Art In Conversation
LAURIE SIMMONS with Phong Bui
While in the midst of preparation for her new exhibit Kigurumi, Dollars and How We See (March 7 – April 28, 2014) at Salon 94 Bowery, the artist Laurie Simmons took time to welcome publisher Phong Bui to her Tribeca loft/studio to talk about her life and work.
Phong Bui (Rail): In the wonderful and lengthy essay by Kate Linker in your Aperture book, published in 2005, at some point you describe the miniature spaces, constructed in your loft using dollhouse furniture, objects, wallpaper, and so on, as being the reconstruction of a certain visual memory of particular feelings or moods that you identified with when you were growing up. This led to what Linker referred to as a Proustian sense of memory. In my case, I remember seeing your survey at the Baltimore Museum while I was visiting my younger brother’s family in Washington D.C. in mid June, 1997—this was when Brenda Richardson was in charge of the whole curatorial program, which made the museum known for its commitment to contemporary art.
Laurie Simmons: Brenda was and is amazing.
Rail: Anyway, I was looking at the work for a good two hours, and I thought of Gaston Bachelard’s invented term in The Poetics of Space, “topophilia.” “Topo” means a place, “philia” means love for or of, a feeling that is associated with the home as a source of poetic images, evoking both the unity or complexity of memories and experiences. These sources of poetic images, he believed, are what actually give you the illusion of stability.
Simmons: Well, many writers, playwrights, and filmmakers have used the dollhouse as presentations of metaphors, from Ibsen’s A Dollhouse to the recent play at the Public Theater, A Second Chance by Jonathan Butterell to films like Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, etc. There really is a parallel between this source of imagery and a diagram of the mind, especially a woman’s mind with different rooms, in different colors, with different characters playing different roles and so on.
Rail: Bachelard also proposed a vertical image of a house that is created by a polarity between the attic, which represents rationality, the clarity of the mind, the light, and the basement, which relates to irrationality, it’s a dark place where all kinds of strange things occur.
Simmons: I can relate to that concept, the division between the two spaces.
Rail: But Bachelard wrote that book in his cramped, tiny apartment in Paris. So he must have had in mind a very spacious home somewhere in the countryside of Paris, which is comparable to your suburban childhood home in Great Neck, Long Island. I imagine that it had both, an attic and a basement!
Simmons: Yes, it certainly did. And both spaces loomed very large in my imagination. They were equally magical spaces in the house. To get to the attic there was a door that you opened and a ladder would fall down. And to a little child, having a ladder that falls out from the ceiling was very supernatural. I remember counting the days until I got tall enough to take the ladder down myself. I spent an enormous amount of time up there by myself looking through all the evidence of my parents’ past and my own past: from my father’s college sweater, my mother’s wedding dress in varying states of decay, to photos of me wearing a little ice skating skirt, and so on. It was absolutely magical. The basement, when I was very little, was a dark and mysterious place for a while, but at a certain point, my mother, in her true fantasy fashion, decided in the early ’60s that the basement needed to be transformed into a facsimile of a soda fountain where we could have parties. So, suddenly the basement had pink heart-shaped naugahyde stools and a bar with plaster ice-cream sundaes, and jars full of penny candy. And, of course, my mother thought that we would have very tame boy-girl parties. She had a whole vision about what would occur in the basement. And, of course, the basement was a place I could sneak down to with a boy and make out when my parents weren’t home. Most importantly, my father was a dentist and his darkroom was in the basement off the laundry room. I have vivid memories of sitting on the floor in that strangely red lit room, watching my father develop his x-rays. I’d say that the seeds of the magic of photography may have been sown there. When I first began making my work in 1976, many artists were making works that involved domestic space. For example, Gordon Matta-Clark’s series of “building cuts” pieces was truly one of the most dramatic works I’d ever seen.
Rail: Why, Laurie? Because they were compelling images?
Simmons: Well, my father was the only child in his family to get a college degree. He was a first generation American who had fought in World War II, and the idea of getting a big house, during that time, was part of the dream of post-World War II USA—like, the apotheosis of the chicken in every pot.
Rail: It’s what Henry Luce had in mind when he coined the term the “American Century” in a 1941 Life magazine editorial.
Simmons: Exactly. Everyone had to work so hard to get his or her dream house, so for me to see an artwork in which someone actually desecrated a house, was like “Wow!” Shocking! Exciting! Yet beautiful. Plus, most importantly, the documentation was photographic. So this started to whet my appetite for what the power of the photo can do. At the same time, artists like Mel Bochner and Barry Le Va were making site-specific works responding to the space of the galleries. Many artists were making conceptual work about the demarcation of time and space: measuring, distorting, and marking the space, and so on. It was very exciting.
Rail: What sort of work were you making when you first came to New York right after graduating with a BFA from Tyler School of Art in 1973?
Simmons: I was making very experimental and ephemeral works. I’d put mysterious things, whose real identity only I would know—like sand, marbles, paper clips—inside unmarked thin rubber bags. I’d then tie the bags with strings and line up a dozen or so of them on the floor. They looked as if they would have been made by Robert Morris [laughs], very black and rubbery and felty.
Rail: I was impressed that you had read Lucy Lippard’s classic essay “The Dematerialization of the Art Object” right after Tyler.
Simmons: Everyone I knew read that essay. The early ’70s art community was an environment where I immediately felt at home with other artists. The climate was one that encouraged personal inquiry, kind of a more academic inquiry. And I’d never felt like I was particularly strong in that sort of academic way of thinking about things so I jumped in with both feet. I was working intuitively, but it was all that I knew how to do. When I first started working, I adopted a systemic approach to certain things like, for example, how to organize a series of selected colors in different rooms. But whatever it was I was making at that time, I’ve always felt that there needed to be a system and a rigor to the way I was working.
Rail: Can you give another example?
Simmons: I was also making these little Ralph Goings-like realistic paintings at the same time. I was trying everything in secret and had the chutzpah, the gall to call myself an artist. Perhaps it’s different now, but in those days when you were young and came to New York, the first thing you did was to try and figure out how to have a studio and then you could call yourself an artist. Then you sit there and you’re like, now what? Now I have to make something. And it seemed like the people I knew had no self-consciousness about calling themselves artists because just the decision to attempt the lifestyle—to get crappy jobs to support yourself so you could have your studio—seemed like enough of a reason to call yourself an artist.
Rail: Who were among the first artists you met that really supported you?
Simmons: An artist named Susan Hall. She made beautiful fantasy paintings of landscapes and characters. I loved her work because it was kind of fairy tale realism without irony. Later, around 1977, Susan introduced me to Jim [James] Rosenquist who looked at my tiny little dollhouse pictures. He said, you should make these really big, like billboard size. And I thought, oh no, no, no. They have to be small. But thinking about it now—besides how exciting it was to meet him—he was so right and my work eventually became huge… though not quite billboard size.
Rail: When exactly did you meet Jimmy De Sana?
Simmons: He and I met a few months after I came to New York. We actually met on the A train, going to Far Rockaway, to the beach. Someone on the train said, “Oh, you’re both looking for a place to live. Why don’t you guys look together?” And we did. That’s what happens when you’re young. We found a 4,000 square foot loft for $200. We divided it in half: he took one end and I took the other end. His end faced Mercer Street and my end faced Broadway. My end had an elevator and his end had a staircase. We each built our darkrooms. But what’s really interesting is that we hired someone to build the wall. I don’t think I was around when the wall was being built, but it was built by my future husband, Carroll Dunham.
Rail: Nice! Whom you had met at someone’s loft party?
Rail: I have a copy of De Sana’s Submission inscribed by William S. Borroughs, who wrote a fantastic introduction basically praising De Sana’s work as a complete dismissal of Christian guilt, fear, and punishment, among other heavy-duty things.
Simmons: There was so much depth and layering in Jimmy’s work. I find more all the time. He taught me technical things about photography that I didn’t know. He made money by being a photographer for the Village Voice, SoHo News, and File Magazine. My analysis of the relationship is that he taught me pretty much everything I knew about photography and I helped him think more like an artist, and less like a photographer. It was a nice balance.
Rail: Well, despite the difference in subject matter—yours being more tender and melancholy, his being more interested in unsettling eroticism and subversive content—you both share some formal concerns, such as, for example, the way the images are composed, how light is being used, some times amplifying the flatness and other times enhancing greater depth. Not to mention color.
Simmons: That’s a 100 percent true. We were both very interested in working with all sorts of lighting in order to get pure pop color.
Rail: And you were even more interested in experimenting with ways of creating new images and much less interested in technical perfection, and so on.
Simmons: Yes, other artists like Cindy Sherman weren’t so invested in technical perfection either. I was impressed by the dirt on her prints.
Rail: What was the reception of your first show at Artists Space in 1979?
Simmons: Well, at first I was upset because Helene [Winer] wanted to show them in this narrow little hallway, but in actuality it was a wonderful place to look at these tiny photos because you were really in this very intimate space. Some of the pictures were of the Black Series with NO people in them. There would be a postcard with, for example, a chicken in it, and then I would have a little wooden chicken in front. I remember Helene insisted that I show my dollhouse pictures alongside the black pictures and I remember feeling a lot of discomfort about this decision but I very quickly realized—once the show opened—people didn’t even take time to regard the Black Series. They were more interested in the dollhouse pictures. So that was a real surprise. Critics started writing about me as a feminist artist and writing about the dollhouse interiors as critiques of a woman’s role, but I never saw them that way. I remember the first time that I was on a panel related to the Image Scavenger show  at the ICA in Philadelphia, I tried to talk about those pictures as though they were purely formal constructions. I was trying to see the dollhouse and the interior as a sort of armature that just dealt with abstraction. I quickly realized that was not going to fly. I could see that the people who sat in the first row were pretty displeased that I wouldn’t mention anything that related to feminist critique in the work.
Rail: Were you interested at the time in the structuralist films of Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow, or Peter Kubelka, just to name a few? I’m curious partly because looking at the three black-and-white pictures of the woman “lifting” the chair, “sitting” on the chair, then “falling” off the chair, they evoke the similar structuralist language.
Simmons: Oh, yes. We would all go to see these films and I also read essays by P. Adams Sitney. Plus in those days it was pre-DVD and pre-Internet, so older films, classic films, all sorts of films were showing regularly at places like the Thalia, Theatre 80 Saint. Marks, Film Forum, etc. Everyday was a visual day. That’s what happens when you’re young and you have that kind of energy. You would make work in the studio during the day, then go see a movie, then go afterwards to a huge party in a 10,000 square foot loft. Artists, filmmakers, writers, and dancers would all be at parties together and I remember thinking the dancers had a crazy way of dancing to rock and roll.
Rail: [Laughs.] How did you deal with the following decade, the 1980s, with something being made so big?
Simmons: I just made my prints bigger. I just kept making my work but I didn’t feel like part of the “huge painting” scene.
Rail: I was taken by a remark you made in the essay “My Trip to Vent Heaven” that you wrote for the Aperture book. You said 1986 was an important year for you and that you wanted to disown everything you’d made from 1976 to 1985. You felt like you wanted to be a different artist. You were tired of shooting images of women, and that’s when the dummies became the subject matter.
Simmons: Interesting, that’s the year my first daughter was born. Yes. There’s always been a polarity in my work; between human and non-human, man and woman. I’ve always tried to swing back and forth, finding ways to work with the images that would make sense to me. That’s always been the way the pendulum swings. Which is why in my newest work, finding this really strange space between doll and human is probably, for me, the best place I’ve ever been. I went to Vent Haven (Fort Mitchell, Kentucky) three times in the ’80s. I was shooting outside of the studio—I mean it was the closest I ever came to a journalistic approach because I researched deeply while looking for subject matter including the history of ventriloquism, where the ventriloquists were, where the props and the relics were, where I could buy things, and so on. It had a much heavier layer of research for me for sure. It’s kind of funny because similar to the “The Death of Painting” story (meaning that people declare painting dead every so often historically) there are all these points in my very long history of making work where I’m starting over again, a form of rebirth so to speak. It’s just the story we tell ourselves about how to keep going. The most dramatic point was in 2006 when I made a movie [The Music of Regret], and I thought, I’m done. That’s the history of my work: NOW I am starting over. And thus the next thing I did was shoot completely naked women in generic situations. They’re not wearing clothes. They’re in neutral rooms. There’s no nostalgia. They were called Color Pictures, which were made from free pornographic images I downloaded from the Internet.
Rail: The Music of Regret sure was ambitious. Everyone who saw it would agree, but my one question is: What was the reason for having the structure as three chapters?
Simmons: My friend Matthew Weinstein, the artist, helped me think about it as a musical in three acts because it is a fairly conventional, classic structure. We actually wrote the script together. The first act focuses on a story of hand puppets talking to each other through a series of calamitous events. It was all about regret because that was my subject.
Rail: The first act of The Music of Regret, “The Green Tie” was both funny and tenderly sad.
Simmons: I know. Very sad!
Rail: And in the end the two old men embracing each other with such sadness over the green tie that finally broke this long history of friendship that has lasted for several generations.
Simmons: I have to tell you that at a number of screenings, people were crying at the end of that scene, and I thought, wow, these hand puppets are actually making people cry. It will never get better than this for me. They would also leave after the screening whistling the tunes from the movie like they might from a Broadway musical. Those two situations were some of the best moments of my life.
Rail: It’s a structure that worked perfectly for Max Ophüls’s La Ronde and Le Plaisir.
Simmons: Also, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s film adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann, among many others.
Rail: So there is a consistent thread of triadic structures, from early pictures of women “lifting,” “sitting,” and “falling” off the chair, the three acts in The Music of Regret, the title of your Aperture book Walking, Talking, Lying, and then finally your last essay in the book, “Me, Myself, and I.” There must be a reason behind it.
Simmons: My birthday is on the third. I am one of three sisters. And three is my favorite number.
Rail: It’s not biblical?
Simmons: No. Very much not. [Laughs.]
Rail: Can you talk about the shift, not just about the issues of scale and gender, but a shift from the dummies to the super-realism in the love dolls?
Simmons: I was scratching my head again, thinking about Tales of Hoffmann, and the Pinocchio story, wondering about when people turn into dolls or dolls become alive. I was so stunned to find the love dolls—something doll-like so beautifully crafted at a human scale, which led to the next challenge: everywhere I turned was a potential set. I mean it was a little overwhelming, because not only could I put the doll in every room in my house, but the doll could also stand a thousand places outside. Prior to that, whether I was making a collage on a small scale, or using small dolls or whatever, it was always a matter of trying to find the objects, or the furniture, or the settings that would work. There was always an issue for me of scale dislocations which made me feel like everything I did was inherently flawed because I could never make the scale truly work. I’m wondering if such imperfection is maybe the secret strength of my work, as much as I tried to make everything work, nothing really worked. So now suddenly I’m in human scale, these girls are incredibly beautifully rendered, otherworldly beauties, and here I am in the real world where they can sit on a couch and be in the same physical dimension as ME. Like, now what’s going to happen? Is this just going to look like a portrait of a real girl? Is it going to have an aura, an edge? So, it was a breakthrough in that sense. Those shoots were hideously uncomfortable to work on because I didn’t really like the dolls. They were really hard to lift and carry. They were really hard to manipulate. And the lesson that I took away from it, which is probably a lesson I should’ve learned years ago is that you can work on something, you can hate what you’re doing, in a way that feels like you wish you were anywhere but there, and the result in the picture can still have a kind of magic or fiction that absolutely was not in the room when you were in the process of making the work.
Rail: They are spooky hybrids of Eastern and Western conventional ideas of beauty.
Simmons: People used to use the word Eurasian to describe a hybrid of people on the European Asian continent. I remember movies like The World of Suzie Wong or Flower Drum Song—super politically incorrect musicals and movies when the United States was getting comfortable in its American Century status. They feel like they’re part of a fantasy.
Anyway, In terms of the new Kigurumi pictures I just can’t tell you how liberating it was to dress my models up, put them in a room, and let them work for me. Yes, I gave direction. But really the more confident each model bacame—I tried to keep the same model in the same mask so that they would grow into their character—the more I grew to expect the models to do different things for me, to work for me
Rail: How many different models do you use to dress them up as kigurumi dolls?
Simmons: About seven. Some are male and some are female. As to how all this got started: When I was in Japan in April 2013, I became really fascinated with Hatsune Miku, who is a holographic character, she’s a Vocaloid. She’s actually, in her holographic form, a pop star. Similar in fact to the hologram made for Tupac Shakur after he died in 1996. At any rate Hatsune Miku is this beautiful anime character who really became a star. And she is given life and form and content by her fans. They invent songs for her. They invent costumes for her. And I really thought my next work was going to be based on Hatsune Miku. I flipped over her. I met the owner of the company that developed her: Crypton Future Media. He came here and we talked about using Hatsune, or Miku as we call her. What happened was it started me down this rabbit hole of anime and cosplay. Just so much information was coming at me really fast about anime characters, people that go to Comic-Con, people that dress up in character-costumes, and then I sort of fell into researching this subset of kigurumi maskers and dollers: people who dress up like dolls. And I read a number of interviews where they really feel that they, in costume, in their masks, they exist in this space somewhere between doll and human. And I read it and I thought: isn’t that really where I’ve been trying to be from the second I started? So that really turned me on, the idea that I could work in this sort of intersticial space, this kind of really funny space between 2-D and 3-D and human and non-human. So I started researching the masks and there was one kid in Russia, I don’t know who he is, but I just order masks from him. It was just a series of e-mails. I would order the eye color, the hair color. There are two more masks that I shot this weekend that you haven’t seen, one is a dark-skinned one with bright orange hair.
Rail: But why Russia, Laurie?
Simmons: That’s where the mask making kid is.
Rail: How weird and cool at the same time!
Simmons: We started following him on Facebook to see why the masks were arriving so late. Was he out clubbing or what? It was my detective moment. [Laughter.]
Rail: I’m also very curious about the setting in someone’s neighbor’s abandoned little house!
Simmons: I know some people that own a place in Connecticut and they bought the adjacent land that has this little house. And they, knowing me, thought that I might like to shoot there before they tear it down. And I saw it and it was a tiny little brick house like where Snow White and the seven dwarfes would live, but it was totally abandoned, vacated. And the people that live there obviously took great care to paint the walls these really unusual colors and even decorate the walls. And we shoot in the winter so we have to bring heaters in. One day we couldn’t get the heat above 36 degrees so it was freezing. But the space was perfect. The scale was so perfect for me because it’s so close to a dollhouse. I noticed that different characters wanted to claim the space of the rooms by reaching their arms up to the ceiling and out to the walls. It was fascinating.
Rail: I can totally see it, for example, the one with the black leather leaning against the corner of the room, with her hand spread out, and the punctured holes on the right seems to express so much about who she is, as opposed to the one dressed in pink who is more vulnerable, startle certainly with the painted sun right on top of her.
Simmons: It took some time to find the kind of clothes I thought the dollers would wear whether it would be latex fetish clothes, or rubber, or plastic, lace and so on.
Rail: Would you say that without the experience of directing the film, this experience might not have occurred? I mean you’re directing these people.
Simmons: I wonder, because prior to the film, I’d only shot little dolls by myself, except for the brief period where I shot people swimming under water and I did have to direct them. I think the most surprising thing was to gain an understanding of what maskers, dollers might go through. Because at the end of a shoot, when my models took their masks off, I felt such a strong connection to the costumed person: When the mask came off I was always like, “Oh, how sad.” I really had a very powerful awareness of how my preference for the doll was affecting my feelings for the human model. I needed, wanted, longed to see them in costume because I was growing very attached to that character and what that character could do for me.
Rail: You grant a permission to the characters.
Simmons: Exactly. Permission to change. And of course the metaphor for me is social media—do we ever really know who we’re communicating with? Your Instagram feed, your Twitter feed, your online dating, your whatever. And also a metaphor for aging, a kind of masking, a disguise. How do women—how are we supposed to inhabit our aging years? Are we supposed to face it unmasked, or do you start to construct a kind of persona around yourself, a kind of protection when you get your hair colored, or your teeth capped, or your surgery done. How complete is this mask? So, for me, there is lots to think about here.
Rail: Your childhood home—just to go back to the beginning—had an attic, where the memories and history of your parents and your family were kept. The basement with the darkroom, and the soda fountain, where you, the family, and occasionally friends hung out. Bachelard also proposed a psychoanalytical metaphor in that when we hear a suspicious noise coming from the basement, we tend to go up to the attic to see what it is, but we fear going to the basement. But in your case, you have no fear of either place. You seem to be comfortable, equally, in both places.
Simmons: Well I think there’s a reason why the churches made their steeples higher and higher to get closer to God—it simply feels that way, whereas below the surface of the earth is hell. Do I have a fear? No. But I think that real fears are buried just below the surface. [Laughter.] On the first night we moved into our house in Connecticut, I had to go get something in the basement. As I walked down the stairs I kind of waited to see if I was scared and I wasn’t frightened at all, and I thought this means this house is a good place to be.