Another Kind of Love: The Secret World of Silicone Dolls

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Elena Dorfman - 2
CJ & Taffy 5, 2002 from Still LoversImagery courtesy of Elena Dorfman

Ahead of the house’s A/W19 show, Fondazione Prada unveils a new exhibition exploring an intriguing expression of modern love

Today, Osservatorio Fondazione Prada opens the doors to its latest exhibition, Surrogati: Un amore ideale (Surrogate. A love Ideal). Here, two projects, crafted more than a decade apart, are entwined in a two-woman show exploring notions of love, sex, motherhood, empathy, reality, the uncanny and the ideal. It examines a whole world of humanity, which in this particular case is reflected back at us through realistic, silicone dolls. “You don’t see two-person shows very often,” its curator Melissa Harris explains. “It only occurred to me recently that it could have gone really south. Group shows are different, they’re more about the subject but one person’s show is of course about the subject, but more about the artist.”

From first glance, Elena Dorfman and Jamie Diamond’s projects seem paradoxical. Dorfman spent five years in the 00s with families who have ‘relationships’ with sex dolls. The ensuing body of work sees huge-breasted silicone women – each is human-heavy and anatomically (read: genitally) realistic – in scenes of domesticity: watching television, playing Scrabble, sitting at the kitchen table. Their open-mouthed and innate sexuality is juxtaposed with quotidian routine. Diamond meanwhile spent six years engaging with a community of ‘reborners’, women who ‘adopt’ – and in many cases make – silicone baby dolls, which act as a surrogate baby for those who either can’t, or don’t want to, have their own flesh-and-blood babies. The polarity between rumpled silicone babies held innocently in the crooks of their mothers’ arms, and a shot of a hand up a sex doll’s tartan skirt is “intense”, guests at the show’s opening could be heard muttering.

Though it’s what lies beyond this initial reaction that reveals reams about human desire, not to mention engages a rich repartee between the two artists. “When I arrived [at the first subject’s house] I thought, ‘how am I going to photograph this man having sex with a doll?’” Dorfman explains of embarking on this work. “But in fact it was his wife who was the driver of the collecting. It was a woman’s perspective first – and a very smart woman. It was at that moment I thought, ‘this is so much more than I thought it was going to be, it’s just so much richer, so much weirder, so much more compelling, emotional and human than I anticipated’. Every man did have sex with his doll or dolls, of course, but that’s the obvious part. To me it was so much more fascinating to present scenes of domesticity because not only did I find that much more interesting but that’s an emotional and very ordinary way for the outside world to understand these lives and that these scenes look exactly like scenes from my life and from most people’s lives – it’s just that one is human and one is not.”

In many cases, the dolls are wives, mistresses or daughters – the natures of their relationships therefore ranging from sexual to emotional, to paternal, be that with solo men or an entire family. What connected each set of subjects was the way they spoke of ‘real love’ for these dolls (a truly fascinating essay accompanies the show, in which Harris talks with both artists and several of their subjects with arresting candour), of the fulfilment and happiness their presence brought. Each subject demonstrates an extraordinary ability to project not only a connection but a character onto these empty vessels (many talked of the dolls not liking certain clothes, having distinct tastes), those which would always be perfect in their inability to talk, to react, to feel, to age.

“The dolls are reflections of the makers,” Diamond, who after years engaged with the community began creating her own reborn dolls, agreed. Her entry to the project, I Promise to be a Good Mother, was named after a letter she’d written to herself as a child – “perhaps after an argument or something” – promising how she would do it right when it was her turn. As such, that first work consisted of portraits of herself (complete with black wig, mirroring her mother’s hairstyle, and clothes designed by her father in the 80s) holding different silicone babies. Scenes show her on the train, in her bedroom, at a garden table – they are stark, stilted, cartoonish and somewhat alien in their overt styling. (Other works, Forever Mothers for example, sees Diamond documenting other mothers with their reborn babies that she’d met through this community.) They are uncanny, just like their subjects. 

“The dolls are kind of driving the boat,” Diamond continues. “And it’s amazing – I always knew when they were complete when I had that kind of uncanny moment where they literally felt so real that I got that jerk reaction.” The same jerk reaction can be seen rippling through the show’s first crowds. 

A distinct friction can be felt while looking at these images today. These tactile, physical, though lifeless objects are a canvas for so much human feeling, at a time when our lives feel ever more digitised, ever more disconnected – yet they represent a blank canvas for AI, gynoid technology, digital relationships, cyborg pornography and the future of robotisation. A future in which we perhaps become ever more isolated as our need for other flesh-and-blood beings decreases. Of course one of its keenest concerns is the role of the woman. “It’s about the complexities of motherhood, the mother-child paradigm, and stereotypes – whether normative or idealistic versus more accurate or authentic moments,” Diamond says. “There’s never been a more urgent time to think about the mother – politically speaking, regarding women’s reproductive rights, and having control of their own bodies.”

But it’s also an exciting time, explains Dorfman. “I think people are becoming emboldened to be more public about [their preferences]. What was once deeply hidden in the back of the closet – literally the first dolls I met were hidden behind a fake bookcase and they popped the button and the bookcase opened – and now they’re not. People’s sexuality is changing, their genders are changing and things are much more fluid today. I think that’s beginning to loosen the grip on what is seen as very unseemly.”

And with each artist embedding themselves so deeply in their respective worlds, their greatest desire with these works is for empathy. “There is not one person I talked to that thinks this doll is a real woman or a real baby,” Harris says. “They all get it, it just doesn’t matter and that is why this is so incredibly cool to me – to see how far our imaginations go and of course how real these dolls are beginning to look and feel, and that our imagination allows us to do that.” Harris' hope is that visitors leave having felt close to humanity. “I know people are going to have preconceptions before they see this. I just want people to understand that we are all a little bit odd and different and we all have our own fantasy life. We all let our imagination take us in different directions and this how it has played out with these subjects – this is documentary work really. Let everyone be who they are and appreciate them because they are all happy and took choices that improved their lives and haven’t hurt anybody.”

Though this series of images portrays dolls of varying kinds, it is our humanity and our future with which we are confronted. 

Surrogati. Un Amore Ideale (Surrogate. An Ideal Love) is at the Fondazione Prada, Milan Osservatorio, until July 22, 2019.