Looking at ownership of the female nude in art and the everyday, through dolls.
A few years back, writer Grace Banks kept noticing what seemed to be a growing trend in art. "I began to see a pattern of contemporary artists who were using doll-like effigies of the female body in quite a radical and disruptive way to carve an identity for themselves, talk about feminism and to be political," says the author.
From cave drawings dating to 11,000 BC, to Kim Kardashian breaking the internet with a naked selfie, depictions of the female body have always been laden with issues of ownership, patriarchy and politics. Dolls, Grace shows in her just released book Play With Me, are increasingly becoming an art medium, quite literally embodying feminism's many intertwined topics, laying them out to be exposed, dissected and subverted.
"The first thing that made me want to do the book was work by Laurie Simmons, her Love Doll series, and Annie Collinge's Five Inches of Limbo series. I read a bit about them and saw that through using appropriations of women's bodies they were making really quite radical statements about the role of them in contemporary society," says Grace. "I started researching and found lots of other artists doing a similar thing to riff on some of biggest challenges of millennial -- I hate that word -- feminism: gender fluidity, economics, the commodification of feminism and tech."
The book, which is full of thought-provoking interviews with artists using dolls and doll motifs in varying forms -- from mannequins and kid's toys, to sex dolls and robots -- is divided into four sections, the first of which is titled "Blow Up" and hones in on an exploration of the female body in terms of Instagram and its now ubiquitous association with so called 'hashtag feminism'. But what Grace explores in the work she highlights are issues that extend far beyond social media and deeply into daily life, past, present and where we're headed next. Why, then, was it important to start there, with the impact of Instagram?
"The artists in that chapter use dolls to look at the commodification of women's bodies, whether that's through advertising, or, as you say, hashtag feminism," says Banks. "During the time I was writing the book the whole hashtag feminism thing became a hot topic in pop culture. I definitely find the whole commodification of feminism really problematic. And I'm still conflicted. I feel quite strongly about supporting the virtues of fashion and beauty for women, but I do not think wearing a T-shirt that says 'feminism' is a feminist act. But then much of what highly educated feminists do are not feminist acts either."
After Blow-Up, the book delves into the idea of the muse, the particular role women have been given within art and how it relates to the still huge lack of female artist representation by institutions globally. "Using textures and materials new to the art world, the artists in this chapter pick apart the status of the muse in art today. For so long in art the female body has been represented by men and these artists subvert sexist materials to question how weird the male obsession with the muse is." Fashion and beauty are industries that take a lot of the heat for objectifying and commodifying the female form -- a very particular female form -- but art has been doing it since its earliest incarnations. And it's still, as Grace points out, very much governed by the patriarchal model.
In Play With Me, artist Bianca Casady says, "The toughest adversities women face in art right now are not being seen." She mentions the need for a "feminist language". Grace's book shines a light on artists who are leading the charge for a new kind of female visibility, perhaps one of the most powerful challenges to the male controlled art world we've seen for a long time. "A doll is the ultimate objectification of a woman's body -- it's a mass-produced archetype of a woman. The artists in this book are interested in taking that symbol of objectification and using it as a new way to render the nude in art," says Banks. "So much of women's work depicting the female nude has been totally ignored by male art historians, and I wanted to look at these artists taking back the right to create the female nude on their own terms."
Dolls are, as the book proves in another section, a particularly apt material for exploring the state of the female gaze, including the way in which the blurring of gender boundaries intersects with its evolution within art. Grace spoke with artists such as Martine Gutierrez, identifying as nonbinary, who uses sex dolls and mannequins to investigate gender roles as well the value we place on the unreal objects. Then there's Narcissister, whose work both confronts and reconstructs the male gaze through, as she says, exposing herself naked "in a non-erotic way and/or in an expressly erotic way, but on my own terms".
Play With Me closes on a discussion of cyborgs, a topic being covered outside the art world with increasingly regularity as the reality of robots entering daily life looms ever closer. The author spoke with artists who are digging up the many complex implications of very life-like tech — including sexbots. Grace writes that "robotics are becoming a feminist issue. The works in this chapter deal with the impending problems women will face if we're to live alongside AI as potential equals." But she shows how art can help envisage more positive possibilities for cyborg existence, speaking to artists whose work suggests ways in which robots could help dismantle traditional gender concepts.
The work in Play With Me is bold, challenging, thoroughly modern and often unapologetically activist-oriented. It points to a new political engagement in art and a strong push forward for feminism within an industry whose staid institutions must urgently evolve. "This work suggests the next big art scenes won't come from women creating art in the same traditions as men," states Grace, "but from women creating within their own artist tropes."