Is she even a she? Anatomy of a Doll at the Royal Academy of Arts

romana khan 2 by Romana Khan – Assurance, Audit, EY UK&I

The life room in the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) is a relic of art education, where life drawing was essential. This now houses the Anatomy of a Doll installation by Cathie Pilkington, where in every corner lives a new face. In the room where a life model would have gotten changed sits a doll shrouded with a blanket, lest anyone walk in unannounced.

Doll 1
Cathie Pilkington, Image courtesy of © Graham Chalifour, Royal Academy of Arts

Far from the preened waxworks at Madame Tussauds, we are invited into the world of the incomplete, unfinished dolls. And in this way far more intimate and voyeuristic – we are seeing the dolls vulnerable and insecure. They aren’t ready for the world yet, and unware of our scrutinising glares. In the picture below, we can see how hard she is trying to pass off as a real girl, wondering if she has her pose right, or if she is elegant enough, the same way any of us may question how we look in the mirror, asking if we are enough, before we allow ourselves to be seen.

Yet sat upon the benches Turner once did, Pilkington reminded us that the incomplete dolls are just that…incomplete dolls. ‘She’s not telling a narrative, she’s not even a she…she’s an object’.

She has purposely used different materials to put these dolls together emphasising that they have been built and are being built. Whilst these works are left in progress, this transitional state gives us a closer view of the artist, the construction of art and the structural process. It’s this in between stage- the making stage that reminds you these dolls aren’t sentient and are reduced to the very materials holding them together in a bricolage effect.

Pilkington’s fascination with dolls is that they sit in the mid-ground between subject and object. You can see them pretending to be people yet are reminded that they are built to serve a purpose. They are never fully narrative, they can never be romantic- they are grounded in their assembled parts. There is no purity of language or technique, she has not carved them from a single block of clay but an amalgamation of materials put together as she desires.

Doll 2

And yet, even the incompleteness is honed and perfected, with purposely placed piles of limbs in each crevice as though you are in someone’s studio. When asked how she knew when to stop she replied – ‘you just know’.

Doll 3
Cathie Pilkington, Image courtesy of © Graham Chalifour, Royal Academy of Arts

Although the work is left unfinished to break any illusion these dolls are human, they are created just like we are. Made up of so many different things, never quite complete, and yet works of art in our own way.

Anatomy of a Doll was on display at RA from 1 – 14 April. Access to RA exhibitions is free for EY people as part of its coporate membership with the gallery.