PUTTING HERSELFIE IN THE PICTURE
'The Substitute' by Dawn Woolley
Université Paris Est Créteil / IMAGER, Paris, France
Dawn Woolley, The Substitute (Holiday Majorca), 2007, C-type print mounted on aluminium, 1m x 1m.
Courtesy of the artist.
In this photograph by Dawn Woolley, the man handling ‘the substitute’, a life-size cut-out of a woman in her swimsuit, stands out as a modern Coppelius who may have designed this laser print paper doll to satisfy his own desires. The long and slim body of the ‘substitute’ is like the perfect figure of models in glossy magazines and adverts. As the man is engaging in foreplay with the uncanny two-dimensional reproduction of a female body, Dawn Woolley’s photograph foregrounds both the objectification of women and the collective fascination of our contemporary societies with idealized Photoshopped bodies.
The man in this picture lives in the fantasy world of Instagram-filter creatures instead of engaging in real-life intercourse, for this has been replaced by ‘Visual Pleasure’ –which is the title of Dawn Woolley’s book including the ‘Substitute’ series and a reference to Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay about the ‘male gaze’. In E.T.A Hoffman’s tale The Sandman, where Coppelius is the creator of the lifelike doll Olimpia, visual pleasure is associated with the anxiety of losing one’s eyes, a recurrent nightmare of the main male character Nathanael. Freud noted in his comments about the tale that this fear could be interpreted as castration anxiety. Similarly here, the figure of the man staring at his paper doll epitomizes a very masculine sense of omnipotence. Thus, through a network of visual tropes and evocations, Dawn Woolley’s image pinpoints the articulation between the male gaze and the proliferation of perfect female body images in contemporary visual culture.
It first came as a surprise to discover that this very image had been awarded the first prize of the Selfie competition organized by the Saatchi gallery of London in 2017. Not that there was any doubt on the artistic quality of the image; but because, at first glance, the photograph seemed to be far removed from the traditional mirror shots produced in the millions by mobile phone users. Yet, claiming ‘The Substitute’ as a selfie, with the photographer putting herself in the picture through a surrogate paper doll, was indeed a powerful way to amplify the visual tropes already in the photograph: first, by reminding us that the photographic alter-egos usually exhibited as ‘selfies’ are but carefully crafted frauds, telling very little about our real selves and bodies, and as deceptive as Olimpia for her admirers in Hoffman’s tale. Second, and more importantly, Dawn Woolley’s picture spotlights the new combination induced by selfies, between the male gaze and a new female gaze, whereby the subject is alienated into commodifying her own body to conform to aesthetic standards of social networks and into performing a form of visual self-surveillance.