Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Your Fetish Is My Kitsch: Elena Dorfman "Still Lovers"at Edwynn Houk Gallery.

"Men and women, women and men. It will never work."
Erica Jong

"The desire of a man for a woman is not directed at her because she is a human being, but because she is a woman. That she is a human being is of no concern to him."
Immanuel Kant

"There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours. To the cognition of the brain must be added the experience of the soul."
Arnold Bennett

Elena Dorfman is an artist I had never heard from before visiting her show "Still Lovers" at Edwynn Houk Gallery, a show that fitted perfectly with the elegance of this space situated in the marbled 745 fifth Avenue building.

Unsurprisingly, it was her first solo, but the work already sported the assurance of an artist already a long way in her career. Somehow, the artist's own claim that she had to adjust her work accordingly to her investigations, slipping away from common playfulness and entering darker psychological territories, translated into the work itself. The delicate treatment of her subjects let a sense that her art had been thoroughly "researched", both in terms of subject and

What is this work exactly? Grosso modo, it's a series of photographs depicting people and their relationships with the expensive sex dolls that they acquired, a topic that on press would make anyone expect shock value.

Well, actually, the first image seen from the entrance of the gallery reserved a bit
of shock, because it looked like the hands of an older man seeking genital contact under the skirt of a school girl ("GingerBrook 1", 2001). (By the way, you must all know that the schoolgirl attrait is actually a traditional japanese fetisch.)

I have a lot of imagination, and I know somewhere in this world people must be designing dolls for pedophiles, so I was expecting the worst.

But turning past the lobby wall, I was instead confronted with a multitude of ackward images, for the most non-sexual, of people holding or simply passing time in company of their personal dolls. Actually, if you didn't know those were dolls, some of these images could pass rapidly in front of your eyes and convey all sorts of common, standard human emotions. It is upon realisation that these emotions are experienced under the presence of human dolls that renders these portraits quite complex, psychologically.

Even though the photographs were all dispersed in the space when I visited, I will try to connect each case of "doll owners" to better illustrate my point.

The striking example when I entered that first room was a photograph of a man sitting on a bed, seemingly weeping in the arms of the woman that he is holding ("Rebecca 1", 2001). The woman, a doll of course, but drastically different from the stereotype of the young sex school girl that was apprehended at the entrance, sported sort of a "mature" type look ("Rebecca 3", 2001), with short hairs, and a tragic figure, closer to a princess Diana.

Without getting any sort of insight about what was the story behind this picture, building up from the way it was constructed, I was imagining the case of a man buying a human doll to keep present in his home the memory of a deceased wife.'s probable that I have too much imagination, but, if I'm anywhere close to the truth, than this is the marvel of great art to be able to transcribe so much in a single picture.

In this sense, if Dorfman calls her art documentary, it's actually more tilting at an edge between documentary and narrative cinema, since her work is fabricated as such that it allows you to infer emotional content. Or rather, this art is not so much about information than about communicating the "right emotion" from which you can infer information (don't they call this a cognitive process?). She's taking the path of formulating "tableaux", and this results in a very aesthetic outlook that perhaps is hereby justified by her focus on plasticity, and how plastic is apparently able to trigger emotion. What are the value of emotions experienced through plastic? Oh so, you might start to think these people are all but remote lunatics, but.. Isn't art plastic? What is the value of an emotion when I am experiencing it forward a Dorfman photograph? How does it compares with fullfilling sentiments through the familiarity of a personal doll.

Does art functions the same as a sex doll?

Coming to my next case, I realize that the Dorfman show was a perfect response to a lot of recent art subjectifying porn stars and its industry. Her photographs are generally as slick as a pornographic shot, as you can see in this example ("Taffy 2", 2002) from the series, one of the rare photograph here that actually shows the doll's genital, and
how these objects weren't made for kidding in the first place.

Again, it seems here that Dorfman "designed" a shot that best reflected the relation of this doll ("Taffy 12", 2002) with its owner: no, not the cat, but here, the true king, the glorious, "reh'l
mân" who probably decided that sex was way more easy to get that way. While the nonchalent atmosphere of the previous shot looked like this couple had enough of banging the night before, this latter, adorned not so innocently with the motif of a cat, with the doll laying like she's ready for another ride, seems to manifest Dorfman's wish to underline the haunting feminist aspect of the show, an aspect that culminates in the clashing ultimatum of her most recent work, the fantastic collectiv
"slut shots" ("Girlfriend 1", 2004), that would make Vanessa Beecroft run for her money. Have you seen the mutilated faces ("Girlfriend 2", 2004) of these poor things?? Wow!.... I'm still apalled, gazing as I write. Is that supposed to be seducing?? They all look like drug addicts !! With ping pong balls in their mouths!! Mr. plastic-maker, can your image of an ideal woman ever be more dumbified, puh-lease ? Gee.... I'm near to suggest those doll owners start wearing that famous "I'm with stupid" T-shirt.

Is there was ever a work able to demonstrate the problematic within the traditionally paternalist genderification of woman as an "object of desire" (read cinema theory, of which this art is akin), than it was Dorfman's! Yes I know, old trick, and probably that work would have had more impact in the 60's, but you gotta admit how crude and ferocious these mosaics are compared with the more "gentile" photographs of the rest of the series, even compared to the previous close-up portraits ("GingerBrook 3", 2001) which on the opposite almost seek to reveal the hidden emotions
trapped within these dolls ("Sidore 5", 2001) (probably a study of how their makers dealt with the issue of facial expression, in response to their buyers' needs).

One of two great examples of this "gentility" I was just mentioning, is the cases of "Lily 1" (2004), proof that Dorfman hasn't entirely derived from her usual approach, and featuring the most relaxed of her artificial couples, enjoying a sunbath on a courtyard grass, letting you wonder how close to a sculpture by Duane Hanson we are getting here. The other strikingly idealized image is a magnificent picture of a married couple moving toward their bed ("Azra 1", 2002), a photograph that looks like a fairytale gone sordid
once you realize that this marriage is none but a faked sexual fetisch. Brrr...I'll admit I was thinking of Hitchcock a moment there. The use of distance and blur in the shot only enhanced that impression of bizarre, whatever Dorfman intended to express. At least now you are warned: the marrying doll is not an image that every woman will feel comfortable with. Or maybe somewhere afterall fetisch, since it involves so much of cognition, is never entirely deprived of romance? If Barthes argues that love is not much more than a secret wish to control the other, than maybe fetisch is simply an abstract materialization of romance, a projection of
idealized emotions unto an object? Or...Is romance just the soft, humanized version of fetishism?

I have poor knowledge in psychology, but this is the sort of topics that I'm sure will be discussed in a book that is coming out shortly in France, I think called "Les Amants Silencieux", and entirely dedicated to the study of human relationships with sex dolls, and which will be fully adorned with these photographs by Dorfman.

The last category of photographs, which I found to be the most successful (after the image of the man and his "dead" wife mentioned at the beginning of this commentary), were the pictures of dolls sharing the contexts of everyday domesticity ("Galatea 4", 2002). They are perticularly surreal! Apparently,
a woman bought many love dolls as a hobby, each one representing a trait of her personality, and in these photos it is obvious that she has established her as a member of her family, putting her at the table at times of breakfast ("Valentine 3", 2002), in presence of her "other kids", who seem to be
pretty used to the situation.. The shots are the most blunt of the lot, for once borrowing from in-yer-face "documentary" aesthetic.

Here the doll looses all sense of sexuality. It becomes the irreplacable daughter, now replaced ("Valentine 2", 2002) . I was imagining the story of a little girl who loved so much to play with dolls that she transformed into one. That story was probably influenced by the subconscious souvenir of an old science fiction film which traumatized me when I was a kid (link coming later, I am trying to remind myself the title of this film which depicted a family faced with the tragedy of living in a doll house).

Dorfman's work is really complex because part of it seems to dwell on
feminism, when on the other side she seems to endorse, or rather, comprehends the special psychological needs of people living with dolls.

Be it for reasons of memory, solitude, sex, or pure family fun, Dorfman really succeeds here at communicating the different layers of meanings implied in the behavior of acquiring human-shaped silicone. By wandering this deep, psychologically ("GingerBrook 4", 2002), I thought she was bypassing on her first intention to be politic.

I first wondered how important it was to her that she selected only cases involving woman dolls, when I would have love to see some of the rarer cases involving boy dolls.

It was after perusing her artist's statement on her website that all my doubts were made clear: she is seriously engaged with feminist theory. She even draws the humoristic illustration of Eve as being the probable first doll given by one man, God, to another, Adam. She goes on that in usual mythology, as soon woman...

"comes alive and exhibits her thirst for knowledge, she becomes a source of suffering and death. Men, afraid of the impulses women inspire, set out to rectify this by creating their own women: statues, mannequins, dolls and dolls that function for sexual pleasure."

And further:

"Synthetic women that are more satisfying, both sexually and psychologically, than their flesh and bone counterparts."

Ah well....I always think that it's the men that are the
sex machines. Have you ever met a man psychologically satisfying, Elena ? I think men represent themselves woman as objects because they, perhaps secretly, but very sincerely, enjoy being treated as objects themselves. That is how further I'll attempt a psychological interpretation on this topic.

Nevertheless, I prefer the general idea of projecting desire and emotions unto plasticity. And considering that I can equalize desire for a sex doll to the devotion for a manifactured replicate of a crucifix, I was wondering if this exhibit simply proved that the ultimate in any fetisch isn't always that it be confronted with its own kitsch.

At least this is how I ended up summarizing Dorfman's work: hanging there at a sweet tangent between kitsch and gravity.

Cedric Caspesyan

PS: by the way, Great show!! Should I just write that !?

PS2: The title of the article is actually the title of an
old tune of mine.

Elena Dorfman: "Still Lovers"
January 13-February 26, 2005
Edwynn Houk Gallery
745 Fifth Avenue
New York


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I am sure you have heard the song "Karma Chameleon" by Culture Club but have you ever given much thought to its meaning? While on Earth, you are living in a world of reincarnation which is governed by the law of karma. Karma begins to propel you as Soul on a personal journey through the universe. Karma ends when you have reached enlightenment and fully realise that this physical reality and the Universe itself is just an illusion. When you reach a state of knowingness that there is but One all pervading essence and that essence or consciousness is You!
So what is Karma and how does it work? While in the illusion you have a soul. This soul lives past, present, and future lives. To grow in love, joy, and awareness, you reincarnate into a series of physical bodies to experience different existences. This road leads to the experiences of being both sexes, all races, religions, and ethnic types throughout many lifetimes.
Karma in its simplicist terms can be described by the biblical statement "as you sow, so also shall you reap". Karma is the principle of cause and effect, action and reaction, total cosmic justice and personal responsibility. It brings 'good' experiences as well as 'bad' - a debt must be repaid and a blessing rewarded.
A more indepth esoteric look at karma gives us the following distinctions: Sanchita Karma: the accumulated result of all your actions from all your past lifetimes. This is your total cosmic debt. Every moment of every day either you are adding to it or you are reducing this cosmic debt. Prarabdha Karma: the portion of your "sanchita" karma being worked on in the present life. If you work down your agreed upon debt in this lifetime, then more past debts surface to be worked on. Agami Karma: the portion of actions in the present life that add to your "sanchita" karma. If you fail to work off your debt, then more debts are added to "sanchita" karma and are sent to future lives. Kriyamana Karma: daily, instant karma created in this life that is worked off immediately. These are debts that are created and worked off - ie. you do wrong, you get caught and you spend time in jail.
As a soul, you experience a constant cycle of births and deaths with a series of bodies for the purpose of experiencing this illusionary world gaining spiritual insights into your own true nature until the totality of all experiences show you Who you really are - the I AM! Until you have learned, you will find that pretending that the rules of karma do not exist or trying to escape the consequences of your actions is futile.
Although it may often "feel" like punishment, the purpose of karma is to teach not to punish. Often the way we learn is to endure the same type of suffering that we have inflicted on others and also rexperience circumstances until we learn to change our thinking and attitudes.
We are all here to learn lessons as spiritual beings in human form. These lessons are designed to help us grow into greater levels of love, joy, and awareness. They teach us our true nature of love. Where we do not choose love, show forgiveness, teach tolerance, or display compassion, karma intervenes to put us back on the path of these lessons. Quite simply, the only way to achieve a state of karmic balance is to be love.
Before you incarnated into your present personality, you agreed to put yourself in the path of all that is you need to learn. Once you got here, you agreed to forget this. Karma is impersonal and has the same effect for everyone. It is completely fair in its workings and it is predictable - "do onto others as you would have them do unto you" is a way to ensure peace and tranquillity in your own life as well as the lives of those you come into contact with. The law of karma is predictable - "as you sow, so shall you reap" what is done to you is the net result of what you have done to others!
Karma gives you the opportunity at every moment to become a better person than you are and to open up to the realization that you are the master of your own fate.
The goal of karma is to give you all the experiences that you need to evolve into greater levels of love, joy, awareness, and responsibility. Karma teaches that you are totally responsible for the circumstances of your life. They keep you on the straight and narrow until you have mastered your vehicle and can ride freely on your own. Once you understand that you are the master of your own circumstances and that everything you experience is a direct result of your past actions due to your thinking and emotional responses you can overcome its seeming negative effects by creating only 'good' karma.
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