Return to the valley of the dolls
I was in Wellington, my first time back since I left in April, and I was furiously catching up on things. I got the bus out to the Hutt and visited the Dowse Art Museum.
It was choice, but as I left the gallery, I spied something much more intriguing across the square. Over at the Horticultural Hall, a banner advertised a show of the Wellington Porcelain Dollmakers Club. A doll show!
I’ve always wanted to go to a doll show, that secret world of ladies and fake babies, so I excitedly went inside. The lady at the door looked at me like she knew I was an outsider, a person without dolls. But my money was still good. She took my $5 and I entered the world of dolls.
I was expecting one specific thing – uncanny valley baby dolls. The show did not let me down. There’d been a competition so the best baby dolls of the region were on display. Some looked impressively real, though with an eerie stillness; others looked a bit odd. I mean, if an infant doll looks more like the Dowager Countess of Grantham, something hasn’t quite gone right.
There were also people selling old dolls, the sort of dreadlocked orphans that normally languish in the 50c bin of an op shop. But unlike the op shop dolls, these ones won’t end up part of an art student’s subversive recontexualising of women’s roles in society. The doll show is an irony-free zone. Dolls are just dolls and if one has chipped face paint, you skilfully repaint it. If the hair is matted, you replaced it with silken locks.
But there was a strangely gothic feeling to it all. I came to realise this when found an actual goth doll, “Rose Red: a gothic ballerina”. Somehow this dramatic pale-skinned, eyeliner-wearing young lady seemed more ordinary and lively than the corpse-like baby dolls.
This is a subculture that specialises in taking arms and legs and scalps and eyeballs and putting them all together to make a baby, a girl or a woman. It’s way more goth than anything a black-clad suburban teen could come up with for their art portfolio.
Back in the city, I stopped by Deluxe cafe. Deluxe is a cute little cafe that has been around since the late ’80s. It hasn’t changed much and is oddly starting to feel like a ’90s theme cafe.
As I sat with my lunch, I realised that a Nick Cave CD was playing (I googled it – it was the 1998 best-of.) And I sat there thinking that in the ’90s, this would have been a very cool experience. Sitting in a cafe, listening to Nick Cave, drinking spirulina smoothies or mochaccinos, feeling cool.
But things are different now. I’ve been to the doll show. I’ve seen the dark side. I’ve seen the scalps, the arms, the torsos. I have seen the baby with scraggly orange fluffy hair pulled into two pigtails, in an attempt to make the hair look cute and not like a Scotsman’s pubes.
Maybe the goth pop of Nick Cave has to exist to have something that’s obviously dark and alternative. Something that exists so that the ladies painting eyeballs in their spare rooms don’t feel like weirdos. Something that makes a lady in her 30s sitting in a coffee bar feel edgy and cool.