I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
I first saw Laurie Simmons’ photographs at Metro Pictures gallery in 1988, nine years after she started showing her work. That series was called Walking and Lying Objects—large format prints in both black and white and color. The objects were items associated with various domestic activities—a box camera, an egg timer, a toilet seat, a ladylike hand gun, a birthday cake, a bag, all taking bows on pairs of human legs both real and manufactured. Her posers were often plastic dolls. The pictures had a clown-like quality that wasn’t as dumb as it looked. They reminded me of television spots for Chesterfield cigarettes that were common on variety shows when I was a child and which were, in fact, their source—a shared memory. I took to them immediately. Their nostalgic appeal aside, they had a cutting critical subtext that commented on the objectification of women, masochism, subliminal advertising, and what passes for entertainment value, all at once.
In 1987 Simmons “graduated” from plastic miniatures to wooden ventriloquists’ dummies, each the size of a three-year-old child. With these affable companions, she became a kind of backyard puppet master. In Café of the Inner Mind (1994), her customary play with surface reality began to take on new emotional resonance. Her dummies spoke their own minds, in “thought bubbles” that revealed fantasies privately shared by Laurie Simmons: artist, artist-mother, artist’s wife (she is married to the painter, Carroll Dunham).
Next May, the Baltimore Museum will mount a full-scale retrospective of Simmons’ work from 1976–1996. I had a preview in her studio last June, where I found her preparing a 25-minute slide installation with music, poetry, and lessons in ventriloquism. It will accompany both the exhibition and Laurie Simmons, a catalogue published by Art Press, which is also producing a video version.
Linda Yablonsky Do you see your art as a form of ventriloquism? As a way to project your inner voice, so to speak, to have a dialogue with your objects?
Laurie Simmons I like to think that people might make that connection.
LY Your earlier pictures all focused on female figures: “tourists” at the Pyramids, “walking objects” dancing around, “housewives” at home in kitchens and bathrooms”… You mentioned having gone to the Vent Haven Museum in Kentucky to get away from the girl dolls.
LS I thought that by working with the image of a doll I had perhaps been excluding the male viewer, in the way that a man says, “That’s a girl’s movie,” or a “girl’s book.” But I didn’t want to give up the idea of shooting figures. I wanted to locate a male figure that was doll-like but not a doll. Ventriloquist dummies seemed so odd and macho, and the alter egos of really peculiar men. So I went to Vent Haven in 1987 to find a male subject. “Vent” is the professional id for ventriloquist and the museum is truly their haven. It was started by one William Shakespeare Berger, a businessman and amateur vent, who though a supposedly terrible ventriloquist, was obsessed by the medium and used his money to buy the biggest collection of ventriloquial material in the world. He eventually turned his suburban home into a museum by adding outbuildings—wood paneled rooms with shag rugs and disinfectant smells. He’s got the original Charlie McCarthy, 600 figures, novelty stuff, press shots and memorabilia that ventriloquists have sent in over the last 40 years.
I went there thinking ventriloquism was a very male thing. When I got there, I found in fact a hundred or so autographed pictures from girl vents. But the ones I remembered from TV when I was a kid were all male and all making fun of women, and each other. Wisecracking, male bonding sessions with slightly off-color jokes, all at girls’ expense. It was pretty fertile territory in terms of taking pictures. So many kinds of male relationships came up between vent and dummy: paternal, buddy love, best-friend love, brotherly love, homosexual love.
LY Ventriloquism is really an offshoot of Vaudeville.
LS Yes, it goes very far back in history. Some people believe the Oracle at Delphi threw her voice and in Europe in the 18th century there were single performers who played as many as 15 characters through quick costume changes and thrown voices. The Vaudeville period is when vents started using single figures. You know, Johnny Carson started out as a ventriloquist. When I was a kid we thought the whole thing was mind blowing. I would practice all the time, trying to do it.
LY Did you own a dummy?
LS Yes, everyone I knew did. Charlie McCarthys and Mortimer Snerds, we all seemed to have that little string-in-the-back plastic version.
LY Where did you grow up?
LS Long Island. Suburbs.
LY And now you have how many kids?
LS Two daughters, four and ten.
LY Do you pick up anything from watching your kids play? Or they from you?
LS They like to come to the studio. There’s a lot to see. There are similarities in the way I do my work and their playing, in the sense that I’m moving things around and breathing life into them. I’d forgotten the way a child picks up a doll and makes it speak and moves it along the landscape, “bumpety-bumpety-bump.” It’s not that different from what I do, I’m just not singing little songs while I work.
LY Do your kids take pictures the way I guess you did as a child? Where I grew up, we all had Brownie cameras.
LS I had a Brownie camera, and that was very precious to me, but these kids have Walkmans, Discmans, Nintendo, Gameboy, telephones, computers, VCRs, and CD Roms. Taking a snapshot and having it developed and having that print as an object doesn’t have the same kind of magic for them. My kids have toys that are superhero figures with tiny, low-tech slide projectors inside them. You get a $10 figure and press a button in the back and it projects a slide onto the wall. Technology prevents a kind of magic.
LY Would you say you’re anti-technology?
LS I would say I’m struggling desperately to keep up.
LY It’s just that the dummies and dolls have a long history. They’re not of today. But they seem more constantly human than any of the robots with computer chips can be.
LS It’s because of the dummies’ simplicity that it’s possible to imbue them with a kind of magic. A lot of that magic has been replaced by spectacle and thrill.
LY I’m interested in the way you talk about your pictures as making magic. Ventriloquism is also part of a magic act, because you can’t, or you’re not supposed to, explain what’s happening or how it came to be. It’s sort of an otherworldly voice.
LS I was obsessed with magic when I was a kid. I used to wait for a magician to come on TV and saw a woman in half, or hypnotize a woman and make her float in the air. I think it was my first sexual thrill. I loved magicians doing things to women. And the ventriloquism thing often had that same erotic tension—a small person in sexual thrall.
LY It puts you in power over another person’s unconscious. What was that ventriloquist movie Anthony Hopkins was in?
LY That was a terrifying movie.
LS I didn’t see it until a year ago. I didn’t want to see it. Many people mentioned the movie. I knew it was going to be a sinister view of ventriloquism. I wanted to save it until I was completely done with the series. And when I did see it, I thought it was fantastic but a very dark, very psycho, very masculine take on ventriloquism. You know, “The dummy did it,” or should I say, “The dummy made me do it.”
LY So, what came first: the medium or the message? The camera or the dolls?
LS I was drawn to photography by conceptual art. It had never occurred to me to pick up a camera before that. We’re talking 1973 in New York City. I’d had my art education, I’d studied to be a painter, sculptor, and printmaker. I never even considered using a camera until I came to New York and saw what was going on. At that point, it seemed like the only way to go since painting was dead, of course. (laughter)
LY What did you see going on?
LS In New York? Well, I was really loyal about going to everything I possibly could. I saw an incredible amount of junk—bad performance art—but I also saw some really great stuff: Trisha Brown dancing with The Grand Union. Meredith Monk, Charlemagne Palestine, Patti Smith at CBGB’s, John Giorno, Steve Reich and Phil Glass, Robert Wilson’s The $ Value of Man. A lot of artists were using photographs: Jan Dibbits, Gordon Matta-Clark, Robert Smithson, Mel Bochner, Duane Michaels. There were so many areas where photographs were incorporated into the work. Oh, and Dennis Oppenheim had done a piece with ventriloquist dummies. I first saw Man Ray’s and Rodchenko’s photographs with cut out paper dolls and posable wooden figures—you know, the kind used for anatomical drawing. So there were things I’d been consciously or unconsciously interested in that I could draw on. Plus there was incredible fashion photography at the time—Deborah Turbeville, Chris von Wangenheim, Helmut Newton, Hiro—fashion photos were wild then.
LY Fashion models are dolls, more or less.
LS Yes. In Deborah Turberville’s bathhouse pictures certainly there was no life in those women. And I was very, very affected by those photographs.
LY Did you want to be a fashion photographer?
LS Oh. That one I couldn’t figure out. It was certainly a dream. A lot of artists I know had fantasies about being fashion photographers but that was far too outside my realm. I couldn’t have anybody in the studio when I worked, it was such a private activity.
LY Is that what started you photographing dolls and dollhouse life? Having to be alone?
LS Well partly, but it was also a decision not to deal with reality—with day-to-day reality. I didn’t want to go out on the street with my camera, to be a photojournalist or wait for the decisive moment. To have a subject matter I could control seemed to represent everything that photography wasn’t. I wanted to make pictures that were psychological, political, subversive. Images from my subconscious that could inform. I wanted to deal with subject matter, but in my studio.
LY But isn’t portrait photography done in those conditions?
LS Yes, but you’re still subject to the moods and whims of a human. I was doing portrait photography but I was the boss. Nobody could talk back. In the beginning I was doing only interiors without figures believing I could create confusion as to whether the interiors were real or not. I thought I was making magic occur in those photographs, so people wouldn’t be able to tell the actual scale of the rooms. Here you are thinking you’re looking at the real world, when suddenly a giant’s foot walks through. That was the feeling I had. It made me feel hyper-huge.
LY Your pictures are re-creations of real-life scenes on which you’ve superimposed another reality. They’re sort of super-natural.
LS I go for the realism. I’ve always rejected that picture you like (the doll facing a lipstick the same size as she is) because I thought the scale challenged the potential reality of the situation. I don’t want to make supernatural pictures. Characters never fly. I’m not interested in a visual Magical Realism. Given a chance, I’ll always go for accurate perspective and scale in the hopes that someone might believe the scene.
LY So you’re a kind of trickster.
LS I don’t mind being that.
LY You can control the situation with dolls, but then you’re limited by the fact that they have so few physical expressions.
LS That was a plus. There’s always a mood you project on a human face. In a sense, the face of a doll is far more open. It’s not possible for a human to sit in a serious state of repose. People are either sad or happy or pensive or simply inscrutable, whereas a doll has one expression you don’t question, it’s the doll’s face.
LY But by choosing certain props, backgrounds, and color schemes, don’t you project an expression, or at least a mood, onto the doll that isn’t the doll’s? The dolls in the Tourismseries seem to be wide-eyed innocents looking ga-ga at the Pyramids and the Acropolis. It’s like the classic example of montage in film, where you place frames of an actor with one expression between two different actions and get an entirely new set of emotional results.
LY Your photographs do seem very film-like to me.
LS I feel like I’ve been making a very long film strip. Because of the small scale of the set, I can move around it. I can feel the power of pans and zooms—and shoot in quick succession.
LY There is a narrative to each of your series.
LS I never think in terms of narrative. Never. There are certainly moments that occur but the pictures aren’t loaded with a what-came-before/what-came-after attitude. They’re almost moments you happen upon: somebody standing somewhere, or riding somewhere. They’re not meant to be loaded with the tension of things about to occur, or things that have occurred.
LY But each of your series seems very contained.
LS They are very contained. Each series has a beginning, middle, and an end.
LY Excuse me, but that’s a narrative.
LS I mean I know when to start and finish. I’m trying to isolate something that could be on a postcard, a frozen moment, rather than something that would be part of a comic book. With the exception of the most recent pictures Café of the Inner Mind — the ones with the thought bubbles — I’ve steered as far away from narrative as I possibly could. I thought it would be a far more powerful kind of tabula rasa without it. Then emotions could be projected onto the photograph. I wanted the pictures to be, for lack of a better word, dumb-looking. I wasn’t interested in sophisticated composition. My father was a camera-buff like most dads in the suburbs, and I spent a lot of time looking at the way he shot things. I have piles of photographs of my two sisters and myself in the backyard, and on vacation. I’ve gone through them to see how he photographed the three of us. My real interest was in the straightforward way my father would place us in the landscape, in the center of the picture. There was an even amount of landscape in the background and foreground, and I really liked that. I trained myself to do that and now it’s a habit.
LY What? To be an amateur photographer?
LS Yes. It’s hard.
LY Your earlier pictures, the Ozzie and Harriet interiors where female figures, dolls, are seen with pots and pans in kitchens or with sponges cleaning bathrooms—the housewife series, as I think of them. Were you trying to evoke that time gone by? These figures and settings are clearly from the ‘50s or early ’60s, but it’s not clear if the pictures are meant as nostalgia or as feminist criticism.
LS That ambivalence is exactly what I want. They’re all those things. They’re not specific to a feminist critique of a housewife in the 1960s but a generalized memory of something that seemed sweet and terrifying and abstract and whitewashed. They’re nonspecific. That’s really what I wanted from those pictures. Sometimes I’ll see a picture or a film that’s devoid of any reference to the past. Everything about it, every bit of music and dialogue is of this moment, and I have tremendous admiration for that, as if that was something I could never do. I also wish my home was totally of the Japanese sensibility. I’d like to live with a kind of austerity or economy that’s beyond me. I keep trying for a more minimal picture. I long to be something I can’t be. I wish to be able to do things I absolutely cannot do.
LY And what happens when you try?
LS I get rid of the background.
LY But the background seems to be of major interest. The dolls bring the background to life.
LS That’s true. But I’ve also run out of dolls that interest me, so I’ve been designing the dolls myself with a ventriloquist who’s a dummy maker. I designed all the faces of the boys in the Café photographs. For the dolls I’m using now, I work with doll makers and sculptors to get the faces right. I’ve had to make decisions about what the dolls look like, what they wear. This is new for me. For years the search for the perfect prop was a big part of the process and I worked only with what was available. So these kinds of decisions are a big step for me.
LY The Café of the Inner Mind series does seem more complex. It has more emotional depth than your work had in the past, when it had more to do with recollection and idealization.
LS In 1976, when I started to make my work, I knew what I was working against far more concretely than what I was working towards. Apparently, a bunch of other women working at the time, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Sarah Charlesworth, felt that way too. We knew we weren’t having a dialogue with the work of male painters who came before us. I came of age during a very fierce kind of feminism, an anti-men, bra-burning scene. I have tremendous respect for those early feminist artists now, but for them finding an art identity had a lot to do with a rejection of the past, with an idea of them as emotional, hysterical women who dealt with menstrual blood. Then there were women whose work I really loved: Hannah Darboven, Eva Hesse, and Jan Groover. But I didn’t want to be a second-generation anything. I wanted things to be about absence, surface, distraction, rejection. Now it’s about giving myself permission to explore a different realm, an interior realm, and not to be so completely concerned with the political implications of the work.
LY I’ve been thinking about the ways in which we try to reclaim part of our histories. We buy oldies records, go to theater revivals, and certainly every postmodern effort is an attempt to reclaim and recontextualize an earlier moment, put a new twist on something done before. We never really say goodbye to anything, can’t let anything die. But it seems to me that younger people aren’t interested in any of this history we so prize. They want to think they’re starting from scratch when there’s no such thing. We’re all interested in what comes next, in creating something new and challenging ourselves in a different way every day, yet we can’t let go of where we came from, and I don’t know that we should.
LS Some of us move more slowly. I need time and perspective. I’m not interested in making work about the ‘50s now. I’ve moved at least into the late ‘70s. (laughter) If I want to think about a picture with a hazy cloud of memory around it, I need some distance from the experience to make that happen. When I came to New York in the early ’70s, everyone that I knew that was young and hip seemed to be making work about the Bader-Meinhoff gang and I said, “I’m thinking about dolls and dollhouses, and all the really cool people are doing pictures about terrorists.” I was confused by that. I thought, they’re so in the present.
LY Have you ever considered using yourself in your pictures?
LS Using my real human self? Oh, no.
LY That would be like breaking a fourth wall?
LY But the dummy in the series you call The Music of Regret. I assume that’s you.
LS It is. That was the first time I put my image in a picture that directly. But it’s a representation of me, it’s not the living, breathing me. It’s in my image, there’s no getting around that. I always knew I wanted to be an artist, and even given that, I spent a lot of my time when I was young wishing to be the wife or mistress of a great artist, for whom I would be a great muse. Pre-feminist thinking. Using my own image was about making this commitment to being this physical, emotional inspiration to myself. Having it be right out there, where I could own it. And I like that commitment to that idea, that I would be my own muse.
LY As you indisputably proved with that Laurie Simmons doll replica you showed in the peep hole last year at Postmasters Gallery. I remember seeing you there in your black raincoat, peeping into the hole with your daughters, at a tableaux of a Laurie Simmons vent dummy in a black rain slicker, standing in the falling rain listening to the soundtrack of Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I have to say, I thought that was very amusing voyeurism at its post-feminist best! And so you’ve happily become both your own muse as well as the wife of an artist. You don’t work in the same medium, but is there any confrontation or competition between you and Tip?
LS There’s plenty of confrontation and competition, but not about art.
LY I see you’ve done one collaboration.
LS Yes, and we’d like to do more. It just hasn’t come up yet.
LY Why are these pictures called The Music of Regret? Everyone’s smiling. They seem fairly happy.
LS Melancholy seems to me to be a complex and elevated emotion, far above sadness and happiness. It’s also theatrical, which is what I love about it. A less favorite emotion, if you can rate emotions one-to-ten, is jealousy. It’s awful. But regret—for me that’s the killer. There are emotions psychologists call the “sadness grouping” which include melancholia, disappointment and discouragement. Regret fits here too. But regret is about lost opportunity, moments, or a lost life, and often regret focuses on things outside of our control. When you regret something, the tendency is to go over the facts again and again and then to imagine changing your actions and then following the chain of events that would have occurred. So in a sense you’re imagining rewriting the past.
LY Do you regret something?
LS Well yes, doesn’t everybody spend some time wondering what if?
LY I happen to find The Music of Regret series very striking: a dummy of you surrounded by all these male dummies. It reminds me of Mae West, or even Ann Margaret or Grace Jones, divas surrounding themselves with muscle boys.
LS It’s about being the object of a total and complete admiration. It’s about being everybody’s friend and it’s the only time I can make these things happen.
LY There’s a distinct erotic tension in those pictures. Some of the dummies are men, some are boys.
LS There is a visual confusion as to whether they are dwarf-like men, or extremely mature boys.
LY It’s not like playing with dolls?
LS No, it’s like playing with boys… When I first moved into this building 23 years ago, an actor who was a dwarf lived on the top floor. He invited me up for a drink and introduced me to his very beautiful, normal-size wife. He poured me a glass of wine and we all sat down. She picked him up and put him on her lap like a little child. I found that very sexy. I never forgot the image. The scene made me feel a bit uncomfortable, but it stayed with me that she had that kind of control over him, and that she was unashamed to be seen in this position—a little boy-man on her lap.
LY What you do is similar to a puppet show, in a way.
LS When a photograph is really cooking and there’s music playing in the studio and I use theater lights, I feel like the producer of a technicolor movie or a full-scale Broadway musical. I am so excited with my puny little production I can’t tell you the sense of power and achievement I feel. And it’s basically me alone with a couple of theater lights, a couple of dolls, and a cassette player. And I’m having a great time feeling like Rogers and Hammerstein, or Douglas Sirk. The Music of Regret pictures the woman with the guys around her. I see those like the cast photo of some Broadway show. And, of course, the woman is the star.
LY Maybe your next step is to direct a Broadway musical!
LS That’s what I really want to do. (laughter)
LY Call it “Magic, Muse, and Melancholy,” the three-point foundation of your art.
LS Exactly. With tap-dancing.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee