Dolled Up

Bosworth makes reference to an obscure phrase

When I first heard the title of Michael Bosworth's photo/audio installation at Big Orbit Gallery, "The Dutch Wives," what sprang to mind was an image of a compact woman sweeping a charming Delft walled courtyard - one of those serene domestic figures like you'd see in a painting by the 17th century Dutch artist Pieter de Hooch.

Bosworth's "The Dutch Wives" refers to something more arcane, however - arcane to me, anyway. I had never heard the term "Dutch wives" as applied by the Japanese to hyper-real silicone female dolls wildly popular in Japan as expensive substitutes for real, living, breathing wives. The term, the artist informs us, likely came from an open frame constructed of cane that Dutch sailors once used as a cooling device that would hold up the limbs from sticky bed sheets in humid weather. How the Japanese came to use it as a generic name for their silicone cuties is something of a mystery.

Armed with this bit of knowledge, it's not surprising to find that Bosworth's installation refers to sex through surrogates in the form of numerous small, floating images of tiny, rather stubby dolls back-projected on three fabric globes that float like huge, delicately translucent clouds within the darkened gallery space.

The inflated globes themselves - pale and gently buoyant and giving to the touch - imply vague bodily sensations. The bodily reference also continues in a fabric "cave" nearby. The cave's undulating, silky walls, kept aloft by a fan placed in front, make a pleasant, womblike enclosure. An uninflected female voice from a floor-mounted speaker at the rear of the cave recites changing texts altered from the show's Web site. (Predictably, the comments ranged from "Go Sabres!" to calculated nonsense to sophomoric faux-poetry that groans on about the ripping tragedy that is life.) As I write this, the text begins with "If I didn't love you, if I didn't care, then why does my head spin this way?" (from the 1940s group the Inkspots).

On the walls of the cave are projections of in-time shots of gallery activity taken by two infrared video cameras stationed in the gallery. These fleeting and broken images are simultaneously fed to the exhibition's Web site

None of the sensuousness of the silky fabric carries over into the images of the dolls. Bosworth is reviving the old surrealist fascination with the doll and mannequin as a place to explore forbidden erotic urges. But here, instead of releasing discomforting, perverse sexual energy, Bosworth presents his dolls as completely synthetic. Naked or clothed, these stiff little figures are awkward surrogates for the human body and hardly erotic. They stage sex scenes or vague violent confrontations, but it's all pretty mechanical.

As a whole, the installation is nothing if not ambitious. At the opening a couple weeks back, the frenzy of sights and sounds was complicated by on-site interactive elements and online text modifications made possible through a computer stationed in one area of the gallery. Noise from the crowd on the gallery's porch/bar was piped inside to strategically placed speakers that made the sound appear as though suspended in the ceiling rafters. (This cacophony of voices was recorded for post-opening visitors.)

All of this hectic on-site/online activity, while great fun, tended to dilute the visual/audio impact of the installation. Bosworth has set up a forceful tension between the 9-foot-high globes and their floating images, and the enclosing space of the cave with its Web-fed messages issuing from its interior. At the opening at least, the cacophonous crowd noise disrupted this essential link between cave and globes. The cave wall projections added an interesting technical wrinkle but, to me, they also distracted from the whole.

This is the danger of technology: Artists figure if it's there, why not use it? In "The Dutch Wives," Bosworth successfully mimics the endless inwardness of the Web. But the installation is first and foremost a physical construction set in a specific environment. It is in the here and now of real space - in the interaction of form, image and sound within real time - that Bosworth offers the most engaging and thought-provoking experience.•

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