unfashionably regular, small-scaled photographs. In this case, it provided Marion Marrison an intimate venue for meditating on debased feminine stereotypes—without the work simply recalling 1980s-style feminist job-lots. You may remember the genre. If you don't, picture a series of hard-won theoretical moves on visual pleasure and female desire, lavish photo-media projects and dramatic reversals in reputation for neo-conceptual artists like Sarah Charlesworth, Sylvia Kolbowski and Barbara Kruger—here for one year's Biennale, gone in the next.
I must admit, however, that when I walked in the door and looked around, I felt a perverse nostalgia for those serious visual encounters of a conceptual and political kind. These cibachromes looked level-headed, but not as hermetic as the New York-London haut feminist photomedia work of ten years ago. Moreover Marrison's tableaux lacked that glamour element that I for one associate with feminist photo-media. Her plastic fetishes, masks and dollies have the look of suburban sex-shop stocktake sales—a far cry from the up-market world of London-based Lacanian discussion groups. Instead, these meticulously photographed petit objets, framed with schoolgirl neatness, look depressingly local, as a friend later put it—stuff that wouldn't even rate a mention at a cultural studies conference.
Perhaps Marrison was simply playing tricks with feminist memory, I thought. Yet as I looked, the work's suburban surreality prompted memories of an earlier time, another place. Marrison grew up in Hobart. Her irreducibly daggy icons of feminine investment have a pathos that many provincial girls would immediately recognise. Forget international feminist theory; these cibachromes work better as a visual accompaniment to Bob Hudson's old Newcastle song, 'girls in our town'. These girls, bad and good—it doesn't matter now—named as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Doll, Hope, Charity, Mrs Levis and so on have a certain down-home, Sunday School resonance. Who does not remember being fixated on Mrs Levis's beehive? She was your English or domestic science teacher. Then again, perhaps she was a childless neighbour, or even your friend's mother, so much more glamorous than your own.
It is odd that apart from the odd artwork or essay by Maria Kozic and Vivienne Shark Le Witt, Mrs Levis' backcombing, tightly held in place with cans of VO5, missed out on the neo-pop post modern recall of the early Art & Text years. In the current climate of wicked faux-naif regression, Marrison's homegirls seem in good company, at least on a superficial level. For instance Friends of Coyote Dick and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Doll share the cellophane wrapping, blonde hair and blue eyeshadow of Kozic's current Mattel range, shown in Perspecta 1995 under the generic title, I, Woman (and individuated as Tiffany, Brooke, Taylor, Babet, Melody and Fallon). Both artists give their living dolls a touch of horror by way of an uncanny, Toys R' Us animation. As Merryn Gates has pointed out, Kozic's dollies paradoxically look more lifelike, perhaps even 'expressive' through the careful replication of lipstick and rouge mis-registrations associated with cheap mass production. Marrison in contrast has digitally inserted her own eyes and mouth into her doll-substitute with the skill of a plastic surgeon. The resultant creepiness of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Doll doesn't detract from the fact that, in my opinion, Marrison has actually improved on Barbie's looks—an intriguing twist to that old Western fascination with automata.
When you think on it, we have seen a party of 'livin' dolls' around lately. They range from the blak dollies in Destiny Deacon's fabulous fables & Julie Gough's curiosity cabinets, to the "blood and clutter aesthetic" of Linda Dement's all-too-expressive Cyberflesh Girlmonster, the VNS Sluts and other good-time Anglo Cyborgs, not to mention Jane Eisemann's Duchampian/Bellmeresque sexual teases, wilfully evoking the obscene to play with imagined scenarios of molestation, suffocation and/or childbirth. Like the personae and artworks of women surrealists before them, some of this work challenges conventional psychoanalytic links between feminine sexuality and exhibitionism and/or hysteria and suggests more unfamiliar challenging possibilities of female fetishism.
Marrison's dolls and masks share the history of these sexual indignities and provocations. But unlike the visceral range of current Baad Girl! merchandise, her pantheon of pretties are dead-pan specimens. We are given no background setting or narrative, text, talk and laughter, or any of those raucous elements associated with today's high profile feminist enfantes terribles. They conjure memories of girlhood, not in order to literalise the urge to play, as the evil brats do. The 'inner child' in these images works powerfully on the memory, rather than indicating some uncensored force erupting from the body. But as U.S. writer Cheryl Dunye recently puzzled, what does being a bad girl mean anyway? "Is it being sexually explicit in one's work or being transgressive and political in one's work?"1 Marrison returns to her home town not simply to raise hell but to remember why she left.
1. Cheryl Dunye, 'Possessed', in Bad Girls (curators Marcia Tucker and Marcia Tanner), exhibition catalogue, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1994, p.109