Essay: Mesh

by Roberta McGrath on 24 May 2012

Academic and writer Roberta McGrath draws on her expertise in visual representation to unpick Liberty Ross and Polly Borland’s dark film.

Academic and writer Roberta McGrath draws on her expertise in visual representation to unpick Liberty Ross and Polly Borland’s dark film.

Dollywood opens with a still, a close-up of a mouth. The lips are parted, the lipstick is smudged and I recognise this as the staple of a particular type of film. Slightly to the left of the mouth is an arrow pointing into it. I press it to enter.

But there is something odd here. This is Pretty Polly put to another use. Forget the silk stockings, the gentle eroticism of binding wrists or ankles, or the tightening of a slipknot around a slender throat. This is pair of tights pulled over a head. It is more Jo Spence’s Cultural Sniper meets Sarah Lucas’ Stuffed Tights on a Concrete Plinth.

Still from 'Dollywood' a fashion film by Liberty Ross and Polly Borland (2012)

In the first few seconds of the film the plot, and the denier, thickens. A head melts and blurs; stretches and multiplies. I think I glimpse an aperture but of what I am unsure. Suddenly the screen turns to black and I panic. What’s gone wrong? Why isn’t there anything to look at? I am faced with a void. My look has been cut-off. Then after a few seconds the screen flashes into life again. I’m confused. A voice whispers ‘it’s gorgeous, it’s fantastic, it’s …..’. But this is at odds with the anamorphic distortions that are neither. And the head is in something thicker, more surgical stocking than Pretty Polly and there are frightening seams with stitching so heavily overlocked there is no doubt I’m trapped in a tight space; it’s suffocating. We’re not talking 10 denier here. And then I get it. What is sharp about this film is that I am doing all the panicking. In a kind of hilarious version of invasion of the body snatchers they’ve pulled me in too close; I can’t be a voyeur; the distance isn’t right. And on the other side, the exhibitionism is wonky too. It’s as if I’m stuck in there with both of them and it is strangely uncomfortable. In fact I’m literally cornered, one minute on the floor, the next trapped behind bubbled glass and the lighting is wrong – far too bright to be menacing. Everything’s distorted; the figure is inside-out, upside down - this includes the title of the film – and it’s back to front. And then there’s a terrible scream – and it’s terrible because it’s too quiet – more like a miserable little whelp yelp, the sound is trapped too and now the figure is jumping up and down like an inverted jack-in-the-box enveloped in a single tight leg. This is now not funny. And I am kicking myself because I should have known better. I’m thinking of Borland’s books Babies, Bunny and Smudge – all of them sound so innocent but they are not, and neither is this. Flesh meets mesh. Holly, Dolly, Polly. Where’s Liberty? The name seems ironic. Neither blow-up plastic doll nor soft toy, I can’t always tell what’s flesh and what’s mesh. I am stupidly relieved when I see a bare back, a leg, a hand, a knee, in the flesh. Please let this body out, but now the severed head is back in profile and there’s a tumescent tongue poking out and in, out and in and the noise it makes is the soupy, gloopy, sucky sound. I think I hear the words ‘look at me’. When I see Liberty’s face at the end, and she does look up, I think, inappropriately, 'Thank Fuck'.

The close-up of the ‘flawless’ perfect face or the phallic body is where fetishism and fashion meet.

So on reflection this is the darker side of fashion and fetishism but with a weird playfulness that makes it all the more disturbing. In the eighties feminist theories of image – moving and still – began to shift focus. The gaze moved downwards away from the fetishised body to address what lies below, down there. (There’s a terrible and funny bit in the film where an awful hole appears and stuffing comes out of the mouth and crotch - and there’s an odd protuberance here that makes the sex of the body unclear. It’s a shaky moment, risky, frank and funny at the same time – a kind of poke at fetishism as it comes undone).

The close-up of the ‘flawless’ perfect face or the phallic body is where fetishism and fashion meet. Tight clothing, high heels, belts - or lacing, rubber, leather, masks; the thrust of a breast or a curve of a back, I could go on - deal with anxiety and comfort the spectator by providing an object where the cracks have been smoothed over. The image is seamless, beautiful and reassuringly complete. Women are meant to be perfect. They need to be made-up.

But it’s the obverse in this film. The terrifying hair-shot, the hideous ‘flesh pink’ outfits, rather than cool black leather or latex, the weird nodes, the parody of make-up: blood-red crude circles for the lips and vulva coupled with a terrifying sky blue for eyes (Fanny Craddock comes to mind) are badly drawn. The eyes are unseeing solid splodges, the mouth - and vulva – empty zeros, holes to be stuffed - only here it’s all come apart. The make-up has come off and the stuffing’s come out. (The nodes on the face, along with startled eyes and permanently open mouth, remind the spectator of the full cheeks of inflatable dolls that manage to look as if they already have cocks in their mouths). The body on show here is both real skin and artificial mesh, male and female, human and inhuman and it is light years away from the perfection of high fashion fetishism.

The truth is that aestheticised beauty taken at face-value and the horror of the lumpen inflatable doll are constructed upon the same territory: an unstable and excessive, multiplying female body that is hard to contain. Here is both Polly’s Dolly and Dolly’s Polly. Liberty only emerges at the end.



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