Fairytale Ambitions at Hackney Gallery considers what it means to live alongside the residual forms of girlhood, to witness points of slippage between its lived experience, mythologies, and commodification. While Francis Bacon identified the uncanny dimension of corporeality as a “situation of meat”, works by London-based artists Issey Kang and Giulia Ley present a “situation of silicone”, incorporating inanimate objects to describe the strangeness of our virtual-natural present.
In 2006, a game called Boneless Girl began circulating on the era’s many flash game servers. The proposition was simple: set against a neutral backdrop, the player could drag the body of a bikini-clad woman through an endlessly spawning map of orbs, contorting her ragdoll limbs into all manner of impossible angles. Boneless Girl was and is fascinating: digitised eroticism and misogynistic violence playing out in a netherworld dimension of perpetual freefall. (There was pointedly no Boneless Boy, although I do recall a Boneless George Bush, this being the mid-2000s and all.) More than anything, Boneless Girl was an introduction to submission: deprived of any self-determination, the Boneless Girl was the repository of wholly external forces — specifically the sadistic whims of bored preteen boys and girls. Yet with not a bra hook undone nor any suggestion of injury, Boneless Girl was also uncannily resilient. Like the plastic composite she appeared to be made from, she could not be destroyed in any meaningful capacity.
I was reminded of Boneless Girl while viewing the works at Fairytale Ambitions, which recently ran at the Hackney Gallery. Drawing upon memories of flash art and other childhood ephemera, works by Issey Kang and Giulia Ley reflected on the construction of girlhood as a series of fluid, culturally embedded archetypes. In their (in)famous tract Preliminary Materials For a Theory of the Young-Girl by Marxist journal Tiqqun, the writers constructed the titular Young-Girl as capitalism’s ultimate form of merchandise; a model citizen in how she serves as an intermediary for mechanisms of power. As writer Sybilla Griffin argues in the exhibition catalogue, the Young-Girl “can be read as the allegorical outline of a subject produced entirely by capital-driven biopolitics and defined by their associated visual regimes.” In short, the girl, be she Young, Online, or indeed, Boneless, is adamantine and endlessly adaptable.
Curated by Lydia Eliza Trail, the works featured in Fairytale Ambitions explore how these contradictory qualities gain revived semiotic nous when extracted from the “digital junkspace” of the Internet. In Kang’s Flash Game Girl #3, a pencil drawing of the face of a Dollz Mania-style figure wears an expression of petrified flatness. With multiple flash game girl works collated in numerical order, the Girl, Kang suggests, is infinitely fungible and systematised, as symbolically replicable as numbers on a spreadsheet. One wishes to delve inside the paper and grasp at the human that we cannot be sure resides behind the waxy mask. Elsewhere, Kang’s She always knew what was in and what was in was always horrifically cute presents a paper stiletto shoe adorned with an array of garish stickers. The work is no less dissociative than Flash Game Girl #3, yet the viewer response is reversed: one wishes to flatten the work with a large book or anvil, returning it to its rightful place in a two-dimensional plane.
While Kang’s work speaks to the materiality of girlhood iconography, Ley’s work is more closely engaged with the realm of fantasy. The Vitruvian-proportioned, dramatically illuminated bodies of her photograph New England assume a significance that feels almost Biblical, Edenic; it took me a good ten minutes to realise the figures were, in fact, Barbie and Ken dolls. Dolls, simultaneously emblematic of a universal girlhood and the absurdity of universalising the female experience, recur as totems in Ley’s photographic works. In Kitty Scherbatsky, its title appropriated from a character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the doll is less a person than a “situation of silicone”, a malleable amalgamation of the idioms of girlhood. Set against shifting scenographies, she is distanced, impervious, never ascending to the realm of character. Character would denote intention; in this plasticised context, Ley argues, there is only talismanic function.
To say something is the stuff of fairytales is, in some sense, to denigrate it, lessen its importance, consign it to the realm of make-believe. Revealing the profound semiotic power and unsettling truths embedded within these digital and material representations of girlhood, the strength of Fairytale Ambitions is to challenge these deceptively whimsical forms and unnaturally polished assemblages. Exploring the themes of the exhibition is the catalogue companion. In researching this review I went back to check in on Boneless Girl and there she was, still falling, not a blonde lock of hair out of place.
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