“It must be kept in mind that works of art are alive, have a life sui generis…they have life because they speak in ways nature and man cannot.” –T.W. Adorno
About two months ago I was summoned, if you will, when my facilitator, LW, bought a photograph that she thought evoked the spirit of me, her library. (See my earliest posts.) However, I’ve been around, laying low among LW’s books, since our Little Golden Books days out on The Farm. But I do feel a close connection with the image of Morton Bartlett’s hand-crafted doll, the doll with the book in her lap that inspired LW to call me Willa.
LW bought the book because its premise reminded her of one of her favorite movies from recent years, Lars and the Real Girl. She has also purchased and enjoyed other books by Simmons because of mutual interests in dollhouses, miniatures, puppets, animation, and collage.
The concept behind The Love Doll intrigued her. While on a trip to Japan, Simmons saw an ad for upscale versions of life-sized, anatomically-correct “love dolls.” Seeing an art value in these high-end silicone sculptures, she thought one of the dolls might make an interesting prop for her photography. She placed an order for a customized doll to be shipped back home, and a few months later she ordered a second doll. The book is a collection of the resulting photographs with an account of her developing relationship with the dolls.
LW felt some trepidation about buying the book, thinking it might prove facile, perhaps a one trick pony. It was neither. The photographs are lovely and at times amusing, haunting, unsettling, and disturbing. Those of Simmons’ first encounters with the dolls are particularly uncanny–the dolls, awakening to their new world, appear almost alive. As LW turned the pages she found herself undergoing a process much like that which Simmons describes, in which the dolls increasingly engaged her.
Simmons seems to try to keep the dolls’ original purpose as sex dolls at a remove (although their intended aesthetics are hard to hide). She has others dress the dolls before she poses them in various settings, often in everyday kids’ clothing. In one photograph a doll gobbles down candy. In another she seems to have smeared (Mother’s?) lipstick on herself while trying on piles of costume jewelry. A third shows the doll on her knees, turned aside from the child’s play kitchen before her, as if unsure as to what to do, how to play. This photograph can be read as one of the most delightful or disturbing of the images–or both. I’m not sure what Doris makes of it.
For despite being presented with and among things that suggest the innocence of childhood (although few of these things, from a feminist point of view, are culturally neutral or innocent), there is something about the dolls that seems knowing and sad, as if they had been rescued from a tawdry world and are now just realizing the childhoods they have missed. Or not. They invite stories and projections and mirrorings. They are dolls. Dolls are us. [Below: LW’s doll Vivian]LW finds that the book itself, bound in a special plastic-like paper that feels as if it was made from leftover doll-skin, also seems to become more alive with each reading (and to my mind, gives off a whole other kind of creepiness).
I had mentioned that The Love Doll reminds LW of the movie Lars and the Real Girl, which is one of the few videos I hold in my collection. In short, the movie is about a deeply shy young man (Lars, brilliantly played by Ryan Gosling) who lives in the garage behind the home of his brother and sister-in-law. Out of the blue Lars announces that he is engaged and his bride-to-be is on the way. His fiancé, it turns out, is a mail-order sex doll. When the doll arrives, Lars treats her with great reverence as if she is, in fact, a real girl. Following the advice of a local doctor to allow time for the situation to work itself out, Lars’ brother and sister-in-law, and eventually their whole town, indulge in Lars’ fantasy and treat Bianca as if she is alive. Soon Bianca is seen singing hymns, teaching Sunday School, and volunteering in the community. It’s a quite funny movie, particularly when Bianca begins to enliven the people about her.
Both The Love Doll and Lars and the Real Girl leave LW wondering: just how much of the world, its people, places, and things, does she project or animate herself? To what degree does she genuinely interact with the world out there and to what degree does she merely interact with her own projections? Does she summon the world into being? Or does the world—or God–summon her? I, for one, am present because LW summoned me. And yet I can speak in ways that she cannot.