The show Surrogati. Un amore ideale (Surrogate. A Love Ideal), curated by Melissa Harris, opened to public on the February 21 in the Osservatorio Fondazione Prada in Milan and will remain open until the July 22, 2019. The show creates a direct dialogue between the photographic works of two artists, Jamie Diamond (Brooklyn, USA, 1983) and Elena Dorfman (Boston, USA, 1965). By documenting two realities, quite different from one another but interconnected, both artists highlight the emotional ties between human beings and surrogates, dolls, substitutes.
In her series Forever Mothers (2012-2018) and Nine Months of Reborning (2014) Jamie Diamond narrates the lives and emotions of people who are part of the community of “reborners”, a group of almost exclusively female artists who create, collect and interact with hyper-realistic dolls-newborns.
Still Lovers, created by Elena Dorfman between 2001 and 2004, is dedicated to men, women and entire families that live with hyper-realistic and “life-sized” sex dolls. In this series the artist is mostly focused on the intimacy that one can create and experience in a relationship with an artificial substitute for a human.
Surrogate, a concept at the center of the show, has an important genealogy in the history of western culture in general and in visual culture in particular. Topics such as verisimilitude, uncanniness and replacement have often been explored in the history of art. The myth of Galatea and Pygmalion, which symbolizes a sort of a synthesis between and alteration of the natural and the artificial in a surrogate, was at the heart of many avant-garde artists’ fascination for forms of the uncanny such as dolls and mannequins. But what happens with this form of representation nowadays, when the human surrogates are immensely affected by the new technologies?
It is this precise aspect that makes the artists’ works, which narrate a new level of verisimilitude that confuses and captivates us, so fascinating. Both artists create unsettling images, in which the division between the natural and the artificial is temporarily suspended. This play between the artificial and the natural introduced by the artists is emphasized by the complex and contradictory semiotic sense that has always been attributed to photography as a genre. From the very moment it was invented, photography has always existed in a close relationship with realism and has been inseparable from the concept of truth. The idea that a camera is capable of creating objective and impartial images is part of the collective imagination, even though it is evident that it was possible to alter the reality represented in photographs way before the digital age. Despite all of this, the photographic image is still not completely liberated from its function as an index.
From this point of view Diamond’s and Dorfman’s photographs symbolize this photographic paradox: the reality the artists show in their works is a world that is often hidden, a reality that is not contemplated in popular culture. However, once “immortalized” through photography, this world becomes part of the reality and the truth of the spectator, who is forced to set aside preconceptions and prejudices in the face of authentic and genuine feelings that one doesn’t necessarily expect to see and recognize in a relation between human beings and artificial surrogates.
In a way the experience of the spectator in front of these photographs showing the sentimental ties between the humans and hyper-realistic dolls corresponds with the experience of the protagonists of those images, who consider those moments in which the dolls made of silicon appear most realistic to be the most precious of their relationships with the surrogates. The spectators and the protagonists of the photos are in the same position, absorbed by an illusion, lost in the imagery in which the line between the artificial and the natural is vague and what remains is an emotional connection.
One could say that the reality drawn by Diamond and Dorfman is quite controversial and complex from the ethical point of view. It is also a reality that has recently been subject to severe criticism. However, in this short review I decided to follow the gaze and the perspective of the two artists, whose intention is not to judge, but to create a new imagery and to give space to a world of relations, love and affection that is mostly invisibilized, but is not lacking authenticity.