Myfanwy MacLeod: Dorothy
Like a person explaining a joke, the person describing a work of art seeks to bring posthumous life to something meant to perform in real time. This similarity is amplified in writing about Myfawnwy MacLeod’s artwork, because it is often funny. But why would anybody put themselves in the unenviable position of having to explain a joke… or an artwork? One reason might be that said person has suddenly found themselves implicated in the process of degradation on which the joke or artwork turns. This is the situation that Dorothy puts us in.
Between rumour mill and promotional material, Dorothy’s backstory was delivered to me long before I set foot in Satellite Gallery, where MacLeod’s exhibition was installed. In 1980 a woman named Dorothy Stratten became Playboy Playmate of the year after having been “discovered” by her future husband and manager Paul Snider while working at a Dairy Queen on East Hastings Street, in Vancouver. After moving to Los Angeles with Snider, Stratten began a relationship with the filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, and was subsequently murdered by her former partner.
Entering Satellite Gallery’s windowless space, I was met by several framed photographs of origami sculptures. Some photos showed the entire object. Others focused on specific combinations of plane, angle and shape. Several sculptures of the same variety sat atop Caucasian flesh-toned plinths in the centre of the room. Both the photographed and the presented objects had been constructed from the centrefold pages on which Stratten’s image once appeared. Geometric fragments of bronze, powdered skin and wavy blonde locks are complimented here and there by a sliver of glistening red lip or blue iris – stand-ins for the bright colours and patterns typical of origami. Often, the image had been so rigorously folded that Stratten disappeared, leaving bits of blurry backgrounds, or cascades of soapy water. Although each work was individually titled (The Fishbowl, Lover’s Knot…) they were so similar to one another that their behaviour as a unit was prioritized.
Having been made from pull-out centrefolds, these objects seemed less like origamis than oversized and clumsy imitations thereof, implicated in a network of rhyme and metaphor. First, there was the rhyming between the quintessentially lowbrow form of a magazine centrefold, and the physical folds of origami (with its attachments of cultural refinement); and then the relationship between Stratten’s body (soft, sensory, curvaceous, fetishized) and the plinths and frames (Caucasian flesh tone, hard, angular, objective, also fetishized). This was how the world of Dorothy made absurd, poetic chatter as its human visitors moved about it, making their own.
If the body of Dorothy Stratten were itself bent into all of the acute folds within folds of these origami shapes, there would hardly be a bone within it left intact. Here, the violence of Stratten’s murder was brought to bear on the images that indirectly begat it. In executing this idea via the seductive form of origami (rather than simply presenting a crumpled and torn photo) MacLeod pulled a second level fetish back into the proverbial fold; that which many of us have (admittedly or not) for glossy, rigorously composed documentary replays of this kind of horror.
What are viewers to do when faced with the parallels between Stratten’s story, and the violence visited upon so many women who work in a sex industry centred in the same neighbourhood where she was discovered? Because MacLeod delivered her subject with a nimble, clever touch, the story’s sadness was pushed behind a screen of imminent experience. Still, the penny inevitably dropped. When my wandering male gaze found the word DOROTHY writ large in silver vinyl on the gallery’s wall, I was put in mind of a more wholesome heroin of the same name, whose famous phrase “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” perfectly paralleled the feeling of having found myself tripping into a deeply unsettling mise-en-scène.
In Dorothy, trajectories of remembrance moved at multiple angles towards a common subject: the deceased, whom we cannot remember but whose family and friends surely do. Our memory of Dorothy has been implanted through the story we’ve been told, and the typified Playboy model. With this in mind, I went to Google images in search of a more mundane Dorothy Stratten. Amidst a digital mosaic of sultry poses, two images stood out: a dioramic scene depicting a gruesome bedroom murder, captioned with the words “what kind of a man reads Playboy?” and Dorothy‘s promotional image, wherein Stratten gazes through a squarely cropped image, her face criss-crossed by the leftover filaments of an unfolded crease – like a spider web, or the lines drawn between stars in order to map constellations. There has just been another addition to the matrix of images that now constitutes the public residue of a human life.
Mitch Speed is an artist and writer based in Vancouver. He edits a publication called Setup.