Uncanny companions – encounters with disgust.

 ‘All dolls are claiming our regard as fully human subjects’

Jane Taylor, Handspring Puppet Company, 2009.


Puppets and dolls inhabit the realm of the uncanny – and within this realm there exist all manner of complicated emotions including disgust. I have frequently experienced disgust towards mass-produced dolls. I was a child who although drawn to puppets, was deeply dissatisfied with dolls. Puppets seemed to invite creative interaction while dolls seemed closed and prescriptive somehow – their imaginative potential circumscribed by their literal and highly manufactured benevolence. I felt bullied to perceive them in a particular way, which left little space for my own communion with them.

“The doll exists on the threshold of ego-identity, where the subject and object are undifferentiated and merge in an erotic fusion.”

[The dolls] very unresponsiveness [though]…leads to a continuous effort on the part of the child to invent an imaginary world and to hallucinate satisfaction…”

(Simms, Eva-Maria, Uncanny Dolls: Images of Death in Rilke and Freud. New Literary History – Volume 27, Number 4, Autumn 1996.)

Dolls by American outsider artist Morton Bartlett : www.artnet.com/Magazine/features/saltz/saltz6-28-00.asp


Some personal recollections …

Coles Bay 1976

At age six, I befriend a random child while playing on a beach – she takes me back to the caravan where her family are staying to show me her ‘special doll’. It is a baby doll that eats and defecates. The girl mashes Arnott’s biscuits in water and spoon-feeds the baby, it’s plastic face frozen in a rictus of perpetual hunger. A few minutes later she removes the doll’s nappy to show me the little turd that the doll has produced. A pulp of biscuit clad in a synthetic membrane exits a plastic orifice. It fills me with horror.

The girl changes the doll, fussing and cooing and disposing of the dolls ‘waste’. I sense her role-play as a burden too adult for an 8-year-old.

The very nature of the dolls realism betrays the invitation for imaginative play. There is nothing to imagine, no playfulness or possibility for the improbable – just servitude to an anatomically accurate simulacrum that demands the duty of feeding and toileting.

I can’t feign enthusiasm – my newfound friendship only lasts only one afternoon.

 Rosary gardens Nursing Home 2002

I am painting a mural in a nursing home. In the activities room there is an elderly woman with dementia with a baby doll on her lap. She is whimpering and panting with distress as the doll slides from her grasp. Passing nurses’ reinstate the doll to her lap, commenting: “isn’t your baby beautiful!”

Again and again, the doll makes its inexorable slide towards the floor while the distressed patient mouths wordlessly for help.

Doll play – bookends to a lifetime. As a child the doll is an object of emotional rehearsal, a preparation for future relationships – the puppetry of future obligations.

 “The simplest exchange of love far exceeded our understanding” and so, we as children practice our existence and our loving with a doll.”


Perhaps for the person at the end of life, given a doll as ‘diversional therapy’ the doll play becomes a diversion from the inevitability of death and an attempt to salvage something lost; maternal affection, responsibility, empathy, love – to puppeteer memory and identity back into the patient who has lost these capacities.

 ‘What then, when the possibility for connection and the imagination cease to perpetuate themselves and “the fabric of the child’s [adults] world tears apart and she suddenly recognises through the web of fiction she is faced [with] a lifeless body?”

 Eva-Maria Simms, Uncanny Dolls: Images of Death in Rilke and Freud.


Having said all this I must say that I perceive the distinction between puppet/doll, puppeteering/doll-play to be a highly permeable one. Both the making of, and playing with these objects arise from the anthropomorphic instinct that enables empathy and imaginative engagement and makes us prone to respond to images that resemble the human form. Playing in childhood and in adulthood are forms of ritual and communion between objects and the creative impulse. Play is the private theatre of transformations.

I love this passage about puppets (and think it equally applies to dolls) from Kenneth Gross’s essay, The Madness of Puppets;

Along with being a theatre of transformations, puppet theatre is a theatre of miniatures…Puppets are the size of things small enough to be left behind, liable to hide under beds, behind walls or under stairs…Puppets are the size of fetishes, relics, voodoo dolls, and talismans.

The puppet is the size of pebbles placed on the graves of the dead, even the size of the dead themselves, as we imagine them shrunken in their graves.

I think Gross keys into something essential about the disquieting nature puppets/dolls as of replicas in a miniaturized, constructed world. It is the gazing into a distorted reflection, the aspects of ourselves we long to examine, yet turn away from, that rivets our attention. It is these qualities that give rise to the sense of the ‘uncanny’ – and upon occasion to ambivalence and disgust.

There is something in the puppet that ties its dramatic life more to the shapes of dreams and fantasy, the poetry of the unconscious, than to any realistic drama of human life. That is part of its uncanniness: that for all its concreteness, the puppet’s motions and shapes have the look of things we often turn away from, put off, or bury.

Kenneth Gross


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