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April 6, 2014 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts | [ssba]

How Green Was My Uncanny Valley

Somewhere in New York, there is a mirror. Attached to the mirror is a metal pole, and attached to the pole, at the stomach, is a woman. She is slim, with long blonde hair and dark markings around her limbs. She wears a pink dress, white knee-high boots and a scaly, hooknosed mask.

She dances. Pretty well, given her limitations. It’s in the sway of her legs; her long, writhing fingers. She sings along to whatever happens to be playing: sometimes Robin Thicke, sometimes Paul Simon. Her skin is plastic, her veins are wires, and she was made by Jordan Wolfson, with the help of Spectral Motion, an animatronics studio, for his debut show at David Zwirner Gallery.

In 1970, Masahiro Mori proposed the theory of the ‘uncanny valley’. The hypothesis holds that as representations of the human form begin to more closely resemble reality, viewers, generally, feel more empathetic towards them; but, there’s a point at which the artificial strays too close to human likeness – beings look almost, but not quite, alive, and the viewer is repulsed. Think Tom Hanks in The Polar Express, or Ron Mueck’s giant hyperrealistic sculptures.

There are several theories as to why this is. It could be that our brains are wired to treat anomalies in human form as potentially harmful, and we are inclined to avoid them. It could be an innate fear of death, triggered both by seeing our own form improved, and by confronting signs of decay. When our own shortcomings are meticulously copied and expanded, every imperfection submits itself to scrutiny. A video of Wolfson’s opening appeared online two weeks ago; as the woman dances, she is accompanied by the hum of her motors, her joints seem to strain as she bends. She fulfils every notion of what a perfect body should look like, and yet at any moment, she seems on the edge of rupture.

She unnerves because she is almost exactly what you think she is. The uncanny valley operates through dissonance, a simultaneous familiarity and foreignness. She is every male fantasy manifest, in possession of everything we’ve been trained to see as erotic, bar an essential meekness. Motion sensors in the back of her head can detect when a viewer is close; when you gaze at her, she stares right back. She dances only for herself. She’s not cognizant of what she’s doing or why she’s doing it, but indulge me (what is this page if not a sustained exercise in giving me the benefit of the doubt): if she were, the viewer would be complicit in the work as an intruder.

Beyond its immediate shock, Wolfson’s work asks the viewer to consider their relationship to the sculptural object. How to consider a work when art, unlike humanoid robotics, is not judged through a framework of formal and functional verisimilitude. Francis Upritchard’s figures pose a similar dilemma. They dance and sway, and like Wolfson’s figures, they don’t rely on the viewer’s empathy – their eyes are closed, expressions impossible to read. They repel, almost intentionally. In The Dowse right now, there is a metal bracket; attached to the bracket, at the back of the neck, is one of Upritchard’s figures – almost a bust but not quite. The figure looks upwards, in anguish or rejoice, and it denies.

In Bowen Galleries this week, Sam Duckor-Jones’ figures stand almost, but not quite, in dialogue with Upritchard’s. The figures are long and slim and angular, modelled from the ground up. Where Upritchard works in motion, Duckor-Jones’ strength is in his stillness. You may have seen some of them on the third floor of Victoria’s library, in black enamel, perched on flowerbeds, lost in their books. Ostensibly, what delineates Duckor-Jones from Upritchard and Wolfson is their offering. In Duckor-Jones’ work, arms are often outstretched, bodies in an open position, but this offering is not contingent on what you take.


Wolfson’s revulsion relies not just on his figure’s simultaneous closeness and distance from us; he speaks in the language of the erotic, and he anticipates grief in his eschewing of expectation. The erotic object relies on a removal of subjectivity to fulfil its role; in the figure’s unrelenting stare, the viewer is forced to reposition themselves against the sculpture. The feeling of unease is created by a forced acknowledgement that the viewer may not be in control of the experience. Upritchard’s figures, with their contortions and sealed eyes, operate with a similar seizure, but they do so flippantly. Rather than realigning control, they release it, offering no clear reading as to why they dance. Duckor-Jones, whose visual language is much more tender, employs the familiar to upset. His figures seem cerebral, but evasive, moving towards personal histories, the deep loneliness of adolescence, but never quite meeting the viewer where they expect. Within the uncanny valley is a space to question what we long to see when our form is reflected back at us, and why.



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