When Cindy Sherman made ‘Doll Clothes’ (1975), the near two-and-a half minute silent film that helps frame Stills Gallery’s show of the iconic American photographer’s early work, it provided a playful insight into her plundering of the dressing up box to try on different identities for size. It also set out the store for her Untitled (Murder Mystery People), (1976) series before her first success with Untitled Film Stills (1978-1980), both shown here either in part or full.
Barely into her twenties when she made ‘Doll Clothes’, and still a student, Sherman’s Super 8 stop-motion animated vignette casts the artist as the sort of cut-out paper doll found in the fashion sections of a particular type of young women’s magazines. Here, the usually cartoonified cut-out doll effectively becomes a clothes hanger, on which assorted similarly cut-out outfits and accessories could be tried on, mixed and matched in all kinds of sartorial splendour.
So it is with ‘Doll Clothes’, as Sherman’s underwear-clad paper-doll comes to life and escapes her cellophane wrapper to flick through the outfits contained next to her. After choosing one, the doll is picked up by full-size human hands and put back in her wrapper once more, with the ornate lid of the box that houses it closed as firmly as that of a ventriloquist’s dummy or some treasured but neglected childhood keep-sake.
Sherman didn’t open the box again for 29 years, when, in 2004, she showed ‘Doll Clothes’ for the first time alongside other unseen early work. Fashions may have changed in the meantime, but it’s worth noting that Sherman’s film appears in both Stills’ show as well as Cut and Paste, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s major overview of collage-based work, which also forms part of the 2019 Edinburgh Art Festival. This in itself suggests Sherman is a living collage, jumping between scenes of her own invention like some camouflaged chameleon in permanent disguise.
It’s there in the 17 photographs that make up Untitled (Murder Mystery People), in which Sherman takes on the mantle of assorted Runyonesque grotesques, each caught striking a pose as accessories after the fact, en route to True Crime style tabloid immortality. The rogues’ gallery of guys and dolls lined up include a drunken wife, a jealous husband, a dashing leading man, the inevitable Hollywood director and three different shots of a movie starlet known only as The Actress, all blonde-wigged gazes into the camera and who-me? innocence.
There’s a delicious knowingness to all this that sees Sherman vamp it up even as she disappears into each role. This is especially the case with the assorted would-be matinee idol males she inhabits. There’s an exaggerated sense of their ridiculous machismo, with Sherman at points all but twirling assorted stuck-on moustaches.
Again, as with ‘Doll Clothes’, Sherman kept Untitled (Murder Mystery People) under wraps for a couple of decades before coming clean, and it would have been interesting to see these alongside Sherman’s Bus Riders series. Dating from the same period and similarly kept out of view, these too were eventually revealed to the world as some latter-day movie queen’s early test shots might have been.
As it is, we get a glimpse of what was effectively Sherman’s break-out roll. In the four images from Untitled Film Stills (there are more than 70 in all), Sherman is hiding in plain sight, like assorted Hitchcock heroines seen through a long lens darkly in pseudo verite style. There she is in regulation shades and tightly belted raincoat walking down the street. And there she is again as someone else, standing in the corridor outside an apartment front door, waiting for some possibly illicit liaison, or else just the next scene.
Sherman’s understanding of both the various archetypes women were cast as in the movies of the 1950s and sixties as well as the generic styles from noir to nouvelle vague, are observed with an accuracy only a consummate film geek could muster. This is no pastiche, however. Rather, each image possesses a near documentary monochrome mystery that wordlessly awaits its own soundtrack. In this sense, Sherman’s pictures capture the moments in between the shock-horror narrative. It’s up to us amateur pulp fiction private eyes to guess what happens next.
Like Sherman in ‘Doll Clothes’, you can see the contents of Hanna Tuulikki’s self-created wardrobe in ‘Deer Dancer’, her new commission for Edinburgh Printmakers, in which she explores the pack mentality of the male psyche that runs from the wildlife depicted onscreen all the way to stag-do paggas today. Tuulikki’s outfits here are more formal costumes than those in Sherman’s closet, and are designed to represent the five stag archetypes Tuulikki transforms herself into for the twin-screen film at the centre of the exhibition.
With the sounds of the rhythmic chorale that gives the film its soundtrack permeating through the curtains of the room where it is shown on a loop, these ornate disembodied creations made by Tuulikki with Lydia Honeybone hang like the trophies of some historical re-enactment group. There’s a gold sequinned jacket for the Monarch, brass chest armour and antler spears for the Warrior, and so on, each elaborately accessorised with hunting horns, toy guns and codpiece. This is super-hero cos-play for the sort of men who like to hang tough with their tribe, however daft they might look.
Tuulikki’s interpretations of all this on film comes from an anthropological study of dances which have evolved out of deer behaviour. The ‘Abbots Bromley Horn Dance’ in Staffordshire, the ‘Yaqui Deer Dance’ from the indigenous Mexican Yaqui tribe, and wedding ceilidh favourite the ‘Highland Fling’ all feed into the assorted shapes Tuulikki throws on the two screens that face each other from either end of the room.
In each, we see Monarch, Warrior, Young Buck, Fool and Old Sage gradually square up to each other, with Tuulikki putting on the trappings of each beast off the leash as they prepare to carve up both the landscape and each other.
Outside, the movements of each of Tuulikki’s creations are mapped out in a series of visual scores that hang on the gallery wall. The trails of tiny gold hooves on each recall the sort of teach-yourself guides for the foxtrot, tango and other essential steps required by ballroom chancers to strut and rut their stuff on the dancefloor.
Not that Tuulikki attempts to update things in the way choreographer Matthew Bourne did with his nightclub-set crash-and-burn narrative take on ‘Highland Fling’. Choreographed with Will Dickie and Peter McMaster, her take is more more delicately realised and steeped in ancient myth.
While Tuulikki’s portrayal of all of her creations points up the differences between them in the man’s world they occupy, one longs to see Deer Dancer performed live. Tuulikki has previously done this with works including ‘Women of the Hill’ (2015) and the Gaelic song based air faibh na h-eoin – ‘Away with the Birds’ (2010-2015).
Having developed Deer Dancer in part with Edinburgh-based theatre company, Magnetic North, one hopes a live rendering will put even more muscle and guts on things. ‘Deer Dancer’ isn’t so much smashing the patriarchy, as illustrates its proponents tearing chunks out of themselves in some sort of vainglorious bid for immortality, only to end up self-harming themselves to death.
You can imagine Julie Cope having grown up reading the sort of magazines Sherman emulated in ‘Doll Clothes’. Such is the detail of Grayson Perry’s biography for his Essex girl everywoman that accompanies the four monumental tapestries in Julie Cope’s Grand Tour, a glorious piece of 21st century mythology that charts an era of working class life with quietly heroic intent.
Growing up with few expectations in Britain’s unreconstructed 1960s and 1970s, Julie is ‘a pale, beaded, Henna-tressed shopping mall Madonna’as Perry has it in the lengthy ballad that accompanies the tapestries. This is rendered both in ornate visual reproductions as if on tablets of stone, and in Perry’s own recorded recital that runs on a loop throughout the show. The ballad is peppered throughout with deliciously evocative phrases like this, the words knee-deep in nods to the era’s pop cultural ephemera to illustrate the sheer everyday ordinariness of Julie’s story.
The tapestries reflect this in their depictions of the incident and colour that map out Julie’s life, from marriage to a local trade unionist when ‘No dreams were crushed/children were kind of had’, to what used to be called ‘bettering herself’à la Pygmalion or Educating Rita by way of a form of social mobility that probably doesn’t exist anymore.
With further incidents captured in cartoon-like prints, Perry has created the equivalent of the three-minute kitchen-sink epic sung by the sort of fly-by-night girl groups practicing routines for their local coffee bars and social clubs. Julie Cope’s Grand Tour is too a Play for Today, in which Julie could quite conceivably be played by the late Carol White of Cathy Come Home and Poor Cow fame, albeit without the high drama of both.
Like both films, Perry has nevertheless created something that captures a community in flux, giving Essex back its dignity robbed by the poverty porn of The Only Way is Essexand the resultant bad press that followed. Perry is a social historian on a par with Jeremy Deller here, honouring those too often written off as lumpen proles. With this in mind, just as one longs to see Tuulikki’s work live, Perry’s four tapestries should be carried high through the streets of Essex as they reclaim their neighbourhood’s own alternative history.
The community aspects go further, with Julie Cope’s Grand Tour forming part of A House for Essex, a living art project in which Perry built a real house which isn’t just a monument to Julie, but to an entire way of life that she represents. This is seen in the short films that accompany the show, and which document Perry’s various travails with builders, designers and tile-makers involved in the project. There are also the inevitable assorted protestors and cynics who eventually come on board in a way that Julie herself might have done.
The sheer detail of the tiles themselves is a wonder, with Julie depicted as a kind of goddess. As the films illustrate, they were so complicated to make that each nipple on every individual tile had to be put on by hand.
With the right to have a home of your own, let alone a room, under threat, the fact that Perry built Julie Cope’s house as a living archive in such a time is crucial. It brings to mind the imagination capturing Granby Four Streets (2013-), the Turner Prize winning project by arts collective Assemble, who breathed fresh life into four derelict terraced houses in the one-time run-down Liverpool 8 area, flying in the face of property developers’ penchant for ripping the once throbbing hearts out of cities in the name of progress.
Like Granby Four Streets, Perry’s construction of a thoroughly modern woman who reinvented herself beyond her station is a thing of inclusive beauty that brings Julie home to roost, a heroine of our time.
Neil Cooper is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh.