“Often, he runs his hands over the work, tempted as to whether it is flesh or ivory, not admitting it to be ivory. he kisses it and thinks his kisses are returned; and speaks to it; and holds it, and imagines that his fingers press into the limbs, and is afraid lest bruises appear from the pressure. Now he addresses it with compliments, now brings it gifts that please girls, shells and polished pebbles, little birds, and many-coloured flowers, lilies and tinted beads, and the Heliades’s amber tears, that drip from the trees. He dresses the body, also, in clothing; places rings on the fingers; places a long necklace round its neck; pearls hang from the ears, and cinctures round the breasts. All are fitting: but it appears no less lovely, naked. He arranges the statue on a bed on which cloths dyed with Tyrian murex are spread, and calls it his bedfellow, and rests its neck against soft down, as if it could feel.”
– Ovid, Metamorphoses Book X, Orpheus sings: Pygmalion and the statue
From Pygmalion to Austin Powers, the mythology of the living doll sexbot has existed in the cultural imaginary throughout history. As technology advances toward commercially viable gynoids, the straddled line between the real and the virtual is thwarted, and at times, equivocal. When presented with his sex doll courtesy of RealDoll™ CEO Matt McMullan, Howard Stern was alarmed at how authentic her tongue felt as he proceeded to stick his finger in her mouth. Stern was more in awe of the doll’s aesthetic authenticity than the woman who was part of an earlier prank. While she had the human body movement down pat, she seemed barely conscious as she spoke in baby talk, to which Stern asked, “Do you always talk like this?”
What is more human, the doll or the human? For Stern, it’s all about “the feels.” According to the Real Doll website via Howard Stern News: The Harmony AI system will allow a human partner to select from a menu of personality traits, including kind, sexual, shy, and brainy. From there, users can adjust the levels on each trail to perfectly program the Realdoll to their personal ideal.
One quickly thinks of Ava from Ex Machina, who was programmed based on Caleb’s online pornography searches, a character that Art Forum writer Sarah Nicole Prickett deemed “patently uninteresting.” However, the sexbot as blank slate need not always be the case.
Stacy Leigh‘s avatars in NERVES, her current exhibition of paintings at Fortnight Institute, lack the ballerina-esque, nordic perfection of Ava. Their acrylic flesh is translucent, uneven and veiny, rendered with tanlines, pubic hairs, curvaceous bumps, freckles and sagging breasts–signifying flesh more than silicone. Their enlarged eyes are bleary and bloodshot, beaming at us with expressions of anguish, fatigue, melancholy and nonchalance. Some bear the markers of a spanking, a faint pink handprint on the buttocks, while another appears to have her fist covered in shit, holding a finger to her plush painted lips, childlike and perverse.
Leigh is the sculptor giving her emo ladies the kiss of life, unto which there is an awareness of artifice at stake. Her oeuvre is not so much aiming for verisimilitude so much as “virtualisitude,” a faithfulness to virtualness and a mastery of fakery–all simulated skin and animated features. These figures are tantalizing in their hyperbolic unfuckability. Unlike a “real doll,” all you can do is gaze upon them and fetishize these voluptuous bodies on an aesthetic level, hearkening to that old Baudrillard chestnut: “Seduction is always more singular and sublime than sex and it commands the higher price.” No matter how submissive they appear to be, each figure is an object of admiration and observation, not penetration. They are a tease, asking more of our imagination than of our instant gratification: Where has she been? What kind of sadistic games has she been playing with her lover?
Leigh has a background in painting, photography and set design. Photographing sex dolls is another part of her practice that clearly feeds into her painterly representations. Perhaps her experience as a former stockbroker in the corporate, hypermasculine Wall Street world has made her empathetic to the plights of men who want sex with an idyllic body without a mind attached to it. Yet the pleasure of the avatar and of the sex doll is not exclusively for lonely men, since the artist herself is enamored with this plasticized world of kink.
Scrolling through her Instagram feed, Leigh constructs stylized, behind-the-scenes snapshots from the equally stylized mise-en-scenes of her photoshoots–some life-sized, others in Barbie-doll scale miniature. These photoshoots are artfully tacky. Whether the dolls are taking five slouched against a wall or assuming a ready for anything pose, the dolls are alarmingly alive in appearance, to a point where you almost cannot tell the difference until you see evidence of a hinged knee or a stiff arm. Uncanny valley indeed.
“I think that there is something that happens when you see a hyper realistic, life size doll,” Leigh explains on her website,“…It’s uncomfortable. You might feel repulsed and empathetic at the same time. But I think once you put aside the fact that they are sex toys, you tend to feel an odd human connection. Maybe for some it’s just too creepy… I don’t know. But I do know that with technology taking over, there are people who are very lonely. And that empathy we eventually feel for an object that so closely resembles humanity, can easily transform into a relationship.”
To argue her avatars and sexbots are transgressive seems a little too lazy an argument to make. They do not so much challenge or disrupt the status quo of mainstream pornography as diversify what we can objectify–a glorification of embodiment that is flawed yet all the more fetishized. Perhaps Leigh is also pointing to a human hubris in the assumption that our personalities, idiosyncrasies and mood swings are too complex to be simulated.
While we might be a long ways away from achieving artificial general intelligence, we are alarmingly close to achieving the appearance of a lifelike, pulsating being with a facade of emotions that mirror our own. It is difficult to decide whether to be hostile or welcoming to such advancements, because it hinders our ego, mocking our sense of what it is to be and feel human through mimicry.
Leigh’s work suggests it is much too early to say whether artificial creations will forever lack an ability to deceive us by simulating human traits. Nevertheless, I would like to imagine Leigh’s playthings are like the mannequins from Mannequin, emerging out of their canvases, coming to life when the lights go out at night. They gossip, drink hard liquor, fist one another, orgasm and puff on cigarettes, forming a blanket of smoke across the room.