Dolls By Contemporary Artists
The first floor exhibit part, also in a rotonda-shape but with an opened ceiling, is entirely white and only displays works by contemporary artists. One can discover two creations by talented Paris-based Japanese artist Kazuyo Oshima, whose sensitive and skilled dolls are well known by collectors all over the world: “Dolls in Nutshells”, an installation of 300 new-born babies in nutshells, each one with a different expression, “a message of peace” to the world from the artist, as well as a very poignant doll portraying her daughter as a child (she is now a charming teenager). The refined and poetical doll creations of Kazuyo Oshima are known and appreciated by many collectors over the world.
Alfred Stief is a man who has spent many years in a psychiatric hospital. He has created amazing figures made with knit cord, which are not dolls technically speaking but which are perfectly appropriate within the concept of the show. These staggering figures without titles, with a harmless and tamed anxiety are nevertheless neither innocent or candid. They are like autistic secret conversations, all altered after having walked across the mirror.
The biography of American Morton Bartlett tells us that it is only after his death, in 1992, that it was discovered in his basement floor, perfectly stored and packed, an ensemble of 15 children dolls (3 boys and 12 girls), with the wardrobe he had made and sewn himself for them and an ensemble of photography featuring these creations. This entire work, all kept secret during his life by a man who never professed to be an artist, is intriguing on many levels and particularily because of their author’s story. The book/catalogue by Gallimard shows several of these photographs, featuring these realistic children in situations, such as two little girls sleeping in bed, a little boy seated on a chair in short pants and smiling or a naked young girl, already showing signs of puberty. A loan from The Musée de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Bartlett doll presented in the show is in plaster, about one meter high and wears a simple 1950s cotton dress.To me it is not a mannequin, not a sculpture and certainly not a doll. It belongs to another category, an imitation of life, a substitute which belongs to the world of intimacy and secrecy or the hidden, that one discovers with the feeling of breaking in and that makes you feel like going out ...uttering an apologize for disturbing it.
The case of Japanese artist Yotsuya Simon, a very accomplished artist who presents himself as an artist creating dolls is very different. He was also an actor in avant-garde theater in Japan. For him, “A doll is just a doll. It is not a representation of someone existing or the figuration of an idea, these are specificities expressed by sculpture. I cannot describe my dolls because they belong to the domain of toys.” He also precises that he does not play with his dolls because he is only interested in creating them.
Yotsuya Simon’s work is very famous in Japan and he has his own school (the School of Simon) which teaches students the practise of doll-making as a personal endavour. I knew about his work for the first time 15 years ago when Sumiko Watanabe offered BillyBoy* and I a copy of his book named “Pygmalionism.
The museum present four of his ball-jointed dolls (this detail is an important aspect of his work, which came as a shock when he first saw the Bellmer dolls in 1965), notably the famous “Anatomic Boy” whose belly opens like the ones of the mannequins in our school days anatomy class , except that his is definitely anatomically correct, circumsised mostly with without pubic hair except for little girls.
Yotsuya Simon was on the location before the opening for the installation of his dolls which arrived in huge wooden crates. I met him for the first time, he doesn’t speak a word of French or English, which makes conversation impossible without an interpreter (he has a following which includes one). He dedicated for us his new book called “Byouin Gallery 717 Days”. His doll-sculptures have been exhibited in an old orthopedic clinic in the suburbs of Fyomishima City in Japan during exactly 717 days. The place is perfectly sinister and evokes some sets from Jacob’s Ladder or Stalker in a decidedly stark and clinical way. It’s glacial aesthetic of post-nuclear surgery operating units enhances the homo-erotic vibrations of these creations of a disenchanted pygmalionism. Unfinished, uncomplete creations which cannot accept to simply be sculptures , they all express the frustration of the impossible metaphysical dream of the artist: how to give them life without falling into the trap of making them automats or robots? They all express this fate. Mechanical dolls with inside structures made of wood, like the ones of early planes (one thinks of Leonardo de Vinci) are shown. Their flesh and muscles skillfully made of cardboard. There are men with bearded Christ-like faces (“Kyrie Eleison 3”) and incomplete, dis-articulated ephebes/angels set in glass cases, like pinned butterflies (“Present Love”). Then there is the remarkable, romantic Catholic “Adam of Future and Past” who evokes a character from a Le Gréco painting deprived from its lyrical and picturesque draped clothes to appear in its starck nudity.
Aside from dismantled ephebes and other fallen angels, most boy and man dolls wear odd garters for black socks with leather boots or shoes, an obvious fetichism (a very Bunûel-like "obscure object of desire"), while the naked pre-pubescent little girls figures wear pseudo-innocent Mary-Jane shoes, white socks and wear as a single garment, an adult woman’s corset laced in the front. With the touch of adult-style earrings, these little girls give the weird impression to be offered to lusting old men in some Belle-Epoque brothel. The insidious abduction of nudity by these fetish references destroys all possibility of innocence in the subject and creates a disturbing and up-setting vision of childhood. Nevertheless, in an interview Yotsuya Simon defends himself of putting any message into his dolls. “What makes a doll a good or dangerous creature is in the eyes of the viewer. The doll is only a doll. There is no morality, good or bad, in the doll.” If these dolls are toys, what sort of games and play situations can they suggest if not the ones of sexual phantasms and how can one deny that childhood pictured this way can be interpretated as an object of desire for the adult?
All this disturbing thematics, this oppressive and tortured homosexual psyche finally puts in the back ground an accomplished technique and, in some aspects, it’s masterly skillfullness, by leaving only an uneasiness as a conducting thread to appreciate these artworks. One understands why the hospital set was considered so appropriate for their morbid narcicism. As written in the introduction of the book “From the 5th of October to the 21st of September 2003, 15 dolls of Simon’s work were displayed in a building which used to be an orthopedic hospital, but no longer used, in Fyomishima City, Ehime. Nowhere-else could have been such a perfect environment for these Simon dolls. Simon Yotsuya has been a legend for all other doll creators. He is a pioneer doll creator of the modern age jointed dolls in Japan. This is a memory of the 15 dolls which stood in the ruins of the hospital for 717 days”. You don't say.
Nightmares in Mixed Media
Others works by contemporary artists, some of them being quite spooky and stunningly ugly, use the doll (but is this really a doll?) as a hostage of suffering and nightmare. It is the case for Francis Marshall, Miguel Amate and Bob Lescaux. “Doll” representations have become here monstrous, hideous, difformed and abused creatures. Dolls as seen by Louis Pons have a more poetical dimension. Altogether, the doll appears to me often like an item included in an artistic approach which uses a great deal of un-related material and a clashing of re-cycled objects, “an art of refuse”, also kind of dated to my eyes, rather systematic and tiring (they all use the exasperating definition of “technique mixte”, quite a barbarism if you ask me, pompously and freeley interpretated from the English term “mixed media”).
Not included in the book/catalogue because of deadlines and the great enigma of the exhibition, the astonishing dolls by unknown Madame Ska, now deceased, win without a doubt the crown of the most unconventional sense of humor. Her dolls in outfits - mostly First Wolrd War uniforms remind - to a certain extent only - some early Steiff charactors by their quality and attention to detail but with a certain very odd twist: in coloured felt and cotton, they have genital organs perking out from everywhere, mostly several for a single doll, some granted with both genders.This exhibitionism is more irreverent than obscene and has a stinging and jubilatory irony. They are absolutely fascinating and their story would be well-worth being further researched and discovered.
Michel Nedjar createsd figurines of beings which are half humans and half animals (or aliens), which sometimes seem to have been excavated from soil after thousands of years. They are intrically made of fabrics, including soil and pigments and seem to send a message to us coming from ancient lost civilizations. To my point of view however, they have nothing to do with the Shoah in their expression, a reduced point of view which has been colported in several press articles I have read, which I find silly and limited.
Dolls by David Drutinus have all a name and the poise of ugly girls dressed with rags from a princesse and a fashion victim. Like the aristocrat dolls of Bernard Condominas, these expressive dolls could well belong a modern fairy tales with a twist.
Dolls and Photography
Photography is largely represented: Hans Bellmer of course, but also Cindy Sherman and Sarah Moon for the big names. The American Isadore Seltzer directly scans reject dolls previoulsy customized and altered by his intervention (as if the poor dear ones needed to suffer a tiny bit more before reaching redemption as an artform, the answer being maybe-maybe not), resulting in a vision which evokes “Freaks” and which was considered representative enough of the show’s theme to be honored twice as the image for the invitation card and the book cover. Personally, I would have chosen a less freaky image, so many people already find dolls scary (I know, a lot of them are!) an image largely exploited by horror movies.
Photography and Mdvanii are also associated with a selection of big size colour BillyBoy* photos of the dolls by BillyBoy* and Lala, notably those from the “Is the Doll World Ready For a Little Discipline?” dating 1996-98 and “Intro Spectrum” from 2000, "Mdvanii, Memories from Earth" (2001) as well as a three-panel painting of Mdvanii (photography on canvas with acrylic). The principle of repetition and the idea of cloning is transposed here with the image of a doll bigger than life -some painting are 2 meters by 2 meters- (not presented here).
Mdvanii in Paris
A consequent part of this floor is devoted to the multi-faceted Mdvanii creations by BillyBoy* and Lala which are shown in Paris for the first time since 1993. One can see the most recent futuristic themes (cannibalized high-fashion, recycled surrealism, organic suits, protective dance-dresses and cloud gowns, re-interpretated sado-masoschism and transcended fetichist codes). Most of these works were featured in the “Mdvanii, Memories From Earth” exhibition in the Science Fiction Museum La Maison d’Ailleurs in Yverdon, Switzerland. There are also three big-size Mademoiselle Mdvanii porcelain dolls, notably Mademoiselle Mdvanii “Un rien m’habille”, which was very much admired by male workers during the installation as well as by French photographer Pierre Rutschi who raved about her (he loves fetish shoes and stockings with seams up the back). There are larger-size sculptures, such as Ishvar and Jobii “Astéroide” , “L’attente”, displaying a tribal-like Dheei doll on a nomad tent of the future or the very lesbian “Ascenseur sensoriel interplanétaire” . These artworks include various artefacts (but are not “technique mixte” !)
There is also a fine group of porcelain teenage dolls called “Teenage” featuring notably a gay couple of two Muio-Bix dolls holding hands. Nothing special for dolls could you tell me, and you'd be right. But the funny thing is that, on the opening night, they fell three times and we had to unscrew the window case each time to put them back in place (special thanks to Momo, the miracle-man!)) I do not know if one can read in their falling down a metaphore to the actual situation of young gays and their difficulties to assume their sexuality in a context of relapse from safe sex practices .Of course not. Adult and teenage male dolls by BB* and Lala always endorsed safe sex practices and thusly have been always symbolically presented in a box with a condom, as early as 1992 up until now (except for the recent futuristic artworks, we’d like to think that condoms won’t exist in 200 years). More like it, they will have a proper base next time, so simple!
to be finished on page 4
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