kirsty boyle :: robotics artist

mechalust exhibition catalogue essay

Dolls In Space

Kirsty Boyle’s Girltron prints tend to elicit ambivalent feelings from the viewer, ranging between apprehension and wonder. These odd conjunctions of doll parts and mechanical toys are strangely provocative. Shot against a stark white studio background, Boyle’s hybrid figures appear to float in space, as if emerging from the ether.

These works are seemingly high and low tech at once, evoking nostalgia for childhood toys and reminding us of our often sadistic treatment of them. Boyle takes the little girls’ practice of beheading dolls to a new level, teaming them with transformer-style parts, to create a new species.

The ‘feminine’ doll heads have been manipulated to look aerodynamic, with messy hair and occasionally gaudy makeup, giving them individual characters. The Aboriginal doll head on a wooden kangaroo-like body with electronic parts showing, represents a distinctly local twist to the ensemble. Similarly, the South Asian mask endows another figure with an exotic appearance, which adds diversity to the robot line-up.

While these faces tend to ‘soften’ our response to machines which would otherwise be angular and forbidding, they can also give rise to feelings of confusion. The chubby baby face mounted on mechanical legs and the doll head atop a moon buggy may prompt a sense of unease because they dispense with the traditional human form altogether. Perhaps more than the others, these two images are most emblematic of the Girltron project’s ambition to chart new terrain.

Given that technological exploration is usually aligned with men, Boyle’s reconfiguration of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ toys offers an implicit critique of gender stereotypes, providing intriguing disjunctions in their place. Delivering new life to long-forgotten doll parts, these figures subtly affirm the place of girls and women in the realm of electronics, where they are usually invisible.

Amongst robotics experts, there is an ongoing conversation about how robots should look. Questions are repeatedly raised about whether they should be lifelike or cartoonish in appearance. As studies have shown, robots that are too lifelike can appear threatening to us, due to their ‘uncanny’ resemblance. Overall we seem more able to accept cute, harmless-looking characters which pose no threat to our sense of self. In its simplicity, the Girltron series offers a playful commentary on these debates and raises issues about our relationships with machines in an accessible and humorous way. Here the artist shows us a unique way of seeing robots: as playthings, companions and objects of startling beauty.

-B.L. Magner