by Sarah Bay Gachot

How nice that an artwork with the power to push buttons, has an actual button you can push in return. The mechanism that illuminates Elena Dorfman’s light boxes, titled The Origin of the New World, is a small blue LED-ringed button embedded into the side of each box. When turned off, the boxes are properly beautiful objects. A dark mirror reflects a dimmed, lowering world within a gold frame, simple yet highly glossed. They are physically engaging, things you look into to see yourself; admirable in their production and proportions.

The push button on the side is a tiny, Kubrick-esque, HAL-like thing. This interactive part of the artwork, in its silence, invites a deeply complex narrative about the limits of curiosity. You choose to press it, you illuminate this box, and your image in the mirror becomes that of a crotch — a very famous crotch, one that you will likely recognize, or at least have heard of. But something is off. First of all, this image illuminated behind the mirror is a photograph, and the famous crotch, a most intimate view of a woman’s sex, is a painting — L’Origine du Monde — painted in 1866 by Gustave Courbet. Secondly, this crotch has a barely perceptible seam that leads down its thigh, and has staples within netting beneath the pubic hair. It is clear that this is not a photograph of a human, as Courbet’s painting depicts a flesh and blood woman, but that this is an image of a silicone sex doll.

Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde spent much of its first hundred years virtually lost. Many had heard of the infamous painting, but its provenance was at first difficult to trace. As shrouded in mystery as the painting was, so too was it often literally shrouded to the eye. The Turkish diplomat who commissioned L’Origine kept it veiled under green satin. A subsequent owner discovered it hidden behind another painting of a Swiss castle. Another owner, the actress Sylvia Bataille Lacan, asked her brother-in-law, André Masson, to create a sliding panel to cover it, onto which he depicted a surrealist line drawing. Now, Dorfman has obscured her Origin photographs using a one-way mirror. You press the button and you literally turn on the crotch of a love doll. Funny, because these dolls are built specifically to turn on the humans who purchase them. It’s no surprise that production is well underway on dolls that will “think,” that will fall in love with, mentally match, and sexually stimulate their human partners. But as the dolls, in effect, become more real, what they will not do is procreate. Their world prizes simulation, not biological-life force.

Courbet’s realism, his steadfast intent to paint “the beauty of that which is ordinarily termed ‘ugly,’” was controversial in an age of waning neoclassical and romantic painting. The Origin of the New World may not scandalize as Courbet’s realism did in the 19th century, but it will provoke. Dorfman, in her homage to L’Origine, is a realist questioning a new kind of romance and ideal that removes the problem of flesh and its attached humanity — and chance. When you press that glowing blue button you will see a portrait of indulgence, of an inanimate lover on the verge of “intelligent” but controllable animation. These dolls promise to complete the libido in need of attention.

Sex-based subject matter is subversive, but will it always be so? Ultimately, explicit pornography is tired and repetitive despite being effective — it is abused within a stereotype that breeds permission to threaten and grab, and most of all, underestimate. This new world that Dorfman alludes to is a highly customizable world, one in which you may surround yourself with technology that will “read” you and give you what you want. But will this new world omit what is generative in a world of chance? A new world is not new without diversity and accidental discovery. Try to think back to that person in the mirror. What was the origin of you?