Artist Annie Collinge essentially brings dolls to life. She finds dolls, photographs them, and then photographs a human subject styled to look exactly like the chosen toy. This series, titled Five Inches of Limbo, is downright eerie, and inspired by the relationships people have with dolls as children. “They are tiny representations of human life that we are meant to care for like they are alive,” Collinge told writer Grace Banks in an interview for her book Play With Me, a collection of interviews and critical writing on contemporary artists using a variety of dolls in their work today.
Whether through Annie Collinge’s work, Elena Dorfman’s Still Lovers series (in which she photographed silicone sex dolls with their owners), or Jordan Wolfson’s exploration of the female cyborg in his piece “Female Figure,” Banks brings together a series of artworks across mediums that use dolls and doll-like figures that redefine not just the female form in art, but the gaze in which the female form is rendered. While doll-focused, Play With Me is ultimately a book about how women artists are reclaiming images of women created under the male gaze, and the ways in which female artists create their own art that center female bodies.
Jezebel interviewed author Grace Banks about her work on the book. Our interview is condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: What first drew you to write this book? Why dolls?
GRACE BANKS: I’ve always been interested in the crossover between art and politics, particularly how women artists have always worked prolifically at the intersection of politics and art. And a couple of years ago I kept seeing work that was really utilizing these bold effigies of women’s bodies. The first person I noticed was Laurie Simmons, who has The Love Doll series where she uses a sex doll she bought in Japan. Basically it’s the most bespoke, high-end doll in the world, and it was interesting to [see her] subvert the use of something made for male pleasure or objectification of women’s bodies in a completely different way.
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I just kept seeing things popping up and then I kind of broadened out a bit and looked at people who were using mannequins and anything that was an appropriation of the female form to make some kind of political statement. I wanted to bring their work on the commodification of feminism, of gender, and pull it into a mainstream conversation and show that their work wasn’t just like a cutesy niche art movement but actually quite political.
This is a book about dolls and doll-like human forms, but it’s also about the evolution of the female nude in art or this enduring idea of the female muse. In what ways would you say this collection of artists are challenging the history of the nude or the muse in art?
A lot of the artists in the chapter of the book on “the muse” talk about how the whole concept of the muse is really problematic because it’s always contingent on a man activating that status, in art history and across pop culture as well. In art history a naked woman’s body was such a huge icon. A naked woman in a Renaissance painting, depending what context it was in, could mean that a man had a lot of money, that a man had enough money to hire a prostitute, it could have meant that the people who commissioned it had a they were willing to marry off. And a lot of these artists in the book are directly challenging that [history.] In taking these fake female bodies they get to take ownership of that idea in some way. It’s a way of taking that [male] gaze away and, by using these quite plastic figures, they manage to make their own statement with it.
You write in the book “This work suggests the next big art scenes won’t come from women creating art in the same traditions as men, but from women creating within their own artist tropes. Who are the artists that you feel like have led the way for the era you outline in the book?
In terms of contemporary art, from the 1950s onwards, there are huge parallels to be drawn between second wave feminists artists of the ’60s and ’70s. I think people like Cindy Sherman, Lynda Benglis, Barbara Kruger, Hannah Wilke, these were all women who were working in very radical ways with their bodies that hadn’t been seen before, ways that were quite self reflective and self referential and focused nudity almost 80 percent of the time. I think all of those artists took those bodies away from the male gaze. In terms of people over the last ten years, I’d say people like Tracey Emin definitely, just to use your body in a shameless way to talk about the issues that interest you was something that she really kind of pushed forward.
There are a lot of sex doll works in the book that want to humanize the dolls, to sort of empower them by putting them in situations where they seem more human than sex toy, such as reading a book in bed or being a bride. Where do you think that impulse comes from for these artists, to desexualize the sex dolls?
I think what it is about them is that they represent something most people would see as so problematic and I think that it’s very interesting and exciting to take an object of objectification and completely turn it on its head. Laurie Simmons definitely acknowledges she’s using them as new way to explore women’s interiors. The cover of the book, “Fake Girl with Fake Pearl” by Stacy Leigh, just really encapsulates everything for me because she’s made this sex doll mannequin look like one of the most famous pieces of art history that uses a woman’s gaze to then kind of create a beautiful image.
I’m interested in this idea of the female gaze you mentioned before because when it’s applied to the sex dolls, the sex doll is obviously so designed for the male gaze. It’s this really exaggerated female form and thus the male gaze is so prevalent in it, almost built into it. Do you feel like the doll can ever fully escape the male gaze in the art of women?
I actually interviewed Matthew McMullen who creates the RealDolls and he told me that he saw these dolls, before they became artworks, as works of art in themselves, and that he was creating his own muse. So I think when I saw what these artists were doing with the dolls, it made it even more charged because it is just the epitome of a kind of standard male gaze. Do I think [these artists] can take the dolls ever completely away? I don’t know. I think that a lot of artists who use them in this book really manage to, but there’s always that kind of tension of whether you can or not, and for me that makes the artists who’ve used sex dolls really powerful.
I think the tension in the works and why they can be quite chilling is because there’s always that question of whether you can reclaim the male gaze. I think that applies to a lot of other things as well. Obviously the male gaze is a very popular topic at the moment and people are talking a lot about the female gaze. There’s one artist in the book, Elizabeth Jaeger in the book who says, even if you’re kind of reclaiming that gaze you’re still doing it within the context of the gaze. So it all kind of gets theoretical and intense [laughs] but I think essentially that question underpins a lot of the work in the book.
You speak to a few artists who talk about making art about their body, their sexuality, and how it often isn’t seen as art. It just seems so ridiculous to me that even in 2017 a woman could be making art about her body or about sex and people still don’t consider it art. Why do you think it’s still so hard?
So many reasons. There’s the kind of entrenched patriarchy in art and culture where every time a woman self-presents it’s seen as such a threat. When I was writing the book and I was like two months in there was a huge scandal about Kim Kardashian sharing this near-naked selfie of herself. She was very criticized for it but I think a few years before she had been shot by Terry Richardson completely naked with like a jacket over her and nobody said anything. I think there’s this really weird, creepy controlling narrative of women self-representing. That’s not to say that I’m a feminist who thinks the plethora of naked images online is particularly helpful to feminism, but I don’t see why these women are criticized so much.
It’s just because people don’t like women having autonomy and control over their own bodies, and that’s always been hard for women artists. You have artists like Eddie Peake or Francis Bacon or Antony Gormley and they work with their body all the time and people see it as this really interesting artistic movement. But when women do it it’s always an act of display.